The Arty Semite

Why ‘Magic City’ Is Missing the Magic

By Eitan Kensky

  • Print
  • Share Share

Image courtesy of Starz/Greg Williams

Here is a list of things that I like (and some that I love): Mad Men; “The Godfather Part II” villain Hyman Roth; “Bugsy,” “Once Upon a Time in America” and other visualizations of Jewish gangland; Miami Vice; Saul Bellow, Meyer Levin, and the early fiction of Bernard Malamud; Deborah Dash Moore’s “To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and LA”; film noir, but especially neo-noirs like “Chinatown” that shifted their focus from the decaying cityscape to the darkness only superficially bleached away by the sun; “Body Heat” (though really anything with a young Mickey Rourke and/or William Hurt); tales of unbridled Jewish ambition from “The Rise of David Levinsky” to “What Makes Sammy Run?” and “The Social Network”; lounge music; and long, lingering shots of people smoking.

So I absolutely should have loved “Magic City,” the new Starz show about late-’50s Miami Beach, the luxurious Miramar hotel, and the moral compromises its Jewish hotelier, Isaac “Ike” Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is forced to make to hold on to power. But through two episodes, the show is distinctly less than the sum of its parts, little more than an exercise in style. Admittedly, it’s unfair to judge a show on its first few episodes, but “Magic City” is clearly in danger of becoming a missed opportunity.

The problems with Magic City begin with what is potentially its biggest feature: the infatuation with illusion and surface appearances. “Magic City” is a nickname for Miami, but “magic” here refers equally to the ability to conjure and project success. Ike’s hotel depends on whether he can “sell the dream” and make everyone believe that he, and the hotel, are as glamorous as the story he’s sold. It’s this space, in which Ike’s actual lack of power collides with his ambitions, that the show needs to develop as the source of conflict and tension.

But for now “Magic City” is so focused on meticulously reconstructing the surface of late-‘50s Miami that it never goes deeper. Actors walk around in cool, period clothing, sip cocktails by the pool, and parrot hardboiled dialogue: “Who are you?” “The Wrong Woman.” “Now you tell me,” goes an actual exchange from the first episode. I would have said that this is just a playful, failed attempt at seduction — borrowed less from real fictional dialogue than written through half-remembered impressions of what noir was about — but the failure of dialogue is the failure of characterization. There’s no complexity to any of the characters; no one has yet proved that they are more than they appear at first glance. “Magic City” borrows noir aesthetics without taking any of its substance.

What makes “Magic City” a missed opportunity, however, is the fact that the show has such clearly identifiable subject matter: Jewish American life. The promise of “Magic City” is the promise of an ongoing series about Jews during a time when Jewish American identity was uncertain, and in the midst of being transformed by suburbanization and relocation. Indeed, the first episode nicely shows the tribalism of Miami Beach: There are black enclaves, Cuban enclaves, and Jewish enclaves. Everyone is separate, everything restricted, though commerce brings everyone together.

But the producers seem content to have Jewishness color the surface rather than to develop a Jewish core. One of the storylines of the second episode was whether Ike’s father would come to his granddaughter’s bas mitzvah (the pronunciation is clearly “bas”). Yet this was not a religious conflict, at least not a Jewish one. The father doesn’t believe in religion because he’s a communist (the implications of this are unexplored), but he ultimately relents. And why not? The show’s bas mitzvah is only a party; there’s no religion to be upset about. As Ike’s second wife, a gentile woman who wants to convert to Judaism, says, “These stupid things, they tie us together. They make us a family. At least I want them to.”

If this is the level of Judaism and Jewishness in “Magic City,” than the producer’s have missed a serious chance to openly question the meaning of faith or explore Jewish American identity. “The Sopranos” was periodically maligned as stereotyping Italian-Americans, but it was actually a nuanced look at what it means to be Italian in America: what obligations are owed to the church, to the community, to the immigrant ancestors? And most dramatically, do the old moral codes still apply?

These are the questions we need to see in “Magic City.” It’s 1959. Israel is still new, Eichmann’s capture is not so far off on the horizon, and “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is about to climb up the American bestseller lists. “Magic City” needs to show us how its characters react as Jews during these turbulent times, and what they feel about Zionism and the Holocaust — not just what they were wearing and smoking.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Television, Magic City, Eitan Kensky

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.