Finding Magic Mike has a self-explanatory title, at least if you’ve seen the Channing Tatum film, but that belies the fact that the HBO Max reality competition is actually much more like RuPaul’s Drag Race, just in reverse: its contestants, in search of confidence and self-esteem, take their clothes off instead of layering on makeup, wigs, and costumes before performing. And here, they’re at the very start of their journeys.
There is far more vulnerability than nudity in the HBO Max show, but also more closeup VPL than most reality shows. The show knows its audience of people attracted to men, with the camera slowly lingering at midsection as it drifts up the bodies of the contestants as they introduce themselves in their underwear.
“I’m teetering on nervous and confident. I’m very excited. You never know when they’re going to ask you to strip down to your underwear—hopefully, we can keep some of our clothes on,” one contestant, Marquis, says. Another, Ricky, is more direct about his choice of undergarment: “Well, my penis doesn’t look like the rest of the guys’ in their underwear. What’s going on here?”
Yes, doing what Magic Mike is known for actually makes contestants who’ve applied for Finding Magic Mike nervous and insecure, the first sign that the show has another focus in mind other than their bodies.
During the audition episode, which narrows the group from 50 to 25 to 10, it seems like the show might tip toward traditional dance competition, albeit one where they give a lap dance as a test.
Adam Rodriguez, star of Magic Mike but more recognizable to me from CSI: Miami hosts, sort of, and I say “sort of” because Finding Magic Mike takes a surprisingly casual yet effective approach to the elements of what could otherwise be a familiar and unremarkable dance competition.
Filmed in Las Vegas, including on the Magic Mike Live stage show set at the Sahara, it’s somehow both elevated and relaxed at the same time. The lighting is low, and the conversations intimate.
The four judges often sit on the floor, such as when they talk about eliminations, and in the series’ best production choice, the judges pull contestants aside to chat at the end of each episode. These one-on-one conversations are about how contestants are doing.
One of those casual meetings ends with an elimination. It’s such a human way to give feedback and/or deliver hard news, and also just breaks from the formula that most competition shows use: contestants in a line, on stage, separated into groups, top and bottom, et cetera.
The “creative team,” i.e. the judges, also includes Magic Mike choreographer Alison Faulk, who teaches choreography, along with choreographer Luke Broadlick and Magic Mike Live producer Vincent Marini.
Most episodes have a guest celebrity judge, including Nicole Scherzinger and Amanda Seales, who guide the Mikes through a mini-challenge—Robin Thede improvises with them, Whitney Cummings hosts a faux beauty pageant—and may stick around for the main performance.
For the competition, the judges choose 10 men who are mostly straight, but not entirely, and who have TV-ready physiques, although not entirely. Most have experience in dance, which may explain how quickly they’re able to pick up choreography and turn out pretty strong performances.
The dance at the end of episode two, performed on a stage constructed above a pool and amid the screaming spectators, is impressive, especially for their first real dance challenge. I honestly didn’t understand how they were able to perform that well so fast, and wished we’d seen them practicing more.
What the show gives time to instead, besides the performances, are the men and their conversations with each other, in interviews, and with the judges. (The show’s executive producer is Alycia Rossiter, showrunner of one of the best dating reality series ever, Netflix’s Dating Around, and also some of the ickiest: ABC’s The Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad, and Bachelor in Paradise.)
The contestants all have stories and struggles: Jiovanni feels like he’s in his parents’ shadow, because he isn’t an athlete like they are; Austin suffers from body dysmorphia; Nate is shy; Ross is confident and talented but perceived as cocky and arrogant; Michael doesn’t even feel comfortable with his girlfriend.
They sit around and talk about their insecurities, they compare themselves to each other and confess that they’re doing that. There’s sobbing when people are eliminated, and the sharing of stories, and excitement about emotional growth.
Wisps of toxic masculinity can occasionally bubble to the surface: “guys don’t cry,” someone says; another is thrilled when his dick size is complimented. Ross says he wants his kids, both boys, to know that “being vulnerable and being gentle and sweet, those are phenomenal qualities” but also that “being dominant” is sometimes okay too.
But mostly there’s support and humor and growth, emotionally and as performers. Nate tells the camera, “I have to completely just strip down naked. People are gonna see, like, my soul—especially when I bend over.”
While this all works together, I didn’t quite find myself invested until episode three, which is almost halfway through the seven-episode series. It takes a while to get going; I’m not sure the audition episode was necessary, considering how obvious it is who will move on because they get more screen time.
Each subsequent episode has a focus: confidence, attractiveness, charisma, talent, and connection. These are amorphous words, with attractiveness, for example, not being judged by physical appearance, but by “energy” and “joy.”
It gets more slippery, as the judges and contestants use the word “magic” frequently to suggest that there’s more happening here than stripping for screaming women, but that is what gets the majority of the screen time. But it ends up becoming an overused and meaningless reality TV word as the men go on their journeys.
The judges insist they’re not looking for the best dancer, but they kind of are, and so while the one-on-one conversation makes sense, it’s not clear necessarily why that person left and another stayed. The person who goes home in the “attractiveness” episode is dinged not for lack of attractiveness, but for lack of growth in dancing, even though they acknowledge he’s grown as a dancer.
Perhaps it’s just a tough call. The choreographed dancing is quite entertaining and altogether impressive, even for people with some dance experience, especially in light of the insecurities the men are dealing with, but also just because of what they’re being asked to do.
“In comparison to the movie, I think what the guys have to do is infinitely harder,” Rodriguez says. While Finding Magic Mike doesn’t quite show the dancing effort, at least at first, it does show the emotional work and the results, and that’s more than enough for an entertaining television show.
Finding Magic Mike
A surprisingly emotional dance competition that has both heart and heat. A-
What works for me:
- The conversational, one-on-one eliminations
- The candid conversations
- The performances
- Okay, yes, the VPL
What could be better:
- More focus on actual training and work
- A clearer sense of why the judges are making their decisions