Public Morals, the TNT series written, directed by, and starring Edward Burns, takes place in 1960s New York, and is full of brooding men in suits cracking their knuckles (Burns’ favored milieu). It’s a story of cops and robbers —mostly Irish Catholic, of course — all of whom are tied to one another by blood (family or violence). But Public Morals builds its tangled web of interconnectedness with fairly boilerplate dialogue and settings, at least to start. Luckily for it, a fantastic cast makes the very most of the material, keeping it from skirting too close to gangland parody.
Burns takes the lead as an officer in the Public Morals Division of the NYPD, a department full of hardboiled men who feel, as Burns’ character Terry Muldoon puts it, that they need to “manage” the city: “if you want to be in business, you need to pay the rent.” They aren’t completely crooked, but they use their vice-driven surroundings to their advantage, and selectively prosecute the offenders.
The first few episodes of the series expand to also include the officers’ private lives, including that of Terry’s fellow officer Charlie Bullman (Michael Rapaport), but especially those which intersect with the criminal element; Terry’s cousin, Sean O’Bannon (Austin Stowell), happens to be the son of a notorious gangster and wife-beater, Mr. O (Timothy Hutton). Sean spars with his father, but also sets up with Terry and a small-time criminal, Pat Duffy (Keith Nobbs), whose sister (Lyndon Smith) he’s dating. Meanwhile, another powerful crime family, the Pattons (father and son played by the excellent duo of Brian Dennehy and Neal McDonough) come onto the scene in a big way, and end up muddying the waters of an already complicated neighborhood even further. (Something Terry’s strong but patient wife, played by Elizabeth Masucci, uses as evidence that they need to leave).
Public Morals takes advantage of its period setting without making it overwhelming, but it leans heavily on tough-talking wise-guy tropes. Still, Public Morals also comes out of the gate with a clear sense of itself and the stories it wants to tell about this particular moment in time, and to that end, it intimately portrays its world with knowing detail. Smartly, the series sets up a central murder mystery fairly quickly, and doesn’t take too long to reveal the killer. It’s a wise move because it builds tension in a batter way: around who knows the truth, who doesn’t, and who’s covering it up. Further, some of the series’ most ordinary-seeming characters do end up pivoting to something altogether different, suggestion a depth to the series that isn’t immediately clear.
The problem, though, is pacing. It’s a difficult dance for any series to master — go too slow and you risk not hooking viewers off the bat, but speed through quickly and you burn through too many plots (and lose viewers who are looking for more nuanced television). Public Morals airs on the slow side, and it takes several episodes for it to really get going (and for its many characters to really start to connect). It seems like the kind of series where a lengthy investment could payoff, but getting there may not be for everyone.
Still, Public Morals has a sly hook to it that comes mainly from the strength of its acting talent. There’s a lot in this noir series that can feel trite (like Mob City, which failed to take off for the network), but then again, for some that’s the appeal of a genre show (and for fans of Burns and his explorations of a certain kind of New York life, there will be plenty that feels familiar). In may ways, the series appears to aspire to a melange of Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, though it doesn’t quite reach either’s unique sensibilities. Yet. But Public Morals also has hints of a show that, with time, may become something great in its own right. It’s just a question of whether or not audiences will want to spend the time to find out.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Public Morals premieres Tuesday, August 24th at X p.m. ET on TNT