Hypothetical situation: There’s a new TV show coming out from a well-known filmmaker. It’s a period drama directed by a favorite of the festival circuit and penned by an innovative, independent screenwriter. In fact, all 10 episodes of the cable series about cops and gangsters working together to keep the peace in 1960s New York are directed and written by this same successful actor who also stars in the hour-long episodes. In addition to the filmmaker, it’s got a solid cast — including one Oscar winner — and none other than Steven Spielberg as an executive producer.
If this show was on HBO, Netflix or AMC, the entire TV world would be abuzz with anticipation. The fervor might not equal that of “True Detective” — as this more-than-hypothetical series doesn’t star anyone at Matthew McConaughey’s level of fame — but the demand for auteur-driven television after the success of Nic Pizzolatto’s anthology series, Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” is at an all-time high.
“Public Morals” may be getting more attention from the TV community than this faux introduction suggests, but I can’t say I’ve noticed an adequate amount of discussion around TNT’s best series yet. Edward Burns’ passion project stands out on a network with an admittedly weak originals lineup — and one in search of a notable critical hit since “Southland” ended in 2013. With a propulsive storytelling style, a well-cast ensemble digging into their roles and a steady hand behind the camera, “Public Morals” should play well to an audience eager for and a(nother) ’60s mobster story. Whether or not it breaks out beyond that remains to be seen, but it’s certainly deserving.
Focusing on the Public Morals division of the NYPD and framed by Irish families on both sides of the law — the Muldoons (Burns), Pattons (Brian Dennehy, Neal McDonough) and O’Bannons (Timothy Hutton, “Whiplash’s” Austin Stowell) — the drama doesn’t shy away from its roots. Described by its creator as an “Irish-American ‘Godfather,'” Burns’ series fits in snuggly next to choice inspirations like Francis Ford Coppola’s opus, “The Departed,” “Goodfellas” and “Road to Perdition.” If you sucked the color out — which would be a shame, as DP William Rexler’s shots are as lush as they are lovely — it wouldn’t be hard to see “Public Morals” paired with classic studio gangster flicks like “The Public Enemy” and “The Big Heat.”
Yet the heart behind the overarching “tough guy” attitude establishes the series as so much more than a lifeless copy. From its opening moments onward, the drama drives forward as though you’ve been watching all along, expecting (and helping) fans to catch up with carefully placed reveals and minimal exposition. Just like anyone born into these families, we’re now a part of this world and expected to keep pace. Moreover, you can feel the passion the writer has for his characters. Scenes transition smoothly between rough-and-tumble cops on the beat and family life at home because the line between each is as thin as each patriarch makes it. Issues of fatherhood dominate the thematic material — a fitting choice with Spielberg as a guiding force — and help illustrate how “Public Morals” is as much an homage to past hits as a new take for today.
In his first dip into serialized storytelling, Burns has created an ideal example of how to make a genre on its last legs come to life again for modern audiences. You’ve seen bits and pieces of this before. You may even know where it’s going from time to time. But audiences would be hard-pressed to deny “Public Morals” is an addictive form of “extra-ordinary” entertainment. It’s not as edgy as other cable dramas. (Moral questions surrounding the cops’ questionable behavior, and how those answers could mirror modern police relations, aren’t alluded to in the first four episodes.) Instead, it strides the line between comfortable and bold with enough confidence to become charismatic.
Considering the success of gangster films and struggles of TV imitations — this is TNT’s second go-round with the genre, after “Mob City” went one-and-done in 2013) — it’s fitting a filmmaker is bringing the brand to TV with such vitality and charm. Burns anchors “Public Morals” as a leading man and a true actor’s director; never selfish with his screen time, always going the extra mile to define characters and quite capable of drawing out exactly what he needs from each and every performer. It’s the work of a singular voice bolstered by many helping hands. Even in today’s crowded TV landscape, here’s hoping for more like it — and more of this, specifically.
“Public Morals” premieres Tuesday at 10pm on TNT. The first four episodes will be available Wednesday via TNT’s website and various VOD platforms.