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Showtime's Your Honor feels so familiar it's like playing Peak TV bingo

  • "Each crazy thing that happened this year has been met with similar jokes about whether or not you had such an incident — 'Presidential pardon for Tiffany Trump' or 'murder hornets' or 'Zombie Liberace' — on your 2020 bingo card. Nobody has a 2020 bingo card," says Daniel Fienberg of the Peter Moffat-penned limited series starring Bryan Cranston. "Everybody, however, has a Peak TV bingo card, featuring tropes and plotlines repeated through the past decade of prestige television content. Right? Showtime's new limited series Your Honor is designed for Peak TV bingo. With a sterling cast and a fairly propulsive narrative, Your Honor has enough strong elements to keep you watching and engaged, even as nearly every beat feels like something you've watched in a half-dozen previous shows. And it isn't like Your Honor is playing the worst version of all of these familiar prestige melodies. This isn't a Low Winter Sun situation. There are some parts of this depiction of an ethical and moral quandary that Your Honor is handling reasonably well. But through four episodes it's conspicuous how little is distinctive." Your Honor is also a reminder of the "recent run of dramas about privileged parents taking advantage of that privilege, and a rigged American justice system, to protect a child (see Apple TV+'s Defending Jacob and chunks of HBO's The Undoing)," says Fienberg. "Throw in that Adam's storyline strongly resembles that of a recent FX on Hulu limited series — and no, he's not fighting on behalf of the ERA — or that the Baxter gang is like an amalgamation of 50 TV crime families, and your Peak TV bingo card could be filled after the first of 10 hours."


