Public Morals is the latest brainchild of indie film writer, director and actor Edward Burns and is a fitting love letter to the cop and gangster genre.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with Edward Burns, you will most likely remember him for his acting role as Private First Class Richard Reiben in Steven Spielberg’s war masterpiece Saving Private Ryan. Before and since then, Burns has mainly committed himself to writing and directing in the independent world of film with notable works including: The Brothers McMullen, Sidewalks of New York and Newlyweds. Anyone who knows these will know that Burns’ main genre of focus is romantic comedies, having made known his love for Woody Allen. However, Public Morals comes from Burns’ other genre love affair with that of the police/gangster genre. In many recent interviews promoting the show, Burns has revealed that his ideas for the show originate as far back as during the production of Saving Private Ryan. Burns, who is the son of an NYPD (New York Police Department) officer, has spoken of his father and uncle visiting the set and telling classic cop stories to Spielberg, who then encouraged Burns to write a film screenplay based on his father’s experiences. However, Burns then goes into detail about how he suffered frustration in getting the scripts made and eventually had to shelve them in order to work on other projects. But thankfully, Burns recently decided to merge all of the film scripts he wrote into a TV show and the result is Public Morals. Inspired by classic works of the genre including: The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Hustler and The French Connection, the show will be a joy for people, like myself, who love those kinds of movies. After getting Steven Spielberg on board as an executive producer, Burns received a green light to make the show with the American cable network TNT. After watching the first few episodes, I couldn’t be more happier with the show and I firmly believe it has the potential to become a great work.
The show consists of ten episodes, all written and directed by Burns, and takes place in the 1960s. Focussing on the lives of NYPD police officers working for the Public Morals Division, a vice unit designed to deal with activities including: gambling, prostitution and drugs. Burns, in addition to writing and directing, stars in the lead role as Officer Terry Muldoon, an Irish American policeman and family man who struggles to maintain a balance with his work and family life. Muldoon commands a crack team of officers who as well as doing their jobs to protect New York citizens, are also working with the criminals in order to maintain order on the streets rather than cause all out gang war. Aside from his role as a protector of the people, Muldoon also struggles with his role as protector of his family which causes strain in his work life. The thing I love about Muldoon, and many other characters like him, is the way in which their perception of their environment affects their actions and forces them to adapt to a world they clearly want no part of. An example being, when we are first introduced to the characters, we see Muldoon and his partner Officer Charlie Bullman (Michael Rapaport) arresting a man outside a prostitute’s apartment. While it appears the two law enforcement officials are playing by the book, Muldoon then willingly accepts a bribe from the man after he repeatedly pleads with Muldoon not to arrest him for fear of his wife finding out. Furthermore, another reason why I love character’s like Muldoon is the ‘cop language’ that is used, which to me sounds like urban poetry. The dialogue has been called clichéd by TV critics, but for me personally it has a unique richness to it and reminds me of why of love this genre so much.
The performances of the actors is also a high point. I have always felt Edward Burns is an underrated actor. Mainly this is due to him preferring to write and direct over act and also because he does not associate with the mainstream Hollywood scene, preferring to stay within the independent world. Being a born and bred New Yorker, Burns perfectly conveys Muldoon and is able to show that he has the capabilities of a strong leading man. He is also able to switch well between Muldoon’s family gentleman persona to a hard-nosed, don’t take no crap off no one persona. Another brilliant performance is that of Michael Rapaport (True Romance, Cop Land, Justified) who plays Muldoon’s tough as nails partner Charlie Bullman, who also has a soft spot for helping women in trouble. The supporting cast are all a welcome addition with some famous faces including: Brian Dennehy (First Blood), Neal McDonough (Captain America: First Avenger, Mob City, Justified), Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People) and Robert Knepper (Prison Break, Mob City, Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and 2). Working on Public Morals reunites Burns with McDonough and Knepper as they were all in the neo-noir crime series Mob City, where Burns played famous gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. Also, with the exception of Burns and the previously mentioned actors, many of the show’s supporting cast are up and coming New York actors. Many of whom are only famous for doing theatre and therefore making Public Morals there break into the mainstream TV world. I think they make a welcome addition and show that Burns has a good eye for casting and also integrity, by not wanting to flood the show’s ranks with famous faces so much that it distracts people from the story.
The direction and cinematography of the show attempts to capture the look of the neo-noir genre. Much of the show attempts to portray New York as closely to the 1960s as possible and is clearly influenced films like The French Connection (another police drama film set in the 60s, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider). During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Burns also acknowledged influence of the police sitcom Barney Miller as a strong influence on Public Morals’ production design. The cinematography is beautifully done as it portrays a perfect juxtaposed image of New York as both a glamorous city of virtue and also as the decadent hell hole capital of America’s underworld. So, to sum up overall, with only five episodes in I am currently loving this show and I pray to the almighty that it gets renewed for a second season. I feel as though the show is the right step for Burns and I hope it gains him the recognition and respect he so thoroughly deserves as a filmmaker and an actor.
FINAL WORD: Edward Burns’ new crime drama Public Morals is a well shot, well acted and engrossing show that is a brilliant tribute to the works that inspired it and hopefully one day will be amongst them where I feel it belongs.