A great new TV show reminds you of a great movie or show from the past while providing a fresh coat of paint to remind you what you are seeing is genuine. Edward Burns’ brilliant new show on TNT, Public Morals, wrapped up its first season Tuesday night.
It ended leaving the viewer wanting more and needing a few more hours with the characters that Burns created from the brush strokes of his father(a former cop) telling him stories from his time on the job. With Burns, you get two things. Authenticity and confidence. A seasoned storyteller, he doesn’t waste a single shot.
Season 1 opened with the streets of the Hell’s Kitchen seemingly being held in check by Terry Muldoon(Burns) and his crew from the Public Morals division. They aren’t just badges covered in suits. They are everything that exists between the hammer of a judge’s gavel to the darkness seen under the front tip of a fedora to the person who may bail you out of trouble. Some may call them corrupt but back then they were the owners of the streets that dictated where the rule breakers could do their business. As Burns explained to a new young officer in the PMD, Shea(Brian Wiles) in the penultimate episode, “There are laws and there are rules. Over time, you’ll understand the difference.” The Public Morals Division determines where the laws end and the rules begin.
All of that gets messy when Muldoon’s uncle, Mr. O(Timothy Hutton) gets killed and a street war erupts thanks to the explosive powers of Rusty Patton(silver steel eyed Neal McDonaugh, who bumped against Raylan Givens on Justified). Alliances are tested and more murders follows Mr. O’s, which puts a strain on the PMD. Thanks to Burns, the chase and pursuit of Rusty never takes center stage and every character is allowed time to get flushed out so the cardboard can’t be found in any crease, crack or corner of this show. Burns knows how to cast people who fit their roles and allow the audience to fail to see an actor and instead a convincing performance.
Burns is the anchor that guides this ship. As Muldoon, he is neither sympathetic or sinister but blunt throughout. The understated actor truly has a gift of delivering dialogue without overacting or squeezing too much juice from the lines. To say he was born to play the leader of this pack is like saying New York Mets’ hero Daniel Murphy was kind of made for the postseason spotlight. It just fits.
The rest of the cast is handpicked with style and reason. Take Michael Rapaport’s Charlie Bullman, Muldoon’s second in command and hard charging tough guy. He talks like a Hell’s Kitchen refugee, pushes Shea around and seems to be tougher than the hardest nail but he has a soft spot for a hooker he can’t resist helping. There’s the young gun, Sean O’Bannon(Austin Stowell, who you will see in theaters this week in Bridge of Spies), a man too dangerous to be a cop and too noble to be a crook. He’s also Mr. O’s son, which puts a healthy spin on things. The other guys in the division(the joker Patrick Murney and the wild man Wass Stevens) feel like they walked off a bus that time traveled from the 1960’s. Peter Gerety is a gem as Muldoon’s father, a former badge who can’t seem to let go of the job or trust that his son is doing the right thing.
Don’t forget firecrackers like Aaron Dean Eisenberg as Richie Kane, a man out for revenge, control, power and anything else he can handle. Here is a guy who doesn’t engage in a gun fight in a hallway until he puts on his fedora and leather jacket. A guy who stabs a man in a street and rolls him under a bus. There’s a scene involving Kane and a few guys in a bar that reminded me of Steven Seagal’s Out for Justice. You’ll get a lot of throwbacks here. There are hints of Goodfellas, Mean Streets, The Godfather, and other classics on display.
The ladies on the show aren’t just femme fatales worthy but strong women. Elizabeth Masucci is Muldoon’s wife, a woman desperate to get her kids out of a dangerous place. Katrina Bowden is Fortune, the girl rocking Bullman’s world in more ways than one. Lyndon Smith pretty much steals the last episode as Dee, Sean’s on/off again woman who holds a secret from him as Season 1 closes. The men may hold the firepower, but the ladies are just as dangerous in this world.
The real gem of Season 1 is Brian Dennehy as Joe Patton, Rusty’s father and kingpin of the Kitchen. Imagine an older Michael Corleone mixed with his father Don but more tired, and you have Dennehy’s Patton. He rocks an Irish accent like you never saw him in First Blood and makes you feel his bleeding heart as his choices shrink in the final hours. After being gone for a little while, Dennehy’s roars back with his work here.
Season 1 doesn’t end with all cases resolved. There isn’t a big showdown between Terry and Rusty. Richie doesn’t get his day in court. There isn’t a shootout in a train station(sorry Untouchables fans). No churches get shot up. The first season ends with a quiet scene between a man and a woman working in opposite worlds who nearly light a fire around their lives. It ends abruptly and without closure, leaving you wanting more. There’s more story to tell, folks. Hell’s Kitchen wasn’t tamed with a ten hour binge. There’s life left in these legs and you’ll want more. Trust me.
As you watch, you’ll know it counts. All his life, Burns wanted to make the Irish American gangster/cop saga, an equivalent to Martin Scorsese’s Italian American films. He had scripts upon scripts of nearly made stories. Dusty stacks of paper called Stoolie and No Sleep Til Brooklyn(Get the full story in Burns’ book, Independent Ed).
It wasn’t until he met Steven Spielberg on the set of Saving Private Ryan that Public Morals got its first tank of gas. Spielberg helped the show find TNT and eventually, get its legs and find the air. Nearly two decades later, the show has arrived and if TNT is smart, they’ll set these plain clothes badges on the loose next year for Season 2.
Public Morals unleashes a wave of nostalgia over the viewer while putting a fresh spin on the hoods, badges and reckless world of the 1960’s. Pulled from his dad’s stories on the job, Edward Burns has created what could be his masterpiece if TNT allows him to finish the story. It’s classy, powerful, expertly written and authentically pieced together with stellar acting to steer the ship.
It has the same kind of Tommy Gun rapid fire dialogue from his early works like Brothers McMullen and She’s The One, but it’s infused with a hyper kinetic tribute to the tough guys of the 60’s who backed up their talk with action. If you are a Burns’ fan, this will go down like a perfectly cooked steak. If you don’t, it may convince you what you have been missing.
Towards the end of the season finale, the baddest gun on the show who goes by the name Monk(the larger than life Ray Wiederhold), tells a guy before he takes away the rest of his life and buries his memories, “As long as I have a thought and a soul”. That’s how I sell this show. If you have a TV and the time, take a trip to the opposite side of town that Mad Men took place on, the hardened bloody streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Where the good guys carried an extra shade of grey, the women took advantage of that anger and power, and the bad guys scrambled to stay in the game.
If you haven’t watched, I suggest you grab a blanket, some strong coffee and go catch up. Like now. It’s got class, patience, precise action and a wise guy spirit.