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We’ve seen all this before: The coppers, sworn to uphold the law, who often abuse their power. The robbers at war with both the ball-busting flatfoots and the power-hungry factions within their own criminal organization. An unseasoned rookie who got his job through nepotism. Sass-talking streetwalkers, several of ’em with hearts of gold. Wives who love and stand by their men (most of the time).
There’s something comforting in the way multihyphenate director-star-creator Edward Burns — who made indie-film waves with his 1995 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner The Brothers McMullen — embraces all of the familiar police procedural elements in his 1960s-set TNT cop drama Public Morals. He’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, just trying to tell a good, gripping yarn in ten episodes. Based on the first four installments (all of which he helmed and authored), Burns has done pretty well. And frankly, it’s nice to see him stretching beyond the diminishing-returns rom-coms and family dramedys — many of which tried and failed to recapture the McMullen magic — on which he’s built his name.
Read more: Ed Burns Drama Lands Pilot Order at TNT
Burns plays Terry Muldoon, one of the fedora-sporting lawmen working in NYC’s Public Morals department. These plainclothes officers deal with everything from prostitution to gambling, from drug use to violent crime. Basically, any shadowy vice is in their sights, though that doesn’t stop them from frequently indulging in these covert pleasures, or accepting lucrative bribes to look the other way. In an early scene in the pilot, Muldoon and his partner Charlie Bullman (Michael Rapaport) bust an out-of-town john for cavorting with a mid-level escort. Muldoon scolds the guy and sends him on his way after a two-hundred-buck payoff, while Bullman finds himself smitten by the lady, and quickly becomes her white knight.
So we know what kind of cops we’re dealing with — dedicated hard-asses who can nonetheless be swayed by a fistful of dollars or a pretty face. Many of them are also family men who keep their shady activities on the down low, though the glimpses we get of the fuzz’s home lives in the first four episodes tend to revolve around wives who want to move into better neighborhoods or children acting out at school. (Muldoon’s spouse is played, with appealing cheek, by Elizabeth Masucci.) But there are plenty of hints of trouble to come.
By the end of the pilot, a seemingly major character lies dead and it’s clear that this is the first move in a turf war that Muldoon and his squad will get sucked into as the series progresses. The bad guys are a very well-cast bunch, headed by an imposing Brian Dennehy as Joe Patton, the head of the West Side Irish mob who is doing his best to keep his crew loyal. Good as Burns is at playing blue collar, he wisely cedes a lot of the juiciest scenes to the supporting players.
Dennehy has a crackling exchange with one of his cowardly underlings Smitty, played by the always-reliable Kevin Corrigan. Among the cops, Brian Wiles brings a nice aura of mystery as the squad’s fresh-faced rookie, who’s nowhere near as straight-laced or deferential as he initially seems. The intimidating Wass Stevens, meanwhile, steals every scene he’s in as the porn-mustached detective Vince Latucci; he looks and sounds like he stepped out of a dog-eared crime novel, and he has a terrific showcase in a later episode that involves a very uncomfortable dinner at the Russian Tea Room. Also excellent are Neal McDonough and Aaron Dean Eisenberg as the Irish mob’s resident psychos (each handy with a gun and knife, respectively), though in a bit of a too-cute touch, the latter sports the same hat as Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets.
That points up one of the limitations of Public Morals: In these first four episodes, at least, Burns doesn’t quite escape the anxiety of his influences. The music cues, machismo and casual violence are pure Martin Scorsese. The period decor, costuming and lighting, strong as they often are, seem lifted in their fetishized glow from Catch Me If You Can (no surprise: that film’s director, Steven Spielberg, is an executive producer on the series). Still, there’s enough here that’s compelling that one hopes Burns will let his own voice (aided by this truly stellar and game ensemble) take precedence by season’s end.
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