Magic City – Pilot
Say what you will about the relevant quality of Spartacus and Mad Men, I certainly have, but in terms of style and content these two shows are obvious opposites, basically standing on parallel poles or preference. One is puerile, schlocky pulp that can at its best provide a flow of visceral satisfaction unmatched by anything without two legs and an area in-between; while the other is slow, sophisticated and stunningly crafted, trustworthy sorcery for both the thoughts and the senses. There isn’t much in the way of middle ground, or at least there wasn’t before now, before Magic City. When Starz announced that their next foray into scripted television was to be a fifties set filmic drama my first thought was “Why?”; ABC and Fox had both already tried and failed to capitalise on the cult niche of Mad Men – a silly proposition in the first place – and so this show seemed to set to follow in those footsteps, for why would it be any different? Well one reason is this, Starz like AMC are a premium cable network and that position provides them with certain creative freedoms that a free-to-air could only dream of; they have a world of room in which to manoeuvre, they can make this whatever show they want and as we’ve seen AMC used this space to stretch out its story and allow the smaller moments to shine, but what approach would Starz take to the material, what would they focus on to differentiate themselves?
The opening credits, which consist of a solid ninety seconds of full-on female nudity, basically answer that. Starz it seems are something of a one trick pony, in that all they know how to do is ride; when given the power of the gods – unfettered creativity – they chose to use it as a way to take clothes off of women, to reveal that aforementioned area. All the sexual politics evoked in the offices of Mad Men, all the sexual tension that teems between lines of banter and all the sexual repression that so punctuated the shows early days in Fifties suburbia are shoved aside, all replaced by simple, blunt sex and lots of it. This is a shame not for moral reasons, I don’t much care if other people want to participate in pornography, but because those clothes that are so promptly torn off and thrown aside are actually rather well-made; the facade here, the story in and around the sex, is similarly strong and similarly ignored in favour of other more sensual shots and that’s why Starz should be ashamed.
So in the end it’s a simple show and one that should probably never be mentioned in comparison with Weiner’s again now that we know just how inaccurate the claim is (though this won’t stop critics, myself included), but as Spartacus taught us there are still some joys to be had in shows that show ludicrous liberation. Magic City is split in two; one part porn and the other period soap: so the characters are all thin and defined by action rather than thought, the plots are pat and predictable, existing only to shuffle the players into provocative positions and the dialogue is mostly dropped in favour of, well ‘body language’ but despite all of that the show is occasionally fun in a sleazy way. The show has some interesting imagery besides the bodies of the babes; water it seems is going to be the shows main metaphorical motif – which makes sense given the Miami scenery, though the shows position is mostly periphery at this stage – but its use of the era is entirely gimmicky in a way that Mad Men has mostly avoided. Though that said even stepping back into a ham-handed rendition of this time and place is fascinating enough, as is again entreating the world of Made Men. This is going to sound crazy coming after all that but bear with me: Magic City is to Goodfellas and The Godfather as Blood and Sand was to Kubrick’s Spartacus. It’s a cheap imitation in the non-financial sense of the word; it quotes those films but yells the line back much louder by repeating beats in bigger, splashier and ultimately less effective ways, but at the core there is something there from the classic. If you’ve seen both iterations of the great gladiators tale then you’ll likely know what I mean and can simply insert these new titles into that same formula, if not you’re probably better off watching that show instead of this one.
So it’s not bound to be a classic by any means and I doubt that it will have even an eench of Mad Men’s cultural impact (I knew I wasn’t going to be able to resist) but despite all of my criticisms I am looking forward to the release of the next two episodes later this week and will watch them through and more. Which is more than I can say for Starz’s last show Boss, their attempt to step away from the seedy and into the serious, a serious misstep to my mind. It may not be glamourous or fulfilling but creating something fun is still a worthwhile achievement for a writer and given the cast and credit line that the show has showed so far this certainly seems like a possibility for Magic City; I don’t expect that there will be much for me to write about each week, but I do expect to enjoy it on that schedule and I think that says something.