If “Magic City,” the new drama kicking off tonight, April 6th, at 10pm on Starz, had started back in the fall, it would have been grouped in with “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am” as similarly hollow-ringing, a pretty period piece consciously following in the steps of “Mad Men.” Lucky for the show, it’s starting now, after those other series have been canceled and are already fading from memory (Starz likes “Magic City” so much it’s already committed to a second season).
But “Mad Men” still casts a long shadow over “Magic City,” which was created by “Passion Play” writer/director Mitch Glazer, one from which it isn’t able to escape, in part because it doesn’t have the complexity or depth of Matthew Weiner’s show, and in part because of its lead character. Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), owner of the glamorous Miramar Playa, initially comes across so much like a sun-faded copy of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper that by the time the differences between the two emerge they just don’t seem that compelling. Here’s a rundown of the inevitable similarities between the two men and where they diverge:
They share an era and a look:
“Magic City” begins on the last day of 1958, two years before the start of “Mad Men,” and takes a similar, almost fetishistic approach to the details of its period, from the smoking (Ike likes a good cigar) and constant cocktail sipping, to the outfits, the decor, the cars. Ike, like Don, is suavely dressed with a hint of a rough edge underneath and a general aura of old-school masculinity.
As a man of his time, he also knows how to wear a sleek suit — though since he’s in Miami he sometimes gets to undo his top button.
They’re irreplaceably great at their jobs:
And those jobs often run in similar paths: the wooing of clients with women and booze and the pitching of abstract and flattering ideas. Ike has to secure and please events and acts at the hotel, from a New Year’s show with Frank Sinatra to a beauty pageant, and like Don he’s not afraid to get a little forceful when charm isn’t working. Ike, like Don, is also secure enough in his skills that he knows his biggest trump card is the threat of walking away — something he uses when his gangster business partner Ben Diamond (Danny Huston) tries to flex his muscle.
They didn’t start at the top:
Don was once a poor Midwestern kid named Dick Whitman, and while Ike doesn’t seem to be harboring secrets on that level, he also didn’t come from wealth, he married into it — the beachfront property on which the Miramar is built used to belong to his first wife, and his sister-in-law Meg (Kelly Lynch) teases him about having once been a cabana boy.
They have young, foreign trophy wives:
Don has his zooby zoobying French-Canadian former secretary Megan, and Ike has his Romani-Dutch former showgirl Vera (Olga Kurylenko). Both seem devoted to these relationships despite their appreciation for the many other ladies around — if Ike fooled around before Vera, those days seem done.
Ike doesn’t have a Betty around — his first wife passed away of cancer, though he has a complicated relationship with Meg (“You look at me, I look at you, but all we see is her”).
They have daughters on the verge of young womanhood:
The “Magic City” answer to Sally Draper is Lauren Evans (Taylor Blackwell), a pretty, overindulged 13-year-old who’s readying for her Bat Mitzvah, who’s not sure how she feels about her young stepmother and who doesn’t like it when things don’t go her way. Both can be seen as representing a tumultuous coming moment in counterculture.
Where they differ:
Ike is Jewish:
And while there are occasional vintage slights thrown his way because of it, it’s far from a big deal. Vera, who converted for him, seems to be more interested in Judaism than her husband or her father-in-law Arthur (Alex Rocco), who tries to pass up his granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah using the excuse that he’s never set foot in a Temple before. It is, either way, more by way of roots than Don, who’d prefer to have sprung fully grown out of a crack in a Manhattan sidewalk, has ever shown.
Ike’s Got Mob Ties:
His main investor Ben is no Roger Sterling — when he asks the man to intervene in a labor strike that threatens the business of the hotel, it goes a little further than he had in mind. He’s tied to the violent and erratic gangster, whether he likes it or not, and there’s a darker edge to the way he does business and the lines he’s willing to cross.
Ike Has Full-Grown Sons:
His boys are set to inherit his empire but also potentially threaten the business in ways that Bobby or Gene Draper couldn’t yet dream, with the ladies’ man Stevie (Steven Strait) getting involved with a dangerous woman, and law student Danny (Christian Cooke) being lured in by the potential of work with the D.A. to possibly inform on what his father’s up to.
Is that enough to allow “Magic City” to makes its own mark? Characterization is the show’s biggest problem — while “Mad Men” references were bound to happen no matter what, to mold your lead character so closely after that show’s more complex and better defined protagonist invites comparisons in which the new show suffers. Here’s hoping as the season goes on that Ike becomes more of his own man.