Monday, October 26, 2015

‘Public Morals’ and the moral ambiguities of the 1960s



Two things about me: I’m a big fan of police procedurals, and I’m generally skeptical of most of what’s on television.

I therefore tuned in to TNT’s Public Morals this past August with an attitude of cautious hope. Having just finished watching the first season’s finale, I am not disappointed.

The show’s premise has few surprises, and yes, elements of it have been done before. Public Morals is set in New York City sometime in the late 1960s. Terry Muldoon (Edward Burns) is a plainclothes detective in the NYPD’s vice crimes unit.

Muldoon and his partners “control” vice rather than fight it, taking plenty of kickbacks along the way. The vice cops have a semi-cooperative, semi-adversarial relationship with a group of Irish gangsters.

As the series opens, the symbiotic relationship is working: No one is getting hurt, and everyone is pocketing loads of ill-gotten money. Then the middle-aged son of one of the mobster patriarchs, Rusty Patton (played brilliantly by Neal McDonough) goes on a sadistic killing spree. Rusty commits the unpardonable sin of killing a cop. Rusty must be stopped. This sets up the main conflict for Season 1.

But there are plenty of other conflicts and subplots, and these give Public Morals its real charm. Terry Muldoon is, on one hand, a cynical vice cop who profits from the very crimes that he is charged with eliminating. But most of those crimes are victimless ones (gambling, prostitution, gay bars, etc.) and Muldoon has a family to feed.

While at home, Muldoon endures his wife’s constant complaints about life in their Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Muldoon has a sentimental attachment to Hell’s Kitchen, but he also wants to please his wife. Before the end of Season One, a move to the suburbs seems inevitable. Terry is also a well-meaning father who applies stern but gentle discipline toward his sometimes unruly teenage son. These father-son interactions are as rich as those seen in any family drama.

Authentic details help readers and viewers suspend their disbelief, and Public Morals doesn't skimp on this score. The technology, dress, and cultural motifs of the late 1960s have been recreated here with care.

Muldoon—like many of the crooks and cops in Public Morals—is a devout Irish Catholic. As a real-life Irish Catholic, I recognized a lot of details from my childhood in many of the show’s episodes. (Edward Burns, who is the show’s creator as well as its lead actor, is a New York-raised Roman Catholic of Irish descent. This likely explains the authenticity.)

Then there’s Officer Charlie Bullman, played by Michael Rapaport. I remember Rapaport from the quirky but oddly addictive series Boston Public, which went off the air ten years ago. Rapaport was good in Boston Public. He’s better in Public Morals.

Bullman is suitably gruff, and displays all of the superficial hardness you would expect from his character while on the job. At home, though, the both divorced and widowed Bullman dotes on his German-speaking mother and his young adult daughter, Agnes. His mother lovingly scolds him in German—which Bullman understands, but apparently does not speak. Agnes is planning her wedding to a fireman. Bullman is wary of his future son-in-law, and frustrated in his attempts to give his only daughter the “perfect” wedding.

Bullman also spends much of the first season in a platonic relationship with a call girl named Fortune, played by Katrina Bowden. After Fortune is roughed up by a customer, Bullman becomes her unpaid protector.

Bullman clearly wants to sleep with Fortune, and Fortune clearly wants him to do so. However, Bullman’s selective professional ethics prevent him from taking the plunge (no pun intended). Also, the fortysomething Bullman seems to have projected his boyhood romantic ideals onto her.

While Fortune would be glad to compensate Bullman in kind for his protective services, she obviously has no plans of becoming the idealized girl-next-door that Bullman wants her to become. Could she even do this if she wanted to, at this point in the game?

While watching Bullman’s awkward moments with Fortune, I struggled with simultaneous reactions of annoyance and pity. What guy hasn't projected the right feelings onto the wrong woman at one time or another? At the same time, though, Bullman should know better.

Despite Bullman’s toughness and good intentions, nothing in his personal life really works out according to his plans, and this makes him both vulnerable and sympathetic as a character.

The plot of Public Morals is sufficiently fast-moving to make each hour-long episode pass quickly. There are plenty of gunfights, murders, and one-way rides with gangsters, as someone gets “whacked”.

But again, there have been so many police procedurals, so many movies about internecine mob wars, that it is difficult for any novel or film to break entirely new ground here.

Where Public Morals does uniquely succeed is with its characters. The show avoids a common pitfall of police procedurals that cast the cop as anti-hero. Muldoon, Bullman, and the other vice detectives are flawed human beings, to be sure, but they are also fundamentally likeable. Their ambivalence about right and wrong—as it applies to issues like consensual crimes and sex—mirrors the moral relativism that has characterized American society since the 1960s.

The mobsters, likewise, are thoroughly vicious—as mobsters should be—but they are not cardboard cutouts. The worst mobster in the show, the aforementioned Rusty Patton, reveals some surprising soft spots that add depth to his character, and do not come across as contrived.

Finally, I should say something about the show’s 1960s setting. Public Morals could theoretically have been set in the present time. There are plenty of battles over vice today: Many states are legalizing marijuana. As I type these words, there is a movement underway in California to legalize prostitution. Pornography, once forbidden, has now gone mainstream—or almost mainstream.

However, Edward Burns made a brilliant decision in setting the show in the latter half of the 1960s. This was, as I’ve noted, the period when American culture began a fundamental shift regarding the basic nature of right and wrong. The moral relativism of Muldoon and his fellow cops would appear anachronistic in a cop show set in the 1940s or 1950s. In a cop show set in the present day, it would appear all too ordinary. Everyone’s a moral relativist today—about sex, drugs, and practically everything else.

But the 1960s was a time when the old America and the ‘new’ America coexisted. While the crime—consensual and otherwise—in Public Morals has a thoroughly nihilistic, post-modern feel, the show’s depictions of family life are grounded in the idealism of the early postwar period. This reminds the viewer that while the counterculture was poisoning academia, the media, and popular culture during the late 1960s, traditional values still held sway in the average American home.

In the final episode of Season One, a single young woman and secondary character named Kay O’Bannon discovers that she’s pregnant.

Kay wants to be a journalist, and has no time for marriage. Her ambition is admirable. But her unplanned pregnancy is symbolic of the mixed, complex outcomes of the sexual revolution.

When Kay contacts her ex-boyfriend, one of the NYPD cops (and the father of Kay’s child), he doesn't want to hear her out. Why? She has dismissed him with the explanation that she doesn't want to “get serious”. She’s been out with other men. (In one episode, her boyfriend catches her on a date with another man.)

Nevertheless, the unsympathetic boyfriend is the child’s biological father. What will he do? What will she do?

As Season One ends, Kay is contemplating an abortion, which was still illegal in most of the United States, in most cases, in the late 1960s. But the resolution of that conflict will have to wait until the following season.

Public Morals has generally received positive feedback and strong ratings. I look forward to Season Two. 


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Read the first chapter of my serial killer novel, Lilith.


Amazon.com description:

With Lilith, the search for love can be deadly.

Someone is murdering Ohio men who use dating websites. The men are found in their homes, killed by a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Such is the work of the serial killer codenamed 'Lilith'. But who is Lilith? Is Lilith a 'she'? A 'he'? Or more than one person?

These are the questions that Alan Grooms must answer. Grooms is a detective in the Ohio Department of Criminal Investigation (ODCI).

Together with his partners, Dave Hennessy and Maribel Flynn, Grooms will enter the anonymous world of Internet dating to set a trap of his own.


This will eventually pit him against a homicidal young couple who kill men for profit, a couple who will kill anyone who stands in their way.