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TV REVIEW

'Hill Street,' 'Animal House' Beget CBS' 'Public Morals'

October 30, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

There's more sleaze in the squad room of "Public Morals" than in the New York streets its cops are assigned to purge of scummy lawbreakers.

Created by Steven Bochco and Jay Tarses, this is the boisterous CBS comedy that underwent its own laundering, of dialogue, before its debut tonight as the last of the fall season's newcomers. Changes imposed on the show have had no impact on the humor, whose success remains spasmodic at best in the three episodes made available for preview.

The admirable track records of Bochco and Tarses, and their reputations as risk-takers, speak for themselves. Bochco has approached the police genre on TV from just about every possible angle, from the musical "Cop Rock" to the classic "Hill Street Blues" to the present hit "NYPD Blue," and earlier tried giving it a smile face in "Hooperman."

*

Tarses has been a sporadic creative presence in TV for years. And a highly positive one, although never attaining commercial success for his two genius works, "Buffalo Bill" and "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," where "Public Morals" director Don Scardino also did such fine work.

Perhaps the best of "Public Morals" is yet to come. So far, it's "Barney Miller" meets "Men Behaving Badly," the latter a new NBC comedy whose male protagonists are a summa cum "Animal House." The same applies to "Public Morals," which, too, is largely sexual, and its male characters largely primitive.

"What is it with men?" Det. Corinne O'Boyle (Julianne Christie) snaps at ever-amorous Officer Mickey Crawford (Justin Louis) in Episode 2 when he makes a move on her after her boyfriend is scooped up in a prostitution sting. "It's like your crotch has a kill switch to your brain."

"Public Morals" aims for the eclectic chaos of ABC's late, great and witty "Barney Miller," but so far can't even carry Barney's badge. Besides O'Boyle and Crawford, squad-room regulars include the cretinous Det. Ken Schuler (Donal Logue), prissy rookie officer Darnell "Shag" Ruggs (Joseph Latimore), tough-sounding Det. Richie Biondi (Lawrence Romano), girlish administrative assistant John Irvin (Bill Brochtrup), feisty Sgt. Val Vandergroodt (Jana Marie Hupp) and the Public Morals Division's buffoonish commander, Lt. Neil Fogarty (Peter Gerety), who tonight falls off his chair, among other things, and in a future episode accidentally spills hot coffee on himself where it can do the most damage.

We meet all of the above tonight in the context of the morals squad closing down a bar serving underage drinkers. The series is funniest when mixing metaphors by putting cerebralspeak in unlikely mouths, such as Fogarty getting all misty about jazz and sax man Johnny Hodges and Biondi speaking with sensitivity about painters Vermeer and Cezanne in his thick street Bronxese.

It's least funny when going for broad sight gags and dwelling on Crawford's lust and the slobbery Schuler, a low-level organism with few recognizable human traits. That's the major emphasis of "Public Morals" initially, as if someone had tripped a kill switch to its brain.

* "Public Morals" premieres at 9:30 tonight on CBS (Channel 2).

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