    • Bryan Cranston can't escape Walter White's shadow: "'You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.' That’s supposedly how writer Vince Gilligan pitched AMC on the idea of Breaking Bad, a series that chronicled the downward spiral of Walter White, a nondescript chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who discovers he has a talent for cooking meth — and then turns it into a violent, lucrative criminal enterprise, becoming a feared, vindictive megalomaniac in the process," says Tim Grierson. "Walter’s switch from meek to malicious was stunning, but it wouldn’t have worked if not for Bryan Cranston, who before Breaking Bad most people knew best as the zany dad in Malcolm in the Middle — or the dentist who converts to Judaism for the jokes on Seinfeld. Cranston played hapless fools on sitcoms, so we weren’t prepared for the monstrousness he eventually brought to Walter. The shock was watching the character, and the actor, transform in front of our eyes. Maybe in someone else’s hands, the new Showtime limited series Your Honor would have been similarly gripping. A morally ambiguous drama about a virtuous judge who finds his sense of right and wrong questioned after his son causes a fatal hit-and-run accident, the show (which premieres Sunday) is very invested in the idea that a good man can break bad. But after four episodes (out of a total of 10), Your Honor really seems to be about the limits of surprise that can be mustered by having Cranston play this type of character all over again. Michael Desiato isn’t a sociopath like Walter — at least not yet — and there are some novel differences between the two characters. But the whole point of Breaking Bad was that you bought Cranston as Mr. Chips. Now you just see Heisenberg from the start."
    • Your Honor arrives feeling off-topic, thematically troubled and awfully depressing: "Tonally, the series is a mess; in the four episodes made available for this review, Cranston seems to be trying on the role like a custom-made suit that just won’t fit," says Hank Stuever. He adds: "Your Honor seems to be written by people who’ve only heard about human nature and whose understanding of tragic consequences is strictly theoretical. The show veers rather clumsily into a race-related angle, as the police pin the hit-and-run on a young Black man from the Desire gang named Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson) and the Baxters begin to exact their revenge. New Orleans’s special complexity on race-related matters is proffered as a subplot, but isn’t explored enough to gain traction. The fleeting nods to local politics also feel extraneous. Because it’s Cranston, it’s tempting to compare and contrast the judge’s lapse into criminal deceit with Walter White’s transformation from high school chemistry teacher to meth kingpin — perhaps Your Honor is hoping viewers are trained by now to ruminate privately on the evil that men may do."
    • Your Honor has an intriguing premise, but it's criminally dumb: "Bryan Cranston‘s return to dramatic television should be cause for celebration, right?" says Dave Nemetz. "After all, his turn as Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, a meek chemistry teacher who transformed into a sinister drug lord before our very eyes, is one of TV’s all-time great performances. It’s a shame, then, that his new Showtime limited series Your Honor — premiering this Sunday, Dec. 6 at 10/9c; I’ve seen the first four episodes — is such a letdown. Graphically violent and morose, it rubs our noses in the ugly side of humanity for no good reason, and for a legal thriller, it’s remarkably dumb, with its characters making unforgivably boneheaded decisions at every turn."
    • Your Honor is good, but not great, and really geared toward those seeking their "Panic-Cranston fix": "Bryan Cranston’s new Showtime limited series, Your Honor, will definitely remind you of several other shows," says Kimberly Ricci. "There are the inevitable comparisons to Breaking Bad, of course, and to be sure, Cranston’s character executes his most Walter White-like maneuvers since Heisenberg left the building with AMC’s 2013 'Felina' finale. Some The Wire vibes echo throughout, and the presence of Isaiah Whitlock Jr. only encourages that feeling, along with Michael Stuhlbarg doing mob-affiliated things like he did in Boardwalk Empire. Margo Martindale is also around to remind everyone of her wealth of prestige-drama work. I could go on naming other titles, but it’s probably best to cut that conversation short, other than to mention Your Honor‘s commonalities with Apple TV+’s recent Defending Jacob, starring Chris Evans. Like Defending Jacob, Your Honor features an A-list actor portraying a father who works in the justice system and goes to unorthodox lengths to shelter his son. In both cases, the kid’s potentially on the hook for homicide, so there are some ethical shenanigans happening, to an extreme degree with the latter show. Both shows stuff themselves full of fine performances, and both let their casts down with bloated, drawn-out pacing. Both shows are good, though not great, and that might be enough if you want a Panic-Cranston fix while we all wait to see whether Walter White will appear in Better Call Saul‘s final season."
    • Cranston's acting gets in the way of Your Honor: "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," says Robert Lloyd. "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."
    • Cranston's all-in devotion to his role is what keeps Your Honor watchable: "He’s attuned to every micro-flash of emotion in Desiato — grief, anger, panic, determination — and lets us see every mental adjustment he makes to knit his story together faster than it can unravel," says James Poniewozik. "The thriller, adapted by Peter Moffat from the Israeli series Kvodo, is good at ratcheting up the pressure but not at investing the viewer beyond the plot machinations. The characters feel like stock illustrations in a moral-philosophy seminar hypothetical. Desiato needs to be conflicted, so he’s a righteous, crusading judge. Adam needs to be sympathetic, so he has a bad case of asthma, a nervous sensibility and a family trauma (his mother, Desiato’s wife, died suddenly). The result is an out-of-whack ratio of acting talent to material. Why hire the versatile Stuhlbarg to play a generic heavy who shows up a few minutes an episode to brood about payback? Why cast, or miscast, the captivating Hope Davis as a wailing, one-note vengeance machine? Margo Martindale arrives, in the fourth and final episode previewed for critics, to deliver lines like, “Rules are like doughnuts. They have holes in them. It all feels like an effort, through casting, to resuscitate characters that the scripts never breathed life into, a kind of dramatic CPR."
    • Your Honor offers little more than anxiety: "Your Honor merely evokes memories of better shows that are worth the worry," says Ben Travers. "In Breaking Bad, we see Walter White evolve over six seasons; he starts as a desperate, dying man making an extreme choice to protect his family, but he becomes 'the one who knocks' — a crime kingpin whose near-death experience gives him an excuse to explore his existential darkness in reality. Each choice that pushes him further down an irredeemable path is equally agonizing and thrilling; we want to see him pursue those extremes in part because he wants to, and in part because we want to explore them as well, from the safety of our living room sofa. But Your Honor is a straight-up nightmare, not nihilistic wish-fulfillment."
    • A stellar cast is given tropey material: Cranston is "unsurprisingly, superb here, as is the rest of the exceptional cast," says Jen Chaney. "Unfortunately, much of the material they are working with in Your Honor — developed by Peter Moffat, the British playwright and screenwriter who wrote Criminal Justice, the series that inspired The Night Of — contains so many familiar crime TV elements that it bends toward the tropey. Based on the Israeli series Kvodo and set in New Orleans, where we are reminded often that the whole system is corrupt™, this show has mob bosses, cops on the take, shady politicians, and, in Cranston, a judge who metes out justice for a living yet is willing to do whatever it takes to keep his son out of trouble. Your Honor places one deception attempt on top of another until it creates a cover-up Jenga tower that seems destined to fall. That tower construction is what drives the series, which is more interested in plot machinations than digging into the significance of the systemic issues it raises, at least in the first four episodes made available to critics. (There are ten total.) You can tell it’s kind of going for The Wire and, at least initially, not quite getting there despite the extremely welcome presence of Wire alum Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as Charlie Figaro, a mayoral candidate and close friend of Michael’s who is as boisterous as Clay Davis, minus the 'shiiiiiiits.'"
    • Why Bryan Cranston decided to return to TV: "When Breaking Bad was ending, I gave myself a self-imposed three-year moratorium on television, because I just intuitively felt that the character got so out of control and the show was lauded, as I was very thankful for," Cranston says. "But I think I needed a break, so that the audience can relax from that to be able to see me in another way."
    • Cranston prepared for Your Honor by asking people in his life how far they would go to save their child’s life: “Would you become a criminal if you felt by doing so you would save your child’s life? I haven’t met one person who’s a parent who said no,” he says. “‘OK would you destroy evidence?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would you lie?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would you hurt or kill another human being?’ And that’s where it ends; that’s where they go, ‘Oh god wow, no.’ And that dilemma — that moral line we all draw ourselves — that’s where Michael Desiato has (drawn it).”
    • Why Your Honor appealed to Cranston: "Whenever there’s a character who is facing an emotional, ethical dilemma, it draws me in," he says. And with this dramatic construct of having your son make a mistake and panic and leave the scene of an accident, which results in a death, is disturbing and very, very possible. You go, “Yeah, I think under stress and shock, you could make a mistake like that.” That possibility lends itself to some really terrific drama."

    TOPICS: Your Honor, Showtime, Bryan Cranston, Peter Moffat