‘Public Morals’—Or Lack Thereof—On Display In TNT’s New Cop Show

Set in New York City in the 1960s, Ed Burns’ new 10-hour series features corrupt cops and gritty gangsters. Critic David Bianculli says Public Morals has the look and feel of a classic police drama.


This is FRESH AIR. Edward Burns made his mark 20 years ago by writing, directing and starring in the movie “The Brothers McMullen.” Now, he’s the creator, writer and star of the new TNT cable series “Public Morals,” which begins tonight. He directed two of its 10 episodes. It’s a period cop drama set in the ’60s. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, says it reminds him of some classic cop movies from another decade – the ’70s. Here’s his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: “Public Morals,” the new limited series that begins tonight on TNT, takes place in New York in the ’60s. But where “Mad Men,” another TV series initially set in that same place and time, was all about the glamour of Madison Avenue, “Public Morals” hones in on the period’s seediness of Hell’s Kitchen. Many of its cops are blatantly corrupt, and most of its bad guys go about their organized crime in a very organized fashion, often with police protection and assistance.

It’s like the world of some of those great police films from the 1970s, movies like “Serpico,” a fact-based story of police corruption that took place in the same period as “Public Morals,” or like “The French Connection,” which used a decaying New York as one of its primary characters, and not only during the car chases. That’s what “Public Morals,” based on the first two episodes provided for preview by TNT, feels like. As future episodes appear, we’ll find out whether this TV drama has the depth and resonance of those classic movies. But for starters, it sure has the look and the feel. Edward Burns plays Terry Muldoon, a plainclothes vice squad cop with a wife and kids at home and with a gruff, dependable beat partner at work. He’s played by Michael Rapaport, and when the two of them barge in on a prostitute and her client, they’re likely to leave with the money or the hooker or both. And when a second- generation cop named Jimmy Shea, played by Brian Wiles, is transferred to the squad, Burns’ Terry sits him down and private to explain the status quo and determine whether the new kid can be trusted to play along. As in many other scenes on this show, the dialogue is as flinty as the characters.


EDWARD BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) Let me ask you, Shea – why’d you want to get into plainclothes?

BRIAN WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) My father thought it’d be a good idea. He says it’s the fast-track to make detective.

BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) Yeah, well, it certainly helps. And you know what we do here?

WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) Yeah, the colored lieutenant gave me the talk.

BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) OK. Why don’t we call him Lt. King, all right?

WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) Yes, sir – Lt. King.

BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) Your old man tell you anything else?

WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) He said I was going to have a lot of fun.

BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) Well, he was not [expletive] you there. And the reason is, the people of our good city like to have a lot of fun. Sex, drinking, gambling – you name it, they want it. However, as you well know, a lot of that [expletive] is illegal. Afterhours joints, prostitution, gay bars, craps games, numbers – every one of them is against the law, which has never really made much sense to me, given that these are all victimless crimes. Wouldn’t you agree?

WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) Yeah, I guess.

BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) Yeah, I mean, who’s getting hurt, right?

WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) Nobody.

BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) Besides, do you want to lock up a couple of old-timers for having a drink on a Sunday morning, or the hard-working guy who wants to place a wager on a ball game, or some poor broad who ends up hooking because life has dealt her a [expletive] deck? What about the queers? You want to get all these poor bastards because they want to get together, have a few beers and play a little grab-ass? I know I don’t want to. I’m guessing you don’t want to either because it’s my understanding you’re college kid, and therefore you must be pretty bright.

WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) So then, what exactly do we do here?

BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) Well, as I am sure your father must have explained to you, we do what has been done for the last hundred years – we manage it for the city. Think of us as the landlords. And if you want to be in business, you got to pay your rent. Do you understand what I am telling you?

WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) Yes, I do.

BURNS: (As Terry Muldoon) Good. Now, I’m only going to ask you this this one time – are you in?

WILES: (As Jimmy Shea) Yes, sir.

BIANCULLI: Out on the streets, the cops mix with the gangsters as part of their daily rounds. Timothy Hutton plays one crime lord who’s not only connected, he’s connected to Terry by family. The loyalties and family ties run deep, and the corruption runs deeper. And before the opening episode is over, there’s a death that sets some major confrontations into motion. And while the opener is a little exposition-heavy, introducing so many characters and conflicts central to its ensemble drama, episode two of “Public Morals” really ups the ante. That’s when it introduces even more characters played by one terrific actor after another. For starters, the focus is on men. Women take a backseat, at least for now. Neal McDonough, recently a great villain on FX’s “Justified,” plays another steely-eyed mob guy. Brian Dennehy, as that guy’s father, is a rival mob boss. And Peter Gerety, from “Homicide: Life On The Street,” plays Terry’s father. When you save that kind of talent for episode two, you’re building up to something big, and you have a strong sense of where you’re going. The storyline of “Public Morals” will roll out as a new 10-episode TV limited series. But with its ’60s look and its vintage ’60s musical soundtrack, I like to think of it as a formerly undiscovered 10-hour cop movie from that era, and I bet that’s the way Edward Burns, when he was writing and directing and acting in it, thought of “Public Morals” also.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR…


LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I know that this is complicated, but I also know that we can work it out.

