Bryan Cranston won four Emmys for playing Walter White in AMC's Breaking Bad — awards few would begrudge him for a spectacular performance that anchored an era-defining series. His choices since then, however, have lacked a certain cohesion. Scrolling through his post-2013 credits is akin to wading into a makeover montage, with so many looks tried on and summarily dropped on the floor until you're knee-deep in such disparate pieces as a moody meditation on the forever war (Last Flag Flying), a madcap James Franco vehicle (Why Him?), a barely adapted one-man stage show on LBJ (All the Way), a gorilla-escaping-captivity lark (The One and Only Ivan), and... three seasons of Amazon Prime's Sneaky Pete. At first glance, Showtime's new limited series Your Honor might appear like a return to the kind of work that established him as a credible dramatic lead who'd left the likes of Godzilla and Power Rangers (yes, both of those) behind. Unfortunately, Your Honor is no Breaking Bad successor. It's just bad.
Adapted by British producer Peter Moffat (Criminal Justice, Silk) from an Israeli series called Kvodo and set up through Robert and Michelle King's production company, the series takes place in New Orleans, where Cranston's Michael Desiato is a judge; he and his son Adam (Hunter Doohan) are still recovering from the relatively recent passing of Robin, Michael's wife and Adam's mother. On the anniversary of her death, Adam places a photo and flowers at the site where she died, but it's in a neighborhood where he is not welcome, and in his haste to flee, he has an asthma attack while he's driving away. He's fishing around the floor of the passenger side for his inhaler when he collides at some speed with Rocco (Benjamin Wadsworth), out tooling around on his birthday gift of a vintage motorcycle. Rocco is in bad shape, and Adam attempts to seek medical attention on his behalf. Then Rocco dies, Adam flees the scene, and everything goes to hell. Once Michael finds out what happened, he's ready to help Adam surrender and make a full confession — it was an accident, after all — until he goes into the police station alone and sees the victim's grieving parents: it's Jimmy and Gina Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg and Hope Davis), a notorious local crime boss and his wife. Change of plans: Adam will not be confessing, because Michael's going to help him cover it up instead. Basically, it's Defending Jacob, except the viewer witnesses the kid committing the crime in the cold open, leaving one feeling even less ambivalent about his parent's various subsequent acts of "protection" (also crimes).
The cast members I've already named could make a pretty tall tower out of their various acting awards and honors, but wait, there's more: Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Charlie, a Congressman running for mayor; Carmen Ejogo as Lee, Michael's former clerk-turned-defense attorney and maybe love interest; Amy Landecker as Nancy, a detective; Melanie Nicholls-King as a defendant in Michael's court who later gets further entangled in his deceptions; Margo Martindale as Elizabeth, a senator and also Michael's former mother-in-law; and Tom Hanks's other son, Chet. All these very talented people clearly saw something in this project. I wish I knew what it was.
Maybe they saw Robert and Michelle King's names and thought it might end up being weird and fun, like The Good Fight or Evil? Alas, the Kings don't seem to be creatively involved at all, and based on what makes it to the screen, Moffat was less inspired by any of their shows than he was by ponderous slogs with handsome interiors and moody lighting, like House Of Cards or Mr. Robot. (I can't say he was inspired by Jacob, Servant, or Truth Be Told, all on AppleTV+, since they premiered after production on Your Honor was well underway, but they all have the same gloomy look.) As for fun? Oh my, no. This is drama with no space for levity. Once Michael decides to conceal Adam's crime, keeping his lies straight and constructing ever more elaborate supports for the central false alibi pretty much takes over his life, but even here — as we are made to appreciate both the craft of the premeditated plots he sets in motion and the ease with which he improvises new lies as required — there is no relief seeing Michael evade detection in the short term, nor surprise in the performance as the season progresses. We know Bryan Cranston is good at playing a liar who's convinced himself his reprehensible acts are in the service of his family: we watched him do it for five years as Walter White.
I also wish I knew what possessed Peter Moffat, a white Englishman, to set this show in New Orleans and to make all its main characters white, when the city is about 60% Black or African-American. The first Black person we see in the pilot is a boy in a shotgun house Michael creepily peers into when he's out for a jog; the next are several young men who threateningly loom over Adam when he's leaving his makeshift shrine at the market where his mother died (who then apparently smash the picture frame and scatter the flowers after he's sped off in her old car); then there's the first defendant in Michael's court, a Black woman who's been accused by a white cop of having hidden a drug wrap in her vagina while officers were searching her house.
One might argue that the stratification of race and class in the city is the point: without getting too specific about plot elements in future episodes, a skein of Michael's cover-up involves his deploying Charlie (who is Black) to run a sub-scheme to get rid of the incriminating car, which involves entrapping a character of color whose arrest and processing through the system is used to illustrate the overreaches of the local police department and of the carceral system generally. I might argue back that, if that were the story Moffat actually wanted to tell, he wouldn't do it by centering the white characters this Black detainee never meets and whose crimes he never even knows he's being exploited to obfuscate. Turning a character of color into a symbolic pawn in order to make a point about people from marginalized communities being treated as disposable by people in power? Not new; not clever. And to be honest, even this reading of Moffat's project may be generous.
What seems to interest Moffat more is be comparing and contrasting Michael and Baxter, the Mobster who loses his son. Baxter and Michael proceed on parallel tracks: Michael busily firming up Adam's false alibi and disappearing physical evidence of his crime; Baxter methodically cornering the falsely accused suspect. Michael brings to bear all the resources and connections of his position as a judge; Baxter deploys his private investigator and leans on the corrupt officials on his payroll. They're on opposite sides of the law, but when it comes to their sons and their willingness to subvert the course of justice, they're identical. Get it? Do you get it? Peter Moffat sure hopes you get it.
Did I mention that on top of all this, Adam — who is in high school — is also having an affair with one of his teachers? For the love of god, Your Honor, leave some genteel-trash clichés for the other shows.
But it can't. When people use the phrase "prestige TV" as a pejorative, they mean series like Your Honor: witless, ill-conceived, tone-deaf, poorly lit for some reason, smugly convinced of their own importance, and worst of all, boring. "This is New Orleans, Jimmy," says Hope Davis's Gina, in a monologue that is one of the true nadirs of the four screeners provided to critics. "Graves are above-ground so the dead can hear what's being whispered about them." It's too bad the city's dead had to endure dialogue like this. Luckily, you don't.
Your Honor premieres on Showtime December 6 at 10:00 PM ET.
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.
TOPICS: Your Honor, Showtime, Amy Landecker, Bryan Cranston, Carmen Ejogo, Chet Hanks, Hope Davis, Hunter Doohan, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michelle King, Peter Moffat, Robert King