Review: ‘Public Morals’

Filmed in Los Angeles by Steven Bochco Prods., in association with 20th Century Fox Television. Created by Bochco and Jay Tarses; executive producer, writer, Tarses; supervising producer, Richard Dresser; produced by Stephen C. Grossman; producer, Dayna Flanagan; co-producer, Lisa Albert; director, Don Scardino; director of photography, Ken Lamkin; production designer, Paul Eads; story editor, Matt Tarses; creative consultants, Marc Flanagan, David Milch; associate producer, Mark Petulla; editor, Leslie Tolan; casting, Liberman/Hirschfeld, Sharon Klein; music, Mike Post. Cast: Donal Logue, Julianne Christie, Justin Louis, Jana Marie Hupp, Joseph Latimore, Lawrence Romano, Bill Brochtrup, Peter Gerety. The creator of such series as "Buffalo Bill," "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" and "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," Jay Tarses holds a special place in the hearts of TV critics, if not necessarily the broad Nielsen universe of viewers. Tarses doesn't just tweak the sitcom form, he spooks it with shows that defy its conventions by celebrating character over content, and for his sins he's done a lot of time in network purgatory. Now he's linked up with Steven Bochco, and "Public Morals" would seem to be a perfect Tarses project: Given viewers' affection for explicit police dramas like "NYPD Blue," why not give the genre a raunchy comic spin with a sitcom about the Gotham vice squad? The original "Public Morals" pilot, with its now famed reference to "the pussy patrol," made CBS nervous enough to encourage a reworking, and though there's plenty of rude language left to singe sensitive ears, the show having its debut tonight is a considerably tamer affair. It's also almost completely awful. Then again, so was that first pilot, and so is next week's episode, to boot. Despite some endearingly nasty performances by a first-rate comedy troupe, "Public Morals" looks like an excuse to show foolish people behaving extremely poorly with each other, with the vice squad context merely laying on a sneering, leering veneer. Character doesn't appear to have any place at this table. Characters do, however. "Public Morals" is loaded with characters who spend each halfhour sniping at each other. At the top of this food chain is the new lieutenant, played with unabashed clownish abandon by Peter Gerety as a teeth-sucking, prat-falling buffoon whose voice sounds like it's been squeezed through a loaded vacuum cleaner bag. Gerety's ably supported by Julianne Christie as the officer who gets to dress up as a hooker a lot; Donal Logue as the resident Neanderthal; Jana Marie Hupp as the second-in-command; and the rest. Moreover, the show is skillfully directed by Don Scardino, a "Molly Dodd" veteran whose theater skills are apparent in the strong pacing and the ensemble spirit everywhere in evidence. So far, however, "Public Morals" lacks any hook for a viewer to grab onto, any entry into this dopey world or reason for wanting one. Like Tarses' last entry, 1993's quickly yanked "Black Tie Affair," it's feel-bad TV. Jeremy Gerard

Filmed in Los Angeles by Steven Bochco Prods., in association with 20th Century Fox Television. Created by Bochco and Jay Tarses; executive producer, writer, Tarses; supervising producer, Richard Dresser; produced by Stephen C. Grossman; producer, Dayna Flanagan; co-producer, Lisa Albert; director, Don Scardino; director of photography, Ken Lamkin; production designer, Paul Eads; story editor, Matt Tarses; creative consultants, Marc Flanagan, David Milch; associate producer, Mark Petulla; editor, Leslie Tolan; casting, Liberman/Hirschfeld, Sharon Klein; music, Mike Post. Cast: Donal Logue, Julianne Christie, Justin Louis, Jana Marie Hupp, Joseph Latimore, Lawrence Romano, Bill Brochtrup, Peter Gerety. The creator of such series as “Buffalo Bill,” “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story” and “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” Jay Tarses holds a special place in the hearts of TV critics, if not necessarily the broad Nielsen universe of viewers. Tarses doesn’t just tweak the sitcom form, he spooks it with shows that defy its conventions by celebrating character over content, and for his sins he’s done a lot of time in network purgatory. Now he’s linked up with Steven Bochco, and “Public Morals” would seem to be a perfect Tarses project: Given viewers’ affection for explicit police dramas like “NYPD Blue,” why not give the genre a raunchy comic spin with a sitcom about the Gotham vice squad? The original “Public Morals” pilot, with its now famed reference to “the pussy patrol,” made CBS nervous enough to encourage a reworking, and though there’s plenty of rude language left to singe sensitive ears, the show having its debut tonight is a considerably tamer affair. It’s also almost completely awful. Then again, so was that first pilot, and so is next week’s episode, to boot. Despite some endearingly nasty performances by a first-rate comedy troupe, “Public Morals” looks like an excuse to show foolish people behaving extremely poorly with each other, with the vice squad context merely laying on a sneering, leering veneer. Character doesn’t appear to have any place at this table. Characters do, however. “Public Morals” is loaded with characters who spend each halfhour sniping at each other. At the top of this food chain is the new lieutenant, played with unabashed clownish abandon by Peter Gerety as a teeth-sucking, prat-falling buffoon whose voice sounds like it’s been squeezed through a loaded vacuum cleaner bag. Gerety’s ably supported by Julianne Christie as the officer who gets to dress up as a hooker a lot; Donal Logue as the resident Neanderthal; Jana Marie Hupp as the second-in-command; and the rest. Moreover, the show is skillfully directed by Don Scardino, a “Molly Dodd” veteran whose theater skills are apparent in the strong pacing and the ensemble spirit everywhere in evidence. So far, however, “Public Morals” lacks any hook for a viewer to grab onto, any entry into this dopey world or reason for wanting one. Like Tarses’ last entry, 1993’s quickly yanked “Black Tie Affair,” it’s feel-bad TV. Jeremy Gerard

Public Morals

(Wed. (30), 9:30-10 p.m., CBS)
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