Public Morals – New TNT Series: Episodes 1-4

Public Morals is the new flagship of the TNT network. Created by Edward Burns, starring Edward Burns, and written by Edward Burns are what the headlines about the show trumpet. Set in the early to mid 1960’s, the is the story of a particular NYPD police department – the Public Morals Division.

laid back and affable but deadly serious

laid back and affable but deadly serious

These cops know all about the laws against prostitution and gambling, public intoxication – crimes yes, but in their eyes, these were crimes without victims. People everywhere want to have fun, and the Public Morals division, as they said, were not there to either prevent, or eradicate these activities.

Rather they were their to manage these activities. As had been done for a hundred years. As Burns’s character, Detective Terry Muldoon would say:

Think of us as landlords. If you want to do business, you’ve got to pay the rent.

What they called rent was actually something else. There were no checks changing hands. There was either cash on the barrel head or the barter system. They’d bust a high stakes poker game, and keep the money on the poker tables while sending the players home with a warning.

Talk about money for nothing.

Or they might get comped at the Russian Tea Room because they made sure the hookers working the streets on the West Side steered clear of that particular section of West 57th Street. Ditto for the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South when they made sure that bookies did not set up shop and do business at the hotel’s bar.

So who were these coppers?  The main two were Terry Muldoon (played by Burns) an Irish cop who was the son of an Irish cop. He still lived in the same Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where he grew up. He was married and had three kids. Yes, the apartment he and his family lived in was small, and cramped, and despite his wife’s protests about the dangers of city living, they stayed put. Clearly Terry Muldoon kept most of his off-the books activities from his wife.

Muldoon’s partner was Charlie Bullman played by Michael Rapaport. It’s no accident that every time you see Detective Bullman, you are going to be thinking of another famous detective. That would be Gene Hackman in his signature role of Det. Jimmy Popeye Doyle from The French Connection.

In fact I’m beginning to believe that Burns who had been working on this idea/script/screenplay on and off for twenty years made a decision to have this series produced to recreate the look and feel of New York City in 1965. And on this score, they’ve more than accomplished this.

The cars, the clothes, the furniture, the small black and white tv’s, even the cash registers, and the bar stools, as well as the swagger of the cops and the crooks are all there. As is the booze.

Peter Gerety - remember him from Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire?

Peter Gerety – remember him from Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire?

If you want comparisons – don’t think of The Godfather as a whole. No, this series is about Irish cops and Irish crooks. Peter Gerety plays the Terry Muldoon’s Dad, a retired copper known as Sgt. Mike. Brian Dennehy plays the neighborhood crime boss Joe Patton. You might see something of Brando’s Vito Corleone in the Brian Dennehy character,

but I think the intent is just on the surface. Other characters are named Shea, Mackenna, Duffy, and O’Bannon.

I think a better comp for Public Morals can be found in State of Grace, a film by Phil Joanou that came out in 1990 and was about the same neighborhood and the Irish Mobsters that ran the place. Sean Penn, Robin Wright, Ed Harris, and Gary Oldman starred in what has been called a top-flight gangster film.

Premiering yesterday, August 25th, TNT has made the first 4 episodes available on your cable system’s on-demand menu. So even though, the show just began, I’ve already watched four episodes.

That's Wass Stevens as Latucci sitting in front of the trophies

That’s Wass Stevens as Latucci sitting in front of the trophies

I think the production values are sky-high, and the acting is top-notch – yet, I can’t say that this series has grabbed me by throat. It is almost too leisurely. I found Brian Dennehy’s brogue a bit distracting. Ed Burns as Detective Muldoon is no doubt a tough as nails cop with a matching amount of cop smarts. But he’s so laid-back.

I’ve yet to see the menace that surely must exist within him. If you want menace you have to look elsewhere – and the first place to look is another Irish actor playing the role of an Irish gangster. That would be Neal McDonough as Joe Patton’s not quite mad-dog son Rusty Patton.

He’s an ice-cold killer – but in my view he’s almost too pretty for the role. He can convey menace, but he just doesn’t have that hot-headedness that you might expect.

On the other hand, we have Wass Stevens who plays the Italian Cop Vince Latucci who works in the Public Morals unit. Now here’s a guy who simply oozes menace.

Just a bit lower on the menace scale is Aaron Dean Eisenberg who plays Richie Kane. Now Richie wants payback for a particular mob killing. He wears a black leather jacket most of the time and is meant to remind you of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy from Mean Streets.

Yeah, the show is atmospheric and has the look and feel of the times it is recreating. But there’s more to the show than that. This is a series where the cops have to straddle the line between themselves as the enforcers of the laws, and the criminals who break the laws for their own purposes. But that line easily blurs.

Though busted for 'loitering' - all she got was a ticket. Muldoon said to the john - we've got different rules here in New York. Let me see your wallet.

Though busted for ‘loitering’ – all she got was a ticket. Muldoon said to the john – We’ve got different rules here in New York. Let me see your wallet.

Each of the cops in the Public Morals squad has to not only do what he can, in support of their off-the books actions, but each of them must gain the respect and trust of their fellows. And this apparently is far from easy. When Muldoon is sizing up a new recruit named Jimmy Shea – he lays it out for him then says, I’m going to ask you just this one time. Are you in?

But as how this impacts the story – I think it is a major selling point. Keep in mind that this part of the story is internal. These cops rely heavily on references from other cops that they trust. And since that degree of trust is so implicit – there’s only two ways that it can go – earn the trust or lose the trust. Certainly this is a dynamic that you have to both understand as well as read on the performers faces.

I’m recommending the series, but I will stop just this side of calling it must-see tv. First of all, it is set 50 years ago. which means it may not have any more personal import to you than, lets say Al Capone. But if you lived in New York City either during the period or shortly after, you may really appreciate Burns & Co’s efforts. But if you don’t go back that far, or have never lived in New York, and you don’t know any Irish mobsters or Irish cops, that you might find the series quite fresh and appealing – and that’s despite the fact that show is derivative. However you feel about Public Morals as in community laws and attitudes, you can set those aside, and allow this series to occupy you.

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