Edward Burns knows his stuff. Public Morals, TNT’s gritty new cop drama, takes place in the ’60s (though there are elements of earlier decades as well) and has fun with the dialogue, the costumes, the expensive cars, and the similarities to the multiple familiar noir stories that came before it. It’s not wholly original, but Burns (actor, creator, and occasional director on the series) makes it personal, and largely succeeds.
To be clear, Public Morals is strictly average — if much better than you’d expect from TNT — and often too closely resembles shows we’ve seen before, especially in the pilot. But it picks up as it goes along — the fourth and fifth episodes are particularly interesting — and works with the genre’s familiar elements while also telling a somewhat fresh story. Burns plays Officer Terry Muldoon, a member of the police department’s Public Morals unit. Public Morals deals with “victimless crimes” like prostitution, gambling, upholding blue laws, etc. Also in the plainclothes department are Charlie Bullman (Michael Rapaport), Muldoon’s partner, Petey Mac (Patrick Murney), the endearing cop who worries he’s too nice for the unit, and Jimmy Shea (Brian Wiles) a newbie college boy on the squad. As expected, the officers indulge in these crimes a bit themselves.
The pilot episode is largely expository and filled with tropes, introducing us to the big protagonists, the villains (a bunch of mobsters, including Neal McDonough), and some other key players (such as Katrina Bowden as Fortune). There are a lot of formulaic moments and characters; Fortune is the stock hooker with a heart of gold who, naturally, begins to fall in love with Bullman after he arrests her but then decides to go easy and help her out in future episodes. He’s a family man but he can’t control his White Knight Syndrome, and there’s certainly no way this won’t blow up in his face. There is also the basic plot of Muldoon balancing his tough detective job with being the patriarch of a family: a wife who wants to move to the suburbs because of the increasing violence and tension surrounding the Irish Mob in Hell’s Kitchen, and three children, one of whom is a class clown who frequently invokes the ire of his father.
But what really kicks off the series is a shocking death at the end of the pilot that brings together the cops and the mobsters, inciting a cat-and-mouse chase that goes deeper than you’d expect, and setting up Muldoon to deal with far more serious crimes than a guy drinking on the street. Burns is fantastic as Muldoon, and has a classically handsome look that perfectly suits the world that he’s created. His writing has grown sharper over the years — though it remains undoubtedly Irish; “I’m Irish, which means I can’t help but expect the worst” — and he’s always had a keen eye for directing. All of this makes it hard to avoid getting sucked into the show if you watch past the first episode.
When it comes to depicting the ’60s, the attention to detail isn’t quite as scrupulous as Mad Men‘s, but Burns has a lot of fun with his fast-talking crew, peppering the dialogue with phrases like “doll face” and filling scenes with the loud clacking of a typewriter. While Public Morals doesn’t rise to the level of greatness, it has the potential to get there by the end of the season. In the meantime, this promising new show is thoroughly watchable, always entertaining, and sometimes quite good.