THE SERIES "Public Morals"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Aug. 25 at 10 p.m. on TNT

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Terry Muldoon (Edward Burns) and his partner, Charlie Bullman (Michael Rapaport), are vice squad cops on Manhattan's West Side during the 1960s. They clean up every craps game they can find, and bust every prostitute (and patron) they can find, too. Muldoon's a tough guy, on the streets and at home. His wife, Christine (Elizabeth Masucci), wants him to take it a little easier on their 13-year old son, James (Cormac Cullinane), but Muldoon doesn't want him to drift to the wrong side of the street. Or maybe he doesn't want the kid to grow up to be like him.

MY SAY It's so darned easy to hate Ed Burns. He's not only an excellent actor ("Saving Private Ryan") -- but also an effortless writer and talented director ("The Brothers McMullen"). Plus, he's ridiculously handsome. And he does it all (while looking perfect), usually for the same film.

What's to like?

But setting aside this admittedly petty animosity for his new series, I'll just go ahead and admit that Burns has done it again. "Morals" is raw, interesting, intelligent, sometimes funny (sometimes not), violent (but not overly violent) and unlike anything on TV at the moment. (Did I mention this first-rate cast yet? Brian Dennehy arrives in the second episode, while Timothy Hutton does a turn in the pilot episode.)

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Burns is an original, too, and this series also seems unlike anything even in his own canon -- although distant ethnic overtones from "The Brothers McMullen" seem to waft over the whole enterprise. Either Burns writes what he knows (his father and uncle were NYPD cops), or does a good job of faking it, but his '60s era portrait of a vice cop named Muldoon who is only a generation or two removed from the old country sure feels like someone he once knew -- and feared.

There's even some love stitched into this portrait of a detective who doesn't quite believe in the mission, but certainly believes in the graft that comes with it. Muldoon is someone to admire, loathe, and even fleetingly pity -- often in the same moment.

This story of the Irishry of Hell's Kitchen can be dark -- like some old picture hanging in a bar that's accumulated layers of grime from all the years of cigarette smoke and bibulous blarney. It can be talky and stagey too, as if you've stumbled into some lost play by Eugene O'Neill or David Mamet (on TNT of all places). But at least the talk often engages the ear, and sometimes the brain -- as does that dark, grimy picture.

GRADE A-