'Your Honor': TV Review

'Your Honor'
SKIP BOLEN/SHOWTIME

'Your Honor'

Great cast, compelling situation, far too familiar in its execution.
12/6/2020

Bryan Cranston plays a New Orleans judge willing to do anything to protect his family when his son commits a crime in this Showtime limited drama.

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.

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.

Adapted by Peter Moffat (Criminal Justice) from the Israeli format KvodoYour Honor stars Bryan Cranston as Michael Desiato, a New Orleans judge. On the bench, Michael is known for his independence, but at home he and teenage son Adam (Hunter Doohan) are still on shaky ground one year after the unsolved murder of Michael's wife. On the literal anniversary of his mother's death — cosmic coincidences play a too-huge role in Your Honor — Adam has an asthma attack while driving through the impoverished 9th Ward and plows into a teenager on a motorcycle. This is bad. Despite ongoing difficulties breathing, Adam tries to help the victim — but after the kid dies, Adam frantically bolts. That's worse.

It's an accident, though, and the logical next step is going to the police, at least until Michael realizes that the victim was the son of Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg), a local crime boss whose viciousness is perhaps rivaled only by that of his wife Gina (Hope Davis). Michael decides the only chance to keep his own son alive is to cover up the crime, something he's able to do because his sphere of influence includes a local politician (Isiah Whitlock Jr.'s Charlie), a dogged local cop (Amy Landecker's Nancy) and a former legal protege (Carmen Ejogo).

The law is Michael's point of expertise, but this is far from the perfect crime or the perfect cover-up, and the more determined Michael is to protect his family at any cost, the more damaging and criminal the chain of consequences he leaves in his wake becomes.

So yes, the first point of comparison viewers are invariably going to make is to Cranston's last TV turn as a father willing to do anything to keep his family safe — though it's notable that despite his experience as manipulator of justice, Michael Desiato is much worse at this stuff than Breaking Bad's Walter White was.

A next comparison could be to 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). 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.

The title of Your Honor is the term of address for a judge, of course, but it's also a direct address to the audience. What, the show asks, is your honor worth? What, the series repeatedly asks in almost Choose Your Own Adventure form, would you do under similar circumstances? So it becomes difficult to criticize the series, or Michael Desiato, for somehow making wrong choices at every turn, what with it being a string of fictional decisions made by a fictional character.

Maybe, then, my problem is that the series struggles to give us an anchor for who or what Michael Desiato's character was before the series' inciting event. The fascinating thing about the evolution of Walter White is how his transition from high-school teacher to kingpin involved first the adopting of a persona and then the gradual absorption of that persona into his actual identity. Here, we see a lot of Michael performing, both lies and self-rationalizations, without many glimpses at who the real man was before all of this. There's no way to know whether what he's doing is or isn't a logical byproduct of the character. It's a grounding that the series needs, because otherwise the sensation is that everything is driven by plot mechanics and the elongation of episode count — suspension of disbelief is already strained less than half-way through this story — rather than character.

This all brings out a certain insincerity in Cranston's performance, one he plays with a rapidly accelerating intensity that is never less than watchable. If the audience knows that almost every word out of Michael's mouth is a lie or rationalization without knowing what his "normal" looks like, we almost inherently lose respect for the other characters who are buying his prevarications. This is especially damning for the characters played by Landecker and Ejogo, who will surely catch on to Michael's lies eventually, just not fast enough. It's easier to rationalize why Whitlock's character, on the verge of a mayoral run, becomes embroiled in the mess, because his own web of self-interest is immediately complicated. That's probably why Whitlock's performance is, other than Cranston's, the one most instantly locked-in here.

Appearances by folks like Margo Martindale, playing Michael's wily mother-in-law, only amp up the wattage, and whatever reservations I have about Your Honor, seeing Cranston, Whitlock, Landecker and Ejogo sitting around a table sparring is a treat. I give bonus points for the decision not to have most of the main characters even attempting New Orleans accents. Bad accents, especially of that type, are much more of a distraction for me than accepting the idea that most of the main characters here are either outsiders to the city or part of a system that dehumanizes New Orleans' real natives. Your Honor fixates on an idea of almost faceless Black criminality in New Orleans; it's not that the show itself erases the Black characters' identity, but rather that the systems it portrays (and the people that populate those systems) do, and the show reflects that reality. Or at least that's how I rationalize it.

The crime family side of the story, which I have to assume has some basis in an actual Southern syndicate, is harder to rationalize. Stuhlbarg is exceptional at the grief and weakness experienced by a normally strong and assertive man, but the ins and outs of this seemingly Scottish crime family are harder to trace — what with the lack of tangible underworld enterprises and bush-league beef with a fictional New Orleans street gang. Davis treats her character like Lady Macbeth and has fun with it, though how much she's just playing Laura Linney in Ozark will be for the viewer and their bingo card to decide.

Moffat's scripts and the direction by Edward Berger, making good use of New Orleans locations, are busy enough and the ensemble stacked enough that I suppose your annoyance at the level of overall familiarity may stop short of contempt. And, heck, lots of people play bingo for fun!

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Michael Stuhlbarg, Hope Davis, Carmen Ejogo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Sofia Black-D'Elia, Amy Landecker, Margo Martindale, Lorraine Toussaint, Chet Hanks, Lamar Jackson

Creator: Peter Moffat, based on the Israeli series Kvodo

Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime, starting December 6.