TNT's Public Morals is the new period cop drama this season that everyone should be watching. Written, produced, directed by and starring Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen), Public Morals tells the story of the vice division of the NYPD and the Irish mob in 1965 New York. The show explores the surprisingly parallel hierarchies between the cops and the mob as we see members of both sides rise through the ranks and fight it out for control over the city.
TNT made all the episodes available to stream over Labor Day weekend and I binge-watched every one of them. What follows are my thoughts on season one. There are some minor spoilers below, so don't say I didn't warn you.
Terry Muldoon (Burns) is a plain clothes police detective attempting to be a cop, a father, a husband and a good man while working to prevent the fuse from burning closer to the powder keg about to explode in Hell's Kitchen. Of course, being a good man can be a bit ambiguous for Terry; there's a certain way things are done and that's the way he does them. He takes bribes from "Johns" and protection money from shady mob wannabes looking to run illegal card games. And when his uncle is killed, a man who also happens to be a higher ranking book maker for the Irish mob, familial pressure to exact revenge only makes life more difficult.
The show co-stars Michael Rapaport as the sweet, slightly naive Charlie Bullman whose capacity for empathy and compassion leads him down a potentially damaging path with a prostitute. He's a big lug of a teddy-bear and along with Muldoon's wife, Christine (Elizabeth Masucci), serves as the heart of the show.
Brian Dennehy is incredible as Joe Patton, the aging Irish mob boss just trying to live out his life in relative peace. But his attempts to avoid bloodshed prove to be harder than he imagined as his son, Rusty (Neal McDonough), tries to seize control of his empire. And McDonough's performance as the power hungry, sociopathic Rusty Patton is nothing short of Emmy-worthy. Every moment on-screen, McDonough is mesmerizing and ruthless.
Some newer faces include Brian Wiles as the wet-behind-the-ears rookie in Vice, Jimmy Shea. His battle is mostly just in learning how to fit in but there are hints that there might be more to Shea than meets the eye. And then there's Richard "Richie" Kane (Aaron Dean Eisenberg) as the ambitious up-and-comer in the mob ranks whose main talent seems to be in killing and getting people killed.
There is no black and white in Public Morals; each character exists firmly in shades of gray, frequently leaning towards the darker spectrum. And the entire cast is spectacular; their performances captivate in every episode. The show is well written and smart with some darkly funny moments interlaced with the violent brutality that comes along with the subject matter. And the sets are nothing short of stunning. Every episode of Public Morals is like taking a trip back in time to 1965. No detail is overlooked from the wallpaper in a tiny apartment to the police station, the cars, the clothing, the soundtrack; it all serves to emphasize the gritty reality of Hell's Kitchen.
If TNT grants the show a season two, it would be nice to see the storylines for the female characters evolve a little more. Public Morals is missing a huge opportunity and seriously underutilizing the amazing women of the show. Right now, the women only serve to move ahead the stories for the male characters; they are never shown onscreen unless they are talking about the male characters, flirting with the male characters, screaming at the male characters or sleeping with them. Christine serves as Terry's moral compass; the character's existence is solely to keep Terry from completely going to the dark side. And that's fine, she's a wife, a mother and a nurturer. But Deirdre and Barbara, as roommates and single women in the city, could have been given meatier stories. But again, the agenda for these two young women was to propel the story forward for one of the central male characters.
1965 was right on the cusp of the feminist movement and the civil rights movement; a period of time where women were finally able to gain more independence and empowerment. Infusing a couple of the female characters with some of that independence would make them more believable and the show even better. What do ya say, Ed? How about giving the ladies of Hell's Kitchen a little more to do next season?
In spite of this tiny issue, Public Morals is a must see. And I can't wait to see what happens next! Public Morals airs Tuesday nights on TNT at 10/9 central. And the first four episodes are available to stream on TNT's website.