At the beginning of Knocked Up, when a group of nerdy Jewish dudes find themselves unexpectedly admitted to a nightclub, schlubby Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) tells his friends that “If any of us get laid tonight it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.” Magic City, Starz’s next attempt to burnish its reputation as a provider of high-quality drama along with its standard doses of reasonably explicit sex and violence, follows the noble and recent pop culture trend of portraying Jews as something other than nebbishes. It stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Ike Evans, a recently-remarried widower who built his dream hotel, the Miramar Playa, on Miami Beach, just in time for Castro to take Havana and kick out the casinos, creating a hot new market for a Caribbean vacation spot. It’s the first of the current crop of period shows to put Jewish characters at the center of the frame, and it’s one of the best decisions Mitch Glazer, the show’s creator, made in standing up this gorgeous-looking but uneven drama.
Magic City‘s a personal story for Glazer, who in a conversation with me in January described starting out as an “assistant engineer”—or janitor—a job his father, a lighting engineer who ordered the chandelier for the Eden Roc and put in gambling machine hookups below the floor of the Fountinbleau lobby, got him. Living in the city was also his introduction to both Cuban immigration and the Civil Rights movement. “My parents, I was 7, dragged me to Civil Rights marches in Flagler Street, and we had rotten garbage thrown at us. I remember, because they were very active in what was then a very Southern town,” he told me. “Most of my friends when I was in sixth grade, the first-wave of Cubans, were the white-collar Cubans who came to America, guys who had been lawyers who became short-order cooks. Those were my best friends’ parents. I tried to pass for Cuban for about six months. They just seemed cooler. My high school was 60 percent Jewish, 40 percent Cuban, and Mickey Rourke.”
Magic City is at its best when the show reflects that transition. Ike’s second wife, Vera (Olga Kurylenko) contemplated converting to Judaism on the eve of Ike’s daughters bat mitzvah, and Ike and his father squabble over which of them is the worse Jew. Older Russian emigrees play balalaika on the beach and a louche State Senator from Tallahassee goes on at length about the “Aryan” charms of a potential beauty queen. We’ve had Jews at the margins of Mad Men for years, and with the arrival of Michael Ginsburg in the office, we’ll finally have one at the center of the frame. But I enjoyed how Magic City puts Jews and Jewishness at the forefront of the show, giving a Florida Jewish community far richer than the stereotype of retirees we have today. And Jews aren’t the only community Magic City examines. Work in the Miramar Playa kitchens grinds to a halt as word comes over the radio of Castro and Che’s advance on Havana. And Ike plays off the black residents of Overtown against white picketers who want to unionize the hotel, busting up the picket line by violence. It’s that kind of conflict that shows how perceptive characters are of how the world around them is changing, and how bold they are about taking advantage of shifting power dynamics.
It’s less good when it overreaches in search of drama. Starz’s existing viewers may depend on a heavy dose of nipples and killings, but the gratuitousness of both elements in shows like Magic City or Boss seems more likely than not to turn off the new subscribers Starz would like to woo. There’s a troika of characters in Magic City that should have been recast and rewritten: Steven Strait as Ike’s oldest son Stevie, a sullen seducer whose charms are inexplicable to me but appear to turn every woman around him stupid, Jessica Marais as Lily Diamond, the wife of mobster Benny Diamond (an insanely over-the-top Danny Huston), who begins an impossibly foolish affair with Stevie that serves only to fulfill the sexual quotient, and Huston himself, who lurks around killing dogs and threatening to feed people to sharks. Maybe these things really happened. But I wouldn’t mind if Glazer appeared to trust the power of his memories a bit more.