‘Public Morals’ Pilot Recap: “We Got Different Rules Here”

Despite the ratings (and largely critical) failure of TNT’s ‘Mob City‘ miniseries, co-star Ed Burns somehow managed to parlay his role as the infamous Bugsy Siegel into a new period gangster drama on the same network. Will ‘Public Morals’ fare any better?

Unlike ‘Mob City’, which was just an acting job for him, Burns serves as creator/producer/writer/director as well as leading man here. This is clearly a personal project for him, and that’s reflected in the tone of the show, which is less comic book-y and more blue collar character drama. He also plays a cop (albeit a somewhat crooked one) rather than a gangster. Nevertheless, the show gives him another chance to dress up in period garb and play a hardass. I’m sure that’s pretty gratifying for any actor’s ego.

The setting here is New York in the early 1960s. Burns is plainclothes Officer Terry Muldoon of the NYPD’s Public Morals division. Along with his partner Charlie Bullman (Michael Rapaport) and some others, they’re essentially the vice squad who crack down on gambling, prostitution and other “victimless” crimes in the name of upholding the city’s standards of decency and morality. They have few illusions that what they’re doing is important policework that serves the public. In fact, most of the cops on the squad back a secret gambling racket themselves. And they’re not above running small scams to extort bribes from the hookers and johns they roust.

The show has a pretty big cast, and it sure feels like everyone’s related to everybody else. They’re all constantly announcing each other as brothers or cousins or uncles and whatnot. Terry’s uncle (Timothy Hutton) is a local gangster that he’s pretty chummy with. The pilot episode ends with his murder, and I suppose that’s meant to kick off a big storyline.

The episode also has a plethora of smaller plot threads. Charlie feels sympathy for a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Katrina Bowden from ’30 Rock’), whose heart may not be as golden as he thinks. A young cop gets promoted to the squad, and everyone worries that he’s too much of a do-gooder and will rat them out. Another cop has daddy issues. One cuts his ne’re-do-well friend too much slack, which will probably bite him in the ass. Some of these storylines are more interesting than others, but none is really gripping enough for the launch of a new series.

The networks ads for the show paint it as a hardboiled crime thriller, which might seem out of character for the sort of work Burns usually produces as a writer and director. In reality, it actually has quite a lot in common with his movies like ‘The Brothers McMullen’ or ‘She’s the One’ – which is to say that it’s a big talk-fest in which dozens of characters bullshit and banter and bust each other’s balls. That’s what Burns specializes in, and he doesn’t stretch himself too far despite the milieu and period trappings.

In what’s easily the best scene of the episode, Muldoon harangues his young son for being the class clown in school. He’s a tough-love kind of dad, and he viciously dissects the kid with scathingly funny put-downs that will certainly leave the boy with serious daddy issues later in life. I imagine that may be an autobiographical note.

I wish the rest of the premiere had that level of inspiration. Unfortunately, it’s mostly pretty rote. The cops are dirty, but they’re not dirty enough to be either villains or antiheroes. The domestic drama is mildly diverting but nothing we haven’t seen before elsewhere with more interesting characters. The period production values are farily convincing, but this is no ‘Boardwalk Empire’. (And one character’s uttering of “Douchebag!” is bizarrely anachronistic in a very distracting way.)

With only the first episode to go on, ‘Public Morals’ doesn’t seem like an overtly bad show (which already puts it well ahead of most of the crap on TNT), but it hasn’t grabbed me either. I doubt I’ll be back for more.

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