'Your Honor': Bryan Cranston Is a Judge Who Breaks Bad

The great Bryan Cranston is both an enormous help to the new Showtime miniseries Your Honor, and, through no fault of his own, a pretty big hindrance. Cranston’s talent and fundamental gravitas are essential to generating any emotional investment in this convoluted tale of a New Orleans judge repeatedly breaking the law to cover up his teenage son’s crime. But his mere presence can’t help but to invite unflattering comparisons to another cable drama about an ordinary man who becomes a criminal for the sake of his family (or so he claims, anyway). Few shows ever made hold up well to Breaking Bad, but with its subject matter and leading man, Your Honor all but begs the audience to look at them together.

Cranston plays Michael Desiato, a respected New Orleans judge with a penchant for expanding the scope of his role in the court. Our first extended glimpse of him on the job has him both offering his own evidence and interrogating a police officer whose testimony feels suspect to him, on behalf of a family on the verge of collapse if the mother gets convicted of a minor drug offense.

Michael is recently widowed, and he and son Adam (Hunter Doohan) are struggling with that loss in different ways. In the course of honoring the anniversary of his mother’s death, Adam commits a fatal hit-and-run, and Michael decides he has to break all of his oaths to protect the boy from its repercussions.

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The crash and its immediate aftermath, both exacerbated by Adam suffering a severe asthma attack, is a superb, frequently disgusting bit of suspense filmmaking, courtesy of writer Peter Moffat, director Edward Berger, and the production team. The show lingers much longer on the event than you might expect, and works well to explain exactly why Adam makes the many bad choices he does, and to set up all the evidence Michael will have to conceal in order to erase Adam’s role in things.

Devoting more time than normal to the kind of event that’s routine and brief on most crime dramas was a staple of Breaking Bad, too. And not long after Adam returns home, we get the Walter White shot and chaser of Adam trying to erase blood evidence in the family washing machine while a character played by Bryan Cranston starts talking about cooking. In this case, it’s dirty carbonara rather than crystal meth, but some words will never escape the old connotation coming out of his mouth, especially in this context.

Your Honor unfortunately peaks with the crash sequence. Everything after that feels oppressively grim, and borrowed from a half-dozen other series (beyond the show as a whole being a remake of the Israeli drama Kvodo). You know how this works by now: Michael attempts to solve one problem — say, asking his oldest friend, Charlie (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), to arrange for Adam’s car to disappear — only for the solution to generate three more issues, all of them worse than the initial one. It’s a mechanical model of storytelling if it’s not executed at an incredibly high level and with a lighter touch than Your Honor has any interest in demonstrating. Instead, the show applies the school of thought that believes the only way to be taken seriously is to be relentlessly serious. To which I would reply with these five words: “Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, science!”

After a while, Michael becomes less the driver of the plot than a confused and terrified passenger. Acting is reacting, and few in this business react better than Cranston. His fear for Adam and anguish over the collateral damage of his scheme serves Your Honor very well, in that you have to believe in and care about Michael’s pain for any of this to work even slightly. But Cranston is also such a cog in an unstoppable machine here that the role only scratches the surface of what we know he can do.

Cranston’s surrounded by a stacked ensemble: Hope Davis and Michael Stuhlbarg as a New Orleans power couple, Carmen Ejogo as a former clerk of Michael’s who’s now a high-powered defense lawyer, Margo Martindale as Michael’s estranged and very intrusive mother-in-law, Lorraine Toussaint as the city’s chief judge, and Amy Landecker as a too-helpful cop, among others. These are all excellent actors, bringing depth and shading to their roles that often feels lacking in the writing, yet also playing largely to type. Mayoral candidate Charlie, for instance, seems to have a genuine desire to improve the city, particularly for his poor, black Lower Ninth Ward constituents, but when you cast Whitlock as an ambitious, shady politician, it’s because you want the audience to think of Clay Davis from The Wire.

Moffat is trying to use the crime story to present a more sprawling look at New Orleans, cutting across boundaries of race and class. But at least in the episodes made available to critics, that material plays more as window dressing to the thriller plot, rather than something meant to be compelling in its own right. (The show also at times treats the city as impossibly small, especially in a coincidence linking one of the cover-up’s victims to Michael.) And the story already feels tired at the end of the fourth episode, making the prospect of it having to fill 10 total episodes seem especially daunting, regardless of how good the ensemble is.

It once might have been said that an actor of Bryan Cranston’s caliber was so good, people would gladly watch him read from the phone book. We don’t really use phone books anymore, so perhaps in 2020 we might be willing to watch him read from one of Apple’s terms and conditions agreements. It might not be that dramatic, but it also wouldn’t constantly be reminding you of how much better Breaking Bad was at exploring the same territory.

Your Honor premieres December 6th on Showtime.

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