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Review: In ‘Your Honor,’ Bryan Cranston breaks bad. This time it’s not quite believable

Bryan Cranston plays a New Orleans judge embroiled in a cover-up in Showtime's "Your Honor."
(Skip Bolen / Showtime)

In “Your Honor,” a new limited series premiering Sunday on Showtime and adapted by British screenwriter Peter Moffat from an Israeli original, Bryan Cranston plays Michael Desiato, a New Orleans judge protecting his teenage son Adam (Hunter Doohan) after a hit-and-run accident.

Adam is driving in a panic out of a bad neighborhood where he has gone to mark an anniversary and, reaching for an asthma inhaler, plows into another teenage boy riding a motorcycle. (We have been following them individually, so, having seen a movie or two, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.) The crash and its disoriented aftermath are very well handled and, as a consequence, extremely difficult to watch.

Told of the crash, Michael is set to help Adam do the right thing when he learns that the victim is the son of Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg), “the head of the most vicious crime family in the history of this city” — which changes his plans entirely. To keep Adam safe, Michael engineers a cover-up. “I love you more than anything in this world,” he tells his boy, “and I promise you it’s going to be all right.” Uh-huh.

One problem with this premise — let’s say “one aspect,” since not everyone would consider it a problem, and some will find it just their cup of bitter tea — is that once the plot is set in motion, you are mostly waiting around for whatever bad stuff is going to happen to whomever it’s going to happen to. “Your Honor” is not unlike Cranston’s “Breaking Bad” in that its protagonist makes bad decisions that will spin into further bad decisions as he jumps from frying pan to frying pan on his way to the fire, or some place just shy of the fire that will nevertheless still be less than pleasant. To the extent you can root for him, and for Adam — a sensitive budding photographer carried along in his father’s stratagems — you can only hope for them not to get caught, or killed; there is no reason to think they’ll ever be “OK.”

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It’s easier to root for Michael, certainly, than it was for that little old meth-maker Walt, a self-pitying narcissist who found joy in acting the criminal hard guy. Michael is a caring person who’ll go the extra mile, and then a mile beyond that, to see that the scales of justice do not come down too heavily on the head of a luckless defendant and the family that depends on him. As is common among dramas that splash around in a pool of moral ambiguity, there are better and worse characters for comparison; but that Michael has been among the best of them does not make him actually sympathetic once the conniving starts.

The relationship between Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman defined “Breaking Bad.” Without it, Netflix’s follow-up falls flat.

Hunter Doohan plays a teenager dealing with the aftermath of an accident in Showtime's "Your Honor."
(Skip Bolen / Showtime)

Nor does the fact that he cares for his son, especially as Jimmy does too, a parallel that might possibly be meant to make the judge seem a little less saintly and the crime boss a little more human. When we meet the Baxters at breakfast — including mother Gina, played by the great Hope Davis — cheerily arguing about the pronunciation of Edinburgh, they come across as just another well-off American family enjoying each other’s company in their well-appointed kitchen. Later, Jimmy will say things like, “I’m going to clean up this city — I’m going to make it shine,” to keep the ambiguity alive. And, of course, there is a dirty cop or two. There always is.

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In fact, the only characters whose fates really concerned me were the innocent, or relatively innocent, bystanders, caught up in Michael’s schemes and fixes, most notably “affiliated” street kid Kofi (Lamar Johnson), but also old friend Charlie (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a mayoral candidate, and former protégé Lee (Carmen Ejogo), a public defender turned big-time attorney. Only four episodes out of 10 were available for review, so I cannot say just how the story will play out, but given the tone of those episodes, and the nature of the characters, I do not see this heading toward a finale in which confession and forgiveness lead to everyone sitting down to a big meal together.

Cranston is a fine actor — I wouldn’t have hated Walter White so much if he weren’t — but his commitment to the role sometimes boils over in ways that overwhelm the production, which is largely slow and often silent. Indeed, even when not exploding, as he will from time to time, he is so obviously being eaten up by something, and so inexpert a liar, that one wonders why he is not immediately suspected of something. Well, perhaps he is. Amy Landecker’s police detective Nancy Costello might turn out to be Columbo in the end. I have no idea — there is bound to be a lot of zigging and zagging in the series’ back half (and change). Ripple effects are already … rippling. Not everything I’ve seen so far feels completely believable — not particularly surprising in a story in which people must also serve as sprockets and gears — and characters sometimes talk as if they’re in a limited television series rather than the streets and rooms of New Orleans. But the endgame is bound to make all that look at least a little different.

Notwithstanding the above reservations, it’s a solid production, with a universally talented cast. Main director Edward Berger (“Patrick Melrose”) sets a naturalistic tone and steers a productive path between action and mood. The cinematography, by James Friend (also from “Patrick Melrose”), communicates a clear sense of place; he saves the shallow focus for dramatically appropriate moments. And Volker Bertelman’s score (“Patrick Melrose” again), which tonally suggests jazz without being jazz, manages to be both unobtrusive and, when you listen, interesting.

‘Your Honor’



Where: Showtime
When: 10 p.m. Sundays





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