TV Recap: Public Morals, ‘A Fine Line’ (Series Premiere)

Written By Aaron Sarnecky



In TNT’s new series, set in 1960s New York, Officer Terry Muldoon (Edward Burns) coaches a newcomer to the NYPD’s Public Morals Division, Jimmy Shea (Brian Wiles). Terry also speaks to his gangster uncle, known as Mr. O (Timothy Hutton), to give him a warning.

People never seem to grow tired of the ‘60s. Or at least the producers in Hollywood would have you believe that. Even after finale of Mad Men, as well as the Tom Hanks-produced The Sixties on CNN, shows like Aquarius and The Astronaut Wives Club have tried to fill the void. Films like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Spielberg’s upcoming Bridge of Spies (which Tom Hanks is starring in) also come to mind.

Photo Credit: TNT
Photo Credit: TNT

Enter Public Morals, a new drama on TNT produced by Steven Spielberg, wouldn’t you know. Oh, well, I guess that’s just par for the course.

After watching the premiere, however, I can say that Public Morals does not dwell so much on the time period (at least in its first episode). Yes, the ‘60s is obviously the backdrop, and it does have 1960s tunes (I’m assuming), but the show seems like it could work in an earlier time period just fine. You’ll only know it’s the ‘60s if you pay attention. But that’s not a criticism. It’s actually kind of refreshing to see a show like this rely on the era mostly for aesthetics only.

Plot-wise, however, the show is nothing special, so far. It’s largely what I expected from the commercials: a series about vice cops living in a moral gray area. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I can think of only one time during the premiere that I was genuinely surprised. Besides that one moment, the first episode is a string of loosely connected storylines featuring different characters. One involves a cop who befriends a prostitute. Another involves Officer Muldoon reprimanding his son James (Cormac Cullinane) for acting out in school. None of them seem to take dominance until the end of the episode. They’ll all probably go somewhere, but right now it’s mostly set-up.

The lack of a clear direction does make it hard to remember which character is which. I had initially thought one character was Terry, only to later discover that I was wrong. It took some time for me to get the hang of things. Jimmy Shea, the new recruit, probably stands out the most, though supposedly he’s not really that important. His storyline follows most of the classic buddy cop beats you see in the beginning of those movies.

That’s, of course, until Terry talks to him. Terry explains that though the law is the law, he’s sympathetic to the prostitutes, the gamblers, etc., perpetuators of “victimless crimes.” It’s not the job of the Public Morals Division to stamp out these vices; it’s only there to manage them. The cops of the Public Morals Division are the landlords, as he puts it, and the perps are the tenants who must pay rent. This scene nicely lays out where these officers stand, and it gives some moral ambiguity to the show. On one side, you can understand the point of view that it’s not the government’s business to regulate this sort of behavior. But on the other hand, some these crimes aren’t necessarily as innocuous as Terry claims. Furthermore, isn’t it wrong that Terry and his crew are committing extortion, especially over these supposedly harmless offenses?

Despite these interesting questions and a few surprising developments, the Public Morals premiere remains convoluted and a little boring. But at the same time, it shows potential. TNT has released the first four episodes OnDemand. I recommend watching them if you’re at all intrigued. You can decide from there if you this is something you want to get into.




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