Public Morals

TV review by
Emily Ashby, Common Sense Media
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'60s police drama's exceptional cast rescues muddled plot.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Every character straddles the fence on moral issues, making it difficult to label any as a "good guy" or a "bad guy." Because the series blurs the line between right and wrong, viewers often sympathize with criminals and loathe the police -- and vice versa -- leading to some confusing messages. Even so, there are some enduring positives, including the value of family. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Role models are iffy at best. The police force is on the take, working side by side with criminals who often are family members or friends. They're not upholding the law; they're managing the city's crime, and their involvement puts their families at risk. On the other hand, in the case of Muldoon in particular, he's a devoted husband and father who wants what's best for his family. 


Gun violence and murders are the rule, not the exception. Lots of beatings, often with weapons such as baseball bats. Corpses are shown. Many threats on people's lives, usually to manipulate people's behavior. 


Lots of talk about prostitution, and some sympathetic characters make their livelihoods this way. Nudity is mostly limited to backsides. Mention of sexual favors such as blow jobs being traded for police actions. Adultery is common.


"S--t," "bulls--t," "ass," "a--hole," "jackass," "hell," "damn," "goddamn." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking is prominent in many scenes, and smoking is in keeping with the plot's timeframe. Some indications of intoxication, but it's not a prominent aspect of the story. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Public Morals is a crime drama set in the 1960s that centers on the contentious but mutually beneficial relationship between New York City's burgeoning mob organizations and the plain-clothes cops who aid and abet their illegal activities. Violence is a big concern, as physical beatings, torture, and murders are common. Strong language is another concern ("s--t," "hell," "ass," "damn," "goddamn," and the like are heard a lot), though it won't be anything new to the show's intended adult audience. Expect to hear about sex in the context of prostitution and bribery (a woman offers a cop oral sex in exchange for his overlooking her crime, for instance). Because there's such a blurred line separating the good guys and the bad guys, this show doesn't have any positive themes to speak of, but it's decent entertainment for adults who like this genre. 

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What's the story?

PUBLIC MORALS is a 1960s-set crime drama that centers on New York City's public morals division, whose members monitor and manage the city's rampant organized crime. Central to the story is Terry Muldoon (Edward Burns), a cop with his hand in the pockets of mob bosses, bookies, and bottom-feeding thugs, all while keeping up a principled pretense in his home life. He's usually flanked by his partner, Charlie Bullman (Michael Rapaport), who tries to be hard-nosed but who's a sucker for the proverbial damsel in distress, leading him into a secret relationship with a sometime prostitute. Terry, Charlie, and the rest of their squad keep the peace while lining their pockets with bribes from mobsters, but a shadowy murder threatens to upset the delicate balance on the streets. 

Is it any good?

This drama series doesn’t break any new ground in the heavily populated crime-drama genre, but it does put some appealing new faces out there for fans. The show's best asset is its very capable cast, led by writer-director Burns and boasting the likes of Brian Dennehy, Kevin Corrigan, and Wass Stevens. Although the story devotes most of its time to Terry's work life, the scenes of him at home are unexpected gems, showing a softer side to the hardened character and inviting some believable back-and-forth with his decidedly unstereotypical-for-the-era wife, Christine (Elizabeth Masucci). The downside? With so many characters vying for screen time, the story feels rushed and muddled at times.  

Clearly Public Morals is intended for an older audience, making its ambiguous morality much less a concern than it otherwise would be. Even so, the content raises some quandaries that might give you pause, particularly when it comes to the relationship between what's wrong and what's illegal. As the so-called law enforcers monitor what they call the city's "victimless crimes," you're left to ponder whether that claim is true. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the law. Who decides what's legal and what isn't? Is there ever an instance in which it's permissible to break a law? Are some indiscretions more forgivable than others?  

  • Does this series paint all law enforcers in a negative light? Do we hold our public servants to an unrealistically high standard? 

  • How is family a source of strength for the characters in this show? What kinds of drama exists within your family? Can you envision letting your loyalty to family jeopardize your principles?

TV details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love crime drama

Themes & Topics

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