‘Your Honor’: Bryan Cranston Brings Dark Pathos To an Entangled Plot

Showtime’s limited series “Your Honor” utilizes one of the oldest yet most engaging plot devices: The lie that only grows bigger. This new Showtime series is full of such somber dread that even sunshine gets drained of all color. Bryan Cranston looks right at home in its wet streets and shady courtrooms. Few actors have his ability to elevate clichés and he does so here with absolute skill, bringing intensity and rugged uncertainty to one of those characters digging a big hole for themselves. It is on the level of acting that this show finds its real strength above the endless web of its crimes.

Cranston is best known for his role as a chemistry teacher turned meth dealer in “Breaking Bad,” but for “Your Honor” he’s sitting on the bench. He plays Michael Desiato, a New Orleans judge who is prone to making big speeches and looking extra compassionate, even with an endlessly somber expression. But his very morals are put to the test when son Adam (Hunter Doohan) accidentally runs over another kid on a motorcycle after venturing out to honor the memory of his deceased mother. Adam tries to help the kid, Rocco (Benjamin Hassan Wadsworth), who dies most gruesomely. He then confesses to Michael, who tries to do the right thing and take Adam to the police station. But once they arrive Michael discovers Rocco wasn’t just any kid, he was the son of Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg), apparently the most vicious gangster to ever prowl through fair New Orleans. Immediately Michael decides to cover-up the accident which kicks off a domino effect resulting in Baxter suspecting Rocco’s death was a hit, thus threatening to engulf the city in gang warfare.

“Your Honor” is another American update of a foreign hit. Creator Peter Moffat is adapting an Israeli show, “Kvodo,” into a typical slow burner. The issue with slow burners is that they tend to stretch out passages that could be handled in 5 minutes into 55 minutes. “Your Honor” patiently wads through its first episodes, but still manages to showcase moments of searing tension. The most memorable of these is when Adam hits Rocco. Director Edward Berger meticulously creates a riveting experience complete with broken limbs and Adam attempting to do CPR on a Rocco puking blood. The rest of the episode and subsequent chapters develop about as you would expect. Michael cleans up the evidence, teaches Adam how to memorize alibis and fakes a car theft to erase any lingering traces, and all in almost one night! Local gang bangers will get framed once Baxter suspects street hoods are trying to muscle into his business. He’s also one of those old school mob bosses who doesn’t mind committing murder and extortion, but he does not approve of drug dealers. Baxter snarls at a minion that he will “clean up this city.” 

Clichés abound in “Your Honor,” from crooked cops to attractive lawyers. Yet the casting is so superb they all elevate this into efficient escapism for the slow burner crowd. Hunter Doohan is an excellent standout as the guilt-plagued Adam, who genuinely conveys the stress of hiding a horrific accident. Doohan has a few scenes of memorably quiet acting, as when he searches online for Rocco’s sister and tears begin flowing down his face. Michael Stuhlbarg has been cast so often recently as a professor that it is refreshing to see him flex his inner crime boss, although sometimes he lacks the gravitas in the voice and face that such a persona requires. Cranston is quite simply a natural fit in his role. He has the discipline of a trained judge but as in “Breaking Bad,” he becomes the kind of personality who knows he should live by a moral code but can’t. And as layers peel in the plot we see he’s surrounded by other people willing to let their convictions slide, like Charlie Figaro (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a candidate for mayor who can help Michael and Lee Delamare (Carmen Ejogo), a lawyer who was once Michael’s pupil. Predictably enough she also seems to have feelings for the judge. Hope Davis is meanwhile a bit underused as Baxter’s wife Gina, who has some grieving scenes but is always in his shadow. 

“Your Honor” has the kind of story that weaves so many traps and moral dilemmas it naturally calls you back to keep following its developments. Crooked judges and thugs are nothing new in television, but Cranston and his fellow cast members make this case come alive with conviction. And like any pulpy affair, the set-up is juicy enough. When it puts aside slow burner pretension, this is a strong enough slice of TV escapism. Guilt never grows old as a strong plot device, because you don’t need to commit involuntary manslaughter to know that lying is the worst cure of all and a guilty conscience is the most torturous of traps.

Your Honor” premieres Dec. 6 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.