At first glance, “Public Morals” looks like another well-worn period crime drama — a vanity project from writer-producer-director-star Edward Burns, where too many tough-talking characters sound as if they’re impersonating the late Sheldon Leonard. Stick with it past the premiere, however, and the show becomes increasingly rich and watchable through four previewed episodes, thanks to a splendid guest/supporting cast and growing tension surrounding an unsolved murder. TNT stumbled in this genre previously with the poorly executed “Mob City,” and the vice-squad-in-the-1960s theme is a trifle “Crime Story” Lite. Still, on a fundamental level, policing private transgressions makes “Public Morals” pretty good.
Burns’ Terry Muldoon oversees the NYPD’s Public Morals Division, which is responsible for curbing ostensibly victimless vices like prostitution and gambling. Not surprisingly, Muldoon and his men operate under a certain code, which is to say they occasionally look the other way or take a little taste of the action while insuring that nothing gets out of hand, lest it upset the good people of New York. (Streetwalking in the theater district, for example, leads to creative efforts to essentially relocate the problem, reflecting the Whac-a-Mole aspects of the work.)
Even allowing for the fact the squad members — including Michael Rapaport as Muldoon’s right-hand man — aren’t exactly choirboys, the opening chapter feels a bit like yesterday’s news until the very end. Without giving too much away, a killing risks upsetting the order of things, potentially unleashing a war between crime factions that Muldoon and company try to keep under control, but at a respectful distance.
That mob plot brings in players, including Brian Dennehy as the imperious boss and Neal McDonough as his hotheaded son, who raise the show several notches. In this case, the bad boys might not have all the fun, but they do class up the joint, in part because the cops tend to blend together, at least initially, while being saddled with familiar themes, like the newbie who’s bound to be tempted and the tough guy (Austin Stowell) who cold-cocks his own well-connected dad (Timothy Hutton) for beating his mother.
Muldoon, meanwhile, has a sprawling family and employs tough-love techniques in raising his kids, determined to scare them straight. Unlike some of his pals, he’s not completely forthcoming about his shadier activities to his patient wife (Elizabeth Masucci).
Produced in conjunction with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, “Public Morals” doesn’t yet feel like a top-tier cable drama, but it has the makings of a highly watchable one, and stands a cut above much of TNT’s lineup in terms of ambition. That includes a sumptuous look that showcases the darker, rougher side of the “Mad Men” era.
TNT is at a bit of a strategic crossroads, so this series could easily find itself in a sort-of no-man’s land. Still, it does represent a modest step toward the sort of “edgier” fare that the new management team has spoken of bringing to the network.
Whether viewers respond to that is, pardon the expression, a crapshoot. But if they do, “Public Morals” could discover that being good just might be its own reward.