Bryan Cranston‘s return to dramatic television should be cause for celebration, right? 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.
The premise is intriguing, to be fair: Cranston plays respected New Orleans judge Michael Desiato, whose son Adam (Truth Be Told‘s Hunter Doohan) accidentally strikes and kills a mob boss’ son in a hit-and-run car accident. (The death scene is so harrowing and bloody, it’s actually hard to stomach.) As soon as Adam confesses his crime to his dad, Michael’s wheels start turning. “Don’t tell anyone. Not ever,” he sternly instructs his son as he plots out how to cover his tracks before the authorities — or worse, the mob boss — gets to him. Playing a conflicted dad who treads into a moral gray area is a natural fit for Cranston, of course, and his haunted face, creased with worry, does its best to sell it as Michael frantically lies, cheats and steals in order to protect his son.
But Your Honor‘s dramatic potential is squandered by the brutally grim and badly contrived developments that follow. (Peter Moffat, who created the British crime drama that HBO’s The Night Of was based on, is the writer and showrunner here, with The Good Fight‘s Robert and Michelle King as executive producers.) It tries to be a morality play, a twist-filled thriller and an acting showcase all at once, but it falls short on all fronts. We want to see Michael put his considerable legal expertise to use saving his son… but for a judge, he shows surprisingly terrible judgment. (We get our first taste of his legal approach in a courtroom scene that is so bizarre and outlandish, Ally McBeal would blush.) And it’s not just him: Your Honor is riddled with nagging leaps of logic, absurd coincidences and people openly yelling in public about their various criminal conspiracies.
Cranston’s presence helped to attract a strong supporting cast, but the material fails them, too. As mob boss Jimmy Baxter, Michael Stuhlbarg — so good on Boardwalk Empire and Fargo — is more idea than character: a generically menacing bad guy who never develops beyond a vague sketch of villainy. Skilled actresses like Carmen Ejogo, Amy Landecker and Hope Davis are given little to do. And it’s not Doohan’s fault, but Adam quickly becomes one of the most irritating TV characters in recent memory. Yes, I understand the boy is in a guilt-ridden panic, but he can’t stop himself from making incriminating mistakes, and watching him totally fall apart isn’t compelling; it’s agonizing.
In fact, Your Honor is a tough watch in general: Mired in a sad, blue visual palette, it wallows in cynicism and cruelty, but never provides enough insight to make the cruelty worth it. It finds a decent enough groove when it stays focused on Michael and his morally questionable schemes, but it gets less interesting the more it expands its scope, trying to juggle half-baked subplots about political maneuvering, corruption within the prison system, racial inequality and on and on. The great Margo Martindale does show up in Episode 4 to provide a much-needed dose of common sense, but by then, it’s too late. The verdict is already in.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Bryan Cranston does his best, but his Showtime legal thriller Your Honor is a brutally grim and remarkably dumb misfire.