tv review

Bryan Cranston Makes Your Honor’s Crime Story Clichés Compelling

Photo: Skip Bolen/SHOWTIME

“Today is yesterday.”

This is the advice that Judge Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston) gives to his son Adam (Hunter Doohan) in the second episode of Your Honor, the Showtime limited series that debuts tonight. The two are visiting the grave of Robin, Michael’s late wife and Adam’s mother, the day after the anniversary of her death. But Adam needs to believe he was there on the actual anniversary so he can credibly use it as an alibi.

“Months from now, if you’re ever asked where you were, what you were doing, on October 9, you’ll have the muscle memory of what you did,” Michael explains. “You won’t have to construct the lie because you lived it.”

In Your Honor, this is what Michael does repeatedly: schools his son in the ways of deceit by treating it as something normal and strategic. He’s basically the Obi-Wan Kenobi of bullshit — Michael can calmly improv his way through a series of untruths with a confidence that’s almost Zen-like — and that makes this a perfect role for Cranston, who famously skated from upstanding citizen to amoral criminal in Breaking Bad. He is, unsurprisingly, superb here, as is the rest of the exceptional cast. 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.”

The series is not without its compelling moments, though, particularly in the first episode, when Adam gets himself into the trouble that sets up everything that comes next. On the morning of October 9, Adam actually is thinking about his late mom, but instead of going to her grave, he lays flowers outside of a corner store where, presumably, Robin, a photographer, became the victim of some type of violence. (Your Honor is cryptic about the circumstances of her death.) Rattled by a bunch of guys who follow him to his car, Adam speeds away, then begins to have an asthma attack. He struggles to reach his inhaler from his position in the driver’s seat and suddenly strikes a young man on a motorcycle. Adam tries to help this teenager, essentially a peer, but the kid’s injuries are severe. He dies in the street and Adam, completely spooked, flees the scene. This entire sequence, directed by Edward Berger, whose credits include Deutschland 83 and Patrick Melrose, is so visceral and intense that it’s hard not to develop shortness of breath yourself while watching it.

After Adam explains to his father what happened, Michael realizes that the young man who died is Rocco Baxter (Benjamin Hassan Wadsworth), the son of Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg), a well-known crime lord with a wife, played by Hope Davis, who may be even more cold-blooded than Jimmy is. If Adam confesses, Adam will wind up with a target on his back, since the Baxters aren’t likely to let the hit-and-run murder of their son pass without retribution. In Michael’s scramble to make Adam appear uninvolved, he continues to pull multiple associates into his spiraling orbit, including Charlie and Lee Delamere (Carmen Ejogo), an attorney who is a former mentee of Michael’s and, in one of the more cliché touches in the series, a potential love interest.

Naturally, every individual in this whole mess of a situation has some secrets they are keeping. Even Adam, who can barely operate a washing machine by himself, has some things going on in his personal life that aren’t exactly ethical. Doohan gives off so much young Ethan Hawke energy in the role that you feel for him, especially since he clearly wants to unburden himself of the guilt he feels.

His father won’t allow that, though, even though Michael is sliding into quicksand with less and less leverage to pull him and his boy out. Cranston delivers an extremely controlled performance here that hints with just the right amount of subtlety at the cracks starting to develop under Michael’s otherwise solid veneer. When the cracks do show, Cranston really lets them show. In a confrontation between Michael and Adam in episode three, Cranston completely explodes, then immediately dials his emotions right back down. A lesser actor might be inclined to overplay Michael’s underlying anxiety much more consistently, but Cranston’s approach gives the moments when Michael loses it a real weight.

The supporting cast — which also includes Amy Landecker as a helpful cop and Lorraine Toussaint, making a distinct impression in just a few minutes of early screen time as the chief justice who oversees Michael — is extremely strong. Perhaps most intriguing is the arrival midway through episode four of Margo Martindale as Elisabeth Guthrie, a senator and Michael’s mother-in-law. It’s jarring at first when Elisabeth is identified as such — she and Cranston are separated age-wise by only five years — but it’s one more piece of information that tells us something about Robin, namely that she must have been much younger than Michael.

Martindale comes in like a full gust of wind, immediately sparring with Michael, taking charge of the house and drinking glasses of bourbon. Her interest in her daughter’s case and the way that she and Cranston, who worked together on Sneaky Pete, are able to instantly conjure a history of passive-aggressive animus between their two characters suggests that Your Honor may still have some more interesting places to go in the second half of its season. Will it be worth it to take that journey? At this point the answer is a reserved maybe, if only to see what these actors will do with wherever it takes them, and us.

Cranston Makes Your Honor’s Crime Story Clichés Compelling