Third-episode verdict: Public Morals (US: TNT)

All Edward Burns, all the time

Public Morals

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, TNT

Despite the preponderance in critical theory of the idea of the ‘auteur’ since Cahiers du cinéma first originated it in the 1950s, film and TV are such collaborative media that there are precious few people whose individual vision ‘stamps’ projects indelibly, making them uniquely recognisable as the work of those auteurs. David Lynch, Hal Hartley, Akira Kurosawa, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson – you can probably list a few but not as many as you might think at first.

Edward Burns is probably not a name you’d come up with for that list. His might not even be a name you’ve heard of at all. But starting with The Brothers McMullen and working his way through She’s The One and Sidewalks of New York, there can be few more distinctive directors – to the extent that if you hear a film is likely to be about working class Irish-Catholic brothers living in New York, you almost certainly know it’s going to be an Edward Burns film and as a result, that it’s going to be earthy, authentic, comedic and have a good line in dialogue.

But there’s a danger with auteurship – it can go too far, crowding out everyone else’s contributions.

Take Public Morals, Burns’ latest foray, this time into the world of TV. Set in the 1960s, it’s effectively Burns’ New York take on LA Confidential, giving us corrupt, working class, largely Irish Catholic, often related cops, trying to enforce public morality laws they don’t believe in and turning them to their financial advantage.

So far, so good. It’s created by Burns. Which is fine. It’s exec produced by Burns. Which is fine. It’s directed by Burns. Which is fine. It’s written by Burns. Which is… fine. And it stars… Burns.

Do you want to guess who gets all the good lines?

Edward Burns writes, directs, executive produces and stars alongside Michael Rappaport and Elizabeth Masucci in this powerful police drama that will take viewers to the seedy, gritty streets and bright, seductive lights of 1960s New York.

The series centers on Terry Muldoon (Burns), an officer of the Public Morals Division, which investigates vice crimes in the city. Many of Muldoon’s fellow cops in the division walk a thin line between morality and crime as vice-related temptations threaten to snare even the best of officers, including Muldoon’s partner, Charlie Bullman (Rapoport).

As Muldoon watches the Hells Kitchen streets where he grew up devoured by an escalating war within two factions of the Irish-American Mob, he becomes more determined than ever to fight back against the city’s dark underbelly so he can provide a safe place where he and his wife, Christine (Masucci), can raise their family.

Is it any good?
If you can skip over pretty much anything that doesn’t feature Burns, it’s actually pretty good. Otherwise, you’ll be pretty bored by Public Morals.

This is particularly the case if you’ve watched virtually any hard-boiled, period crime drama, which I presume is almost everyone watching TNT, given how it’s more or less the ‘crime drama reruns’ channel. If you have, there will be almost nothing to surprise you about Public Morals. In fact, you’ll spend a lot of your time sitting through scenes, waiting for the twist, only for there not to be one.

Burns’ natural environment is comedy and where Public Morals excels is in the comedic. It’s also excellent at giving New York working class characters inner lives, ambitions and dialogue that don’t feel like they’ve been filtered through a Harvard graduate’s 10 minutes of eavesdropping in a Brooklyn Starbucks.

But just as the show is a sort of love letter to outer boroughs of New York of the 60s, albeit one that doesn’t have the period accuracy of Mad Men’s Manhattan (‘douchebag’ wasn’t exactly the most popular slang expression in those days), so Public Morals is a love letter to all those crime shows you’ve seen before, probably while you were growing up.

That means those scenes with the cop falling for the hooker with the heart of gold? She really is a hooker with a heart of gold. That crime family son who thinks he knows better than his old man? Yes, he is going to disobey him and it’s all going to go badly wrong. Everything goes almost exactly the way you’d expect it, unless Burns has a whole bunch of surprises up his sleeve for later in the season.

Burns’s comedic gift is infectious, too, unfortunately. The show’s smirky young cast doesn’t seem to be taking it quite as seriously as they should be and no one really seems to believe they’re in a hard boiled crime story. They’re all busy paying attention to their clothes and accents, rather than trying to be believable.

There are some good actors in the cast, but whether it’s Burns the director or Burns the writer who’s to blame, only Brian Dennehy is outstanding as a reformed Irish mob boss, but even he has little to work with.

Timothy Hutton (Kidnapped, Leverage, American Crime) only sticks around long enough to give the season a plot arc, but even then, he seems more interested in his hat and doing a funny, wide-gaited, criminal walk than acting. Michael Rapaport is competent, but not being asked to provide much fire to his part and his conversations with his German-speaking grandmother show up the fact he can’t speak German – and isn’t going to try, even if she is and can apparently understand English when it’s spoken to her.

Robert Knepper at least tries to exorcise the ghost of Prison Break’s T-Bag in his performance as Burns’ police chief boss, but while Neal McDonough is slightly scary as the ambitious mob son, he seems to be doing the same routine as the Damien Darhk one he’s got lined up for the next season of Arrow.

If you’re a fan of Burns the actor, Burns the writer, Burns the director and of all the things Burns likes, too, Public Morals is a great show. But if he’s not in your auteur list somewhere, Public Morals is going to be too much all Burns, all the time to make you want to tune in.

Barrometer rating: 3
TMINE’s prediction: Should last a season, but not longer than that


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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