ADAM DRIVER: (As Adam Sackler) Well, I’m sick of trying to work it out. Can’t one thing ever be easy with you?

GROSS: We’ll hear from Adam Driver. He’s best known for his role on HBO’s “Girls” as Adam. His own life has been pretty different from the character’s on that show. For example, he enlisted in the Marines after 9/11. I hope you’ll join us tomorrow. I’m Terry Gross.

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Rolling Stone Feature

When Ed Burns was a kid, he remembers his relatives giving him pictures of his great grandfather, these grainy black-and-white shots that hinted at a wild, we-make-our-own-rules-here past. “He’s standing on the roof of his place in Hell’s Kitchen, with giant scissors in his hand,” the writer-director says, sipping a Guinness in a Tribeca bar near his home. “And he’s about to cut the ears of his champion fighting pitbull, this beast with a muzzle on. I asked my dad, what’s the deal here exactly? Seems the old man was in the trucking business, from the teens until the 1940s. I never got confirmation as to whether or not he was a gangster, but…” He pauses for a second and then shrugs. “It started my fascination with the old neighborhood’s Irish Mob, that’s for sure.”

Years later, when Burns was on the set of Saving Private Ryan, his father and uncles came down to visit for an afternoon and started regaling the crew with stories about being New York City cops during the Sixties and Seventies, colorful tales of busting perps and buying meals (“a sandwich or a hot dog”) for streetwalkers who’d missed night court. Afterwards, Steven Spielberg pulled him aside and said, That’s your next movie. “I told Steven that I already had this idea for an Irish-American Godfather — a big father-and-sons saga dressed up in cop clothes and filled with gangsters. He was like, ‘I love it, let’s do it.’ So I was all set with my post-Ryan project.” Burns laughs. “That was 1998. And now, here we are.”

It would take several false starts, abandoned scripts, side roads and the reinvention/revolution of the small-screen medium before Public Morals, his new TV show on TNT, would finally see the light of day. But according to its creator, he’s glad he had to wait. A sprawling, multi-story series involving a 1960s NYC vice squad headed by plain-clothes officer Terry Muldoon (played by Burns himself), it weaves together tales of ethically compromised cops and young prostitutes in peril, family melodrama and the inter-criminal power plays that happen when a mobster bigwig is made to sleep with the fishes. Blessed with actors like Timothy Hutton, Brian Dennehy, Neil McDonough, and a who’s-who of indie-cinema veterans, this ambitious attempt to chart a vintage era of Gotham law and disorder might have felt rushed in a two-hour setting. Given the freedom to tell its story over 10 episodes, however, Burns uses the breathing room to turn his police procedural into a miniature epic.

The result is a complete 180-degree turn from the sort of movies the Brothers McMullen filmmaker had made his name from over the last two decades. “I mean, I’d done a historical crime story before, but not a real historical crime story,” the director says, referencing his Eighties-set gangland opus Ash Wednesday (2002). “The budget was so low that you never really knew it was another decade! But I’d just played Bugsy Siegel on [Frank Darabont’s post-Walking Dead TV show on TNT] Mob City, which takes place in the 1940s. I watched how Frank was on set with no interference, with enough resources to do something with scope, and with the ability to put together a great cast — and I was starting to get jealous of people who made TV shows.

“So when the network came to me at the end of my run,” he continues, “and asked if I was interested in doing something with them, the first thing I thought of was: the ‘Public Morals’ vice division my dad used to tell me about. Plus I’d done research on Irish-mob blood feuds for at least three original projects that all got put in the drawer ages ago. So as soon as I got back to New York, I took the old scripts out, read over the ideas I jotted down back in the late 1990s, and thought, the cops and gangsters…it’s all already here. I finally have a chance to do it, and do it right!”

Once Burns and his producing partner Aaron Lubin developed the idea further and finished a few drafts, they sent it to Spielberg, hoping to get some constructive notes before the official pitch meeting; instead, the Amblin head honcho immediately signed on as executive producer. (“Imagine you’re pitching a network, and then Steven Spielberg suddenly decides he’s going to sit in with you,” Lubin says, laughing. “It’s like going to play a pick-up basketball game and hey, now you have LeBron James on your team.”) Everything went into green-lit overdrive from then on, and after the series premiered to impressive numbers late last month, TNT quickly posted the first four episodes online for mini-binging. (You can check them out here.) Burns has already hinted that, if the show gets picked up, he already knows what he wants to do for Season Two, which would involve a peripheral character stepping forward and taking center stage.

