Magic City

I would never tire of looking at Starz's lush new period piece Magic City (Friday, 10/9c). There's much that's entrancing in the swank late-'50s décor of Miami Beach's plush Miramar Playa Hotel, with so much chic couture on display as the well-heeled guests hang in an underground lounge whose windows look into the pool's hypnotic blue waters. Too bad that actually sitting through this sluggish drama is so tiresome.

The magic's all in the style, not the substance, of a series that so desperately yearns to be The Sopranos meets Mad Men on vacation. But there's something painfully familiar in this story of the hotel's embattled owner Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a fine actor, but lacking an essential swagger here), who's trying to run a clean shop despite union pressures and mob involvement. The writing telegraphs every trite and derivative twist, whether violent or sexual or some combination of the two to remind us this is pay cable and not some musty rerun.

And with the exception of Danny Huston as volatile Ben "the Butcher" Diamond, it's indifferently to poorly cast — most especially when it comes to Ike's sons, one a dissolute playboy (the wooden Steven Strait) who hooks up with the most obvious femme fatale imaginable, one an upright law student (bland Christian Cooke) romancing a Cuban housekeeper whose mother is trapped in turbulent Havana. As we keep hearing of the turmoil across the water, I couldn't help thinking maybe that's the magic city where this should all be taking place. Because I feel like I've been down this (Collins) avenue too many times before, and usually at a brisker clip.

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THERE'S THE RUB:
Lifetime's salacious yet sentimental new series The Client List (Sunday, 10/9c) is like a Desperate Housewives (or given the locale, GCB) subplot that plays it straight and doesn't know when to quit. It reprises the story from a hit 2010 TV-movie, sympathizing with the plight of down-home Riley Parks (Jennifer Love Hewitt at her dewiest), a newly single cash-strapped hot mama whose struggle to pay the mortgage and keep her kids fed leads her to work at the Best Little Spa-House in Texas, where giving extras to her clients on the massage table is the sure-fire way to make ends meet (in a manner of speaking).

Too bad the title Happy Endings was already taken, but there's already plenty of innuendo to go around — even if Riley, given her innocently voluptuous nature, is the last to catch on. "The harder I work, the bigger they get," says one of Riley's sassy co-workers at the establishment coyly known as The Rub — talking about the tips, of course. "This job is all about flexibility," boasts the Rub's flighty owner (Grey's Anatomy's ever-delightful Loretta Devine).

These ladies are what you'd call hands-on service providers, but Riley's more rigid moral code is continually tested by the daily parade of hardbodies, fetishized by the camera. (And why again are these hunks paying for it?) Little wonder that this devoted parent — whose own mom (a droll Cybill Shepherd) is an oft-married, church-going sounding board — soon finds herself becoming a sort of sex-bomb therapist, anointing her more sympathetic (and handsome) clients with self-affirming wisdom as well as scented oil. Part wish-fulfillment — look at all those six-packs, and my, how she makes their toes curl — and part nightmare (what will her family and community think?), The Client List wants to have its beefcake and eat it, too. Just beware the gristle, which would be the scripts.

IT'S SHOWTIME: This is the season of Showtime's Nurse Jackie I've been waiting for. One in which someone says, "You're accountable now," to this maddeningly self-destructive angel of no mercy, played fearlessly by Edie Falco. As the fourth season begins (Sunday, 9/8c), Jackie imagines herself drowning in a quicksand of pills after checking into rehab — finally — and the rest of the episode plays back the events of a pivotal day that forced her hand. "There's nothing left to wreck!" she cries as she achieves a new self-pitying low. "But I can't stop. Wrecking."

With the hospital under new ownership — and guess who curses out the new guy in charge (the appealing Bobby Cannavale) at their first encounter — this promises to be a season of significant change on the personal and professional front. Will Jackie reconcile with husband Kevin, whom she threw out upon learning of his affair (like she's blameless)? Will Patient Jackie make it through rehab? As her counselor tells her next week: "You're good at your job. You suck at life." Will there even be a job waiting for her when she gets out? All excellent questions to propel us back into the world of one of TV's most uncompromising dark comedies.

(Sunday is a big night for Showtime, taking on some of cable's best with a new all-original lineup. Following Jackie is the third season of The Big C at 9:30/8:30c, and the second season of the lavish The Borgias at 10/9c.)

NATURE AND INHUMAN NATURE: A few entries from TV's nonfiction corner: Discovery's spectacular Frozen Planet is midway through its run — the finale is now scheduled, appropriately enough, for Earth Day on April 22 — and while we can't get enough of these vignettes of wildlife in the most remote wildernesses imaginable, it's time to take a step back and appreciate the human element involved in capturing these remarkable images. In Sunday's over-too-soon "Making Of" episode (8/7c), we are reminded of just how unnatural it is for these gung-ho interlopers to be lugging their high-tech camera equipment around a part of the world that truly isn't fit or meant for human habitation. This series took four years to produce, often requiring crews to spend weeks patiently waiting to record a certain behavior or ecological phenomenon. We share their enthusiasm — "Quite a privilege to feel whale breath on your face," gushes director Chadden Hunter — but also their discomfort and even occasional terror (being trapped for days in a shed as deadly hurricane-force winds blow).

"This is the most hardcore thing I've ever seen," marvels an onlooker involved in filming a native's treacherous climb down a limestone cliff face to gather sustenance. We could say the same about the men and women who went to the ends of the earth to document such moments.

On a much more sobering note, CBS' 48 Hours Mystery (Saturday, 10/9c) spotlights the disturbing practice known as "honor killing," as revealed in the case of Noor Almaleki, a 20-year-old college student who was run over and killed in a suburban Phoenix parking lot by her own father in 2009. His apparent motive: to restore family honor by murdering the daughter who had disgraced them with her "all-American" lifestyle. The family fled Iraq when Noor was 3, and her embrace of Western culture as she grew up ostracized her from her family. "This wasn't a whodunit. It never was," says the detective who led the investigation. "The mystery is why... what would possess a father to do something like this to his daughter?"

The United Nations estimates there are more than 5,000 "honor killings" worldwide every year, but few have been prosecuted as such in this country. The storytelling here is often crude, in the heightened style common to TV's true-crime genre, but there's a memorably chilling moment as a reporter approaches a member of Noor's family after the father's trial and is rebuffed: "You're the outside looking in. Everybody is. You won't understand it." That much is true.

AT THE MOVIES: Two Oscar-winning movies compete for your attention on Saturday night. One is a tradition: ABC's annual Easter/Passover weekend showing of Cecil B. DeMille's kitschy Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (7/6c), starring Charlton Heston as Moses, competing with groundbreaking-for-the-time special effects. ... And something that deserves to be a tradition: an exclusive broadcast of the digitally remastered and restored To Kill a Mockingbird on USA Network (8/7c), partnering with the American Film Institute and Universal Pictures, with a special introduction from President Obama. This moving 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's coming-of-age novel features Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning performance as the iconic Atticus Finch (AFI's pick as #1 film hero of all time).

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