It's the final day of 1958, and in Miami Beach, the Miramar Playa Hotel is abuzz. Downstairs, the kitchen help is clustered around a TV set, eyes fixed on reports that Fidel Castro's guerrilla army is nearing Havana. In the ballroom, places are being set for the 1,500 guests who've bought tickets for Frank Sinatra's midnight show. And in the penthouse, harried hotel owner Ike Evans is on the phone warning a union boss to call off a strike that threatens to shut down Sinatra. "This could get ugly," Evans warns. "It will get ugly."
He's so right, and we're so lucky. The sordid ugliness that festers inside "Magic City's" voluptuously beautiful wrappings makes irresistible television. Like the city in which it's set, "Magic City" is carnal and violent, delicious and depraved, a seductive apple with a core of squirming worms.
"Magic City," like "Mad Men" and "The Playboy Club" (though "Magic City" executive producer Mitch Glazer began pitching his script years before those shows made it to the air), is yet another vestige of television's recent fascination with a tiny, peculiar slice of U.S. history: the short interregnum in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the post-war tranquility of Eisenhower America was being left behind, but the chaos of Woodstock Nation had not begun.
If all of America was slouching toward a socio-cultural Bethlehem, South Florida was at the head of the pack, unknowingly poised on the brink of a transformation of science-fiction dimensions. At the end of 1958, Miami's 30,000 Cubans were an exotic demographic niche; by 1960, their number would grow to 250,000 and the city was well on its inexorable march to becoming the capital of Latin America.
Part of the allure of "Magic City" lies in visiting that previous Miami, a city so distant in not just time but politics and culture that it seems part of an alternate universe, a place where Sinatra's Rat Pack scampered through the clubs rather than Shakira or Marc Anthony; where Yiddish and not Spanish was the main rival to English; where the mild-mannered old snowbird at the deli might turn out to be Meyer Lansky; where the Old South had not yet receded.
No matter how well you know your local history, you're likely to be startled by a scene in the first episode of "Magic City" in which Ella Fitzgerald is rehearsing her new show not in the Miami Beach ballroom in which she'll perform it, but in a dive bar in the Miami hotel in which rigid segregation laws forced black performers to stay.
Scenes like that one underscore the deliberate irony of "Magic City's" title. It's very much focused on the dark underside of illusions.
The Miramar Playa is a gorgeous hotel built on a foundation of lies, corruption and Mafia money; Ike, its owner, an amiable family man whose recipe for business success includes generous dollops of bribery and extortion.
And now the thin barrier that separates Ike's two worlds is in danger of being breached. His silent Mafia partner Ben Diamond -- whose nickname, "The Butcher," is anything but an affectation -- is getting uncomfortably voluble. He's demanding not only a say in business practices (which, if they were turned into a book, might be titled "I'm OK, You're Headed For The Bottom Of The Everglades") but a full partnership. It's clear his demands won't stop there. "We are who we are," he warns Ike. "And I want more. That's what I've always wanted -- I've always wanted more."
At the same time, ruptures are appearing in Ike's picture-perfect family. The fault lines mostly start with Vera, the young firecracker whom the widower Ike married after seeing her dance at Havana's Tropicana nightclub. Ike's teenage daughter hates her stepmother; rogue son Stevie's feelings are both more complex and more dangerous. (To further complicate things, Stevie has just embarked on a perilous extramarital affair that violates his own first rule of sexual etiquette: "Never date a woman whose husband's name is 'The Butcher.'")
Compared to the other two, Ike's younger son, Danny, seems a blue-ribbon kid: a University of Miami law student smitten with New Frontier idealism. But his growing admiration for a corruption-busing district attorney poses its own threats to a family with one foot firmly planted on the dark side.
A strong if not necessarily well-known cast bring these male characters to life with the macho swagger of the day. In particular, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (best known for a recurring role as the ghost of a failed heart-transplant patient on "Grey's Anatomy") keeps a tenuous balance between sweetness and ruthlessness as Ike. And Danny Huston ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine") plays "The Butcher" as an exercise in pure gluttony.
But the female side of the cast may be even stronger. Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (as Vera Evans), Australian TV actress Jessica Marais (as "The Butcher's" voracious wife Lily) and newcomer Elena Satine (as hooker blackmail specialist Judi Silver) all play trophy women in a pre-feminist world, roles that could easily have sunk to bimbomania. Yet each of them projects intelligence and frustrated ambition, turning their characters into much more than sexual pawns in a male world.
Not that their sexuality gets short shrift. "Magic City" rolls on an undertone of crackling sexual menace, where eroticism is a weapon and wantonness a way of life. Lily's reply when the bedazzled Stevie Evans asks who she is -- "I'm the wrong woman" -- could have been spoken by any of the female characters.
Lurking just offstage in this family melodrama are the 1960s themselves. Miami played host to some of the decade's most lurid moments, from the CIA's planning of the Bay of Pigs invasion to the plotting of the Mafia's infiltration of the White House via John F. Kennedy's sexual playmates. The passions of the day are pushing their way inside the Miramar Playa's walls even in the show's first minutes, when "The Butcher" is lamenting the loss of his Cuban casinos to Fidel Castro. "Millions, up in smoke!" he exclaims. "But he'll be out soon, or dead. Dictators change like the weather down there."
That's one plot line to which we know the ending. But everything else in "Magic City" seems tantalizingly up for grabs. Go for it.
10-11 p.m. EDT Friday
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