“You know, The Brothers McMullen turned 20 this year,” he says, “and after it showed at Sundance, everyone kept saying ‘He’s influenced by Woody Allen.’ Which is true, obviously! But my two movie gods have always been Allen and Martin Scorsese, and for ages, I wanted to see if I could do something that sort of paid homage to that influence as well. And one of the first days I was on set for this, I remember getting ready to set up a shot and I turned to my director of photography and said, Wow, we have the money, we have the toys and we have New York City. It’s finally happening. We can do our Scorsese movie, it’s just going to be 10 hours once a week now!”

Ed Burns on Four Specific Movie References in Public Morals:

The Hustler

“There was this Times Square pool hall, the Ames — it was a famous place in for fencing stolen stuff and a big Irish wise-guy hangout in the 1970s. I was like alright, we have to recreate that. We tried to find it, I thought maybe the pool hall’s still around, and it’s long since gone. So we would freeze frames of the movie, blow them up, and look at the details: Where’s the water cooler where Paul Newman takes a drink? Is that a balcony up there? And then we recreated the whole thing in a church basement in Brooklyn.

“There’s a scene in the first episode where this young cop played by Keith Nobbs walks up to Timothy Hutton’s character in a pool hall, and we mirrored the set-up so from a sequence in The Hustler. It’s like, Jackie Gleason comes in, walks by one of the guys, takes his coat off, pulls out his cigarette, lights it, and sits down on the couch. And if you watch the two scenes back to back, it’s almost exact. We didn’t quite match it, but we got close.”

The French Connection

“Public Morals takes place in the early 1960s, but we didn’t want to be specific about years, or even specific events — Mad Men already did that beautifully, and we weren’t going to do better than that. Plus we wanted to throw in a lot of references to our favorite New York movies from the Seventies as well, and I mean, come on…you’re not going to do a French Connection homage?

“There’s a scene where Gene Hackman walks into a bar and meets up with Roy Schreider. There are three girls singing on a stage, kind of like the Supremes. So, what he does is he walks in, he talks to the cigarette girl, whispers in her ear, gives her a little kiss, stops — all one handheld shot. It rack-focuses to the three women on stage. Hackman turns, we focus on him, he walks over to the bar. [You can catch a glimpse of the scene at the 12-second mark in the video above.] So what we did was, we recreated that nightclub, we take Ruben Santiago Hudson [who plays the police chief] in, he comes in, turns, rack focus to our three girl singers, walks over, kisses the cigarette girl, walks over, sits down with one of the gangsters. So there are the little nods like that, and then there are the bigger ones, like Michael Rappaport’s hat. That’s the most Popeye Doyle-ish hat I’ve ever seen!”

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

“According to my dad, every precinct had a bar within a block of the station house that was where the cops conduct most of their business, when they were “apparently” drinking on the job [laughs]. Before you went into the office, you went into the bar, talk to some folks, found out what’s going on. You get a tip on this, a tip on that, great. So we needed to create the local precinct bar for the show. So I was telling my production designer and my location scout, “We need a place that looks like the bar in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the one where Robert Mitchum sits down with Peter Boyle. So we look at the film, my location scout says, ‘Okay, let me see what I can find.’ Can’t find it. We’re totally out of luck.

“Then my production designer says, ‘Let’s just build it.’ So the bar where the Public Morals cops hang out at, Pop McKennas, is almost perfectly recreated to scale and color the bar from Friends of Eddie Coyle. I come from the indie-film world where you never have the time or budget to do that kind of stuff, so to be able to a designer go, Yeah, let’s just make it…I mean, that’s indie-filmmaker heaven, right?”

Catch Me If You Can

“There’s a shot in Catch where there’s a long-lens tilt down off of the Pan Am building, which we loved, and Leonardo DiCaprio is crossing Park Avenue, and he goes into a phone booth. We have a scene where my character meets with Brian Dennehy for a private meeting at the Waldorf Astoria, so we’re scouting the hotel, and okay, I’ll be walking from here to here. And I then I realized, ‘Wait a second, the Met Life building, that was the old Pan Am building!’ If we’re doing the 1960s, let’s do that, and let’s do that shot. So I’m on the phone, I looked up at that moment, and we did the exact same thing. I wanted to throw a hat tip to Steven in there anyway, because he’s been such a mentor to me. And it wasn’t like I could do a shark coming down Sixth Avenue [laughs].”