“Public Morals” is the brainchild of Ed Burns (“Saving Private Ryan”), who wrote, directed, and stars in the show as Terry Muldoon, a New York City police officer working in the rough Hell’s Kitchen section of the Big Apple. Muldoon is the head of the Public Morals Division of the NYPD comprising plainclothes officers. These guys have a very special task on the force as a veteran explains to a rookie early in the show: “Our job is to curb all kinds of vice. That includes prostitution, pornography, degeneracy and the blue laws. Nobody wants these laws enforced. We do what has been done for the last 100 years—we manage it for the city. Think of us as the landlords. And if you want to be in business, you have to pay your rent.”
In the first episode of the series we meet the officers under Muldoon’s supervision, and all of them have intriguing personal lives. Charlie Bullman (Michael Rapaport) is Muldoon’s partner, and he was happily married until his job made him cross paths with a beautiful prostitute.
Additional men in the division include the following: Vince Latucci (Wass Stevens), a longtime member who shares too much information about his job with his nagging wife; Sean O’Bannon (Austin Stowell), a hot-tempered womanizer who becomes involved with a journalism student named Deirdre (Lyndon Smith) and fails to realize how this relationship may jeopardize his career; and Petey “Mac” Mackenna (Patrick Murney), a younger cop who doesn’t take his job too seriously; and finally Jimmy Shea (newcomer Brian Wiles), a rookie who may be a lot more knowledgeable than he appears.
The word morals in the title of the series refers not only to the scumbags the division is trying to control, but it also applies to the cops themselves, who are not above accepting payoffs and favors in exchange for playing dumb and/or looking the other way occasionally. Watching guys who are supposed to be enforcing the law bend the rules to benefit themselves is a fascinating aspect of the show in that it adds an element of authenticity to the time period. In an interview with Donna Freydkin of USA Today, Burns explained what he did to make the show is real as possible.
“I wanted New Yorkers to look at it and think, ‘That’s the way the city used to be and the way it used to sound.’ I tried to cast only born-and-bred New York actors. A New York accent is tricky to pull off. We have retired cops on the show. They have the walk, the cadence, and the delivery.”
Among the many problems facing Muldoon and his boys is the increasing tension between the two factions of the Irish-American Mafia. Muldoon fully realizes how dangerous Hell’s Kitchen has become, and because he lives there with his wife, Christine (Elizabeth Masucci), and their two sons, James (Cormac Cullinane) and Michael (Barth Sawyer), he takes his job of making the neighborhood safe quite seriously.
In addition to trying to keep a lid on the Irish-American conflict, Muldoon must also deal with the tension between the veteran cops and rookies. For example, after Shea has been introduced to the members of the division, one of the older guys expresses his feelings by saying, “He’s everything that’s wrong with too many of these young cops nowadays. The kid went to college, for chrissakes. He lives in the suburbs.”
And Muldoon can’t even catch a break at peace when he goes home because James seems to be in constant trouble at school, and this is an ongoing source of tension between Muldoon and Christine. To say the guy has a lot on his plate is a gross understatement.
As you would expect, much of the pilot is devoted to introducing the main characters and setting up the elements of the plot and subplots. As the series progresses, it’s going to be quite interesting to see how these people develop. There’s not a weak link in the outstanding cast, and I already have been drawn into the characters’ respective lives.
In addition to the fine acting, the series captures the aura of the ‘60s beautifully with great costumes, sets, and props. I particularly love looking at those wonderful old automobiles. Those cars really had some style to them.
As a native New Yorker and one who was raised among a family of cops, Burns admitted that some of the series is autobiographical in an interview with Ben Travers of Indiewire.
“The stuff in it that’s autobiographical is limited to the relationship between Terry Muldoon and his sons. The other story we’re seeing — the subplot in the pilot — is word-for-word me and my dad when I’m in the sixth grade. And there are other moments like that between my character, Terry, and his son James, that pull from what it was like to grow up with a father who was a police officer; what it was like to grow up in that culture and climate in a big cop family where a lot of your social life — weddings, funerals — were attended mostly by cops and their families. All the other stuff, the cops and the gangsters come from, probably 20 or 25 years of my obsessions. The movies I loved, the novels I tended to read, and the nonfiction that I was obsessed with; it always had to do with New York City, Hell’s Kitchen, gangsters, cops, the waterfront, Times Square, those kinds of things. I took all of those obsessions and put it into the show.”
Based upon its pilot, I think “Public Morals” is going to be an outstanding series. Unlike many other cop dramas, it doesn’t shy away from realism by always portraying law-enforcement officers as knights in shining armor. Burns has done an outstanding job in creating the show, and the word he’s already at work on the second season.
In assigning a score to “Public Morals,” I give it an indecisive eight because I want to see more episodes before making a final judgment. Although the pilot was excellent, it did contain some segments that were a bit confusing, but I’m hoping future episodes will clear these up. In the meantime the show airs Tuesdays at 10 on TNT, and it’s definitely good enough to give it a try.