Magic City, a lavish new series on the cable channel Starz, throws Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Boardwalk Empire into a blender. The resulting mish-mosh has all the attention to costumes and wallpaper and hairstyles you find on Mad Men, all the bad casting of Boardwalk Empire, and all the excessive nudity from the first couple of seasons of The Sopranos.
I can’t tell you how disappointing I found the first three episodes of Magic City, given its rich setting—an over-the-top populuxe Miami Beach hotel in the late 1950s—and its relatively novel focus on shady Jewish businessmen and Jewish gangsters. But everything is off here, either just a little bit or by a mile. For example, there are maybe six guests staying in the giant hotel over New Year’s Eve where Frank Sinatra is performing; presumably the mammoth lobby set was underpopulated by extras to save some production dollars, but as a result, it looks like a set and not a lobby.
Perhaps even more telling, most of the Jews on display—the hotel owner, his twentysomething sons, the psychopathic gangster, the union lawyer who wants to shut the hotel down—don’t seem even remotely Jewish (an occupational hazard when you cast Gentiles with names like Leland Orser and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the parts). The dialogue is sprinkled with Yiddishisms and discussions of “bas mitzvahs,” all of which sound as though the cast learned the phrases phonetically.
This is a problem, because melodramas only work when they feel authentic, when they get the details right; those details anchor what we’re watching in a recognizable reality, which is necessary for plots that get lurid and overstuffed the way gangster dramas do.
The failure of Magic City, like the creative failure of Boardwalk Empire before it, only serves to show what a miracle The Sopranos really was—and a reminder of how that one series unexpectedly altered the direction of popular culture in the United States following its debut in 1999. The Sopranos premiered after a brief shining moment in the 1990s when broadcast television truly faced the threat posed by the decline in its audience numbers and suddenly got really, really good (with NYPD Blue and Homicide and ER and Party of Five and The X-Files all debuting in a two-year period)—only to fall back into its usual mediocrity a few years later.
In fact, The Sopranos was conceived during that very short golden age, and only because the networks passed on it did its creator, David Chase, grudgingly take it to the mildly disreputable HBO, which insisted on injecting wholesale nudity. At the time, showing naked girls and unvarnished violence on TV were what cable executives believed was their industry’s primary competitive advantage over broadcast. (Magic City’s startlingly gratuitous nudity suggests that idea is still present, although not as central.)
So what HBO thought it had was a violent gangster show with a lot of exposed breasts. What it ended up with, fortuitously, was something rich and complicated and tangled and unforgettable. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before, a years-long epic in which it was impossible to get a fix on the nearly bottomless complexity of its central characters. David Chase had some luck as well. He almost cast Steve Van Zandt, best known as a Bruce Springsteen sidekick, as Tony Soprano (he ended up playing Tony’s sidekick Silvio). The show would have failed with him in the lead; it needed the astonishing combination of pent-up rage and emotional sensitivity brought to the part by the unknown sensation James Gandolfini.
But Chase’s greatest stroke of luck was a sad one: the death after the conclusion of the first season of Nancy Marchand, who played Tony’s devious mother Livia. Chase’s schematic plan for the show involved a literal war to the death between Tony and his mother that would go hand in hand with Tony’s psychoanalysis; the first season ended with her putting out a hit on him.
That would have gotten old and false and almost cutesy. Marchand’s death liberated The Sopranos from Chase’s admitted obsession with his own problematic Italian-American mother and let him explore the themes of status anxiety, power relations, and the psychic and spiritual costs of
living a truly immoral life.
No series in the history of television has ever been as important to the medium as The Sopranos. It showed cable television that its future wasn’t in airing movies first, but in winning audiences by making better programs. And so cable has. A year after The Sopranos debuted, Survivor premiered on CBS—luring broadcast television down the path to its own creative doom through the agency of low-cost and popular reality programming and progressively leaving an eager new audience of high-quality-TV addicts to the pay channels.
Magic City demonstrates the difficulty of duplicating the kind of conditions that made The Sopranos possible. The disastrous casting of the dull
Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the central role gives us an inadvertent sense of what The Sopranos might have been like with Van Zandt in the lead. And there is just something more interesting about the anxiety attacks of a Mafia boss than there is about the dilemmas of a guy who owns a hotel. Who cares if he can’t get liquor to the guests?
But who knows? Maybe Mitch Glazer, Magic City’s David Chase, will catch a sad break the way Chase did and find the true meaning of his show unexpectedly. Alas, that’s probably the only way it’s going to happen.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.