“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. 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.
Set in New Orleans, and based on the Israeli drama Kvodo, the series introduces us to Michael (Cranston), who’s the kind of fair-minded judge who is personally invested in every case that enters his courtroom. It’s not simply that he pays close attention to every second of testimony and offers sympathy to a defense attorney who’s running late because his prostate cancer requires him to make frequent bathroom visits — no, Michael will even in his off-hours jog to the crime scene to deduce that a cop’s testimony is an obvious lie. Clearly, Michael is one of the good guys. He cares about justice and fairness.
So, naturally, he will immediately be thrust into an ethical dilemma that challenges his worldview. His sensitive teenage son Adam (Hunter Doohan) is visiting the site where his sainted mother was gunned down — and in his grief and anxiety, he haphazardly tries to find his inhaler while driving, not paying attention to the road. (If a character is asthmatic, you can bet that his inability to have easy access to his inhaler will lead to a crucial plot point.) Sure enough, Adam smacks right into a motorcyclist who’s not wearing a helmet. Adam gets out of the car and approaches the young man dying on the curb — panicked, he dials 911 but then hangs up, driving away with his clothes caked in the victim’s blood.
Initially after hearing Adam’s terrible news, Michael is bereft but insistent that they go to the police. After all, it’s the right thing to do. But when they arrive at the station, Michael sees Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg) there as well, in mourning alongside wife Gina (Hope Davis). Suddenly, this isn’t some random fatality — Michael realizes that the dead motorcyclist was Rocco, Jimmy’s son. As it so happens, Jimmy is the most dangerous mobster in all of New Orleans. Turning Adam into the cops won’t be the end of this — the Baxter family will want vengeance. Michael has to protect his boy.
Your Honor follows Michael and Adam as they try to keep up their increasingly more complicated lie, hoping to divert any suspicion away from the kid. Adam is so distraught that he wants to come clean, but his dad is resolute, and it’s here where Cranston gets to show off some of the frightening, steely certainty that made Walter so absorbing. As viewers, apparently we’re meant to be gobsmacked that honorable Michael has the capacity for such deception. But he’s a judge! He should know better! Wait a second… Maybe all of us are complex individuals with a penchant for both light and dark!
Even if Cranston wasn’t the star, Your Honor’s journey into moral quicksand would feel familiar. (The show’s writer, Peter Moffet, was the man behind the British series Criminal Justice, which was adapted for HBO’s The Night Of, another program about the inscrutability of people’s character.) But having Cranston as Michael drains away a little of the suspense — as well as the delight — in seeing what this judge is capable of doing. When Michael lies or plots, it’s in the same way that just about every other prestige-TV character does. And that he’s justifying it to himself by insisting he’s just trying to be a good father also is a predictable beat. What antihero of the post-Sopranos era hasn’t rationalized his sins away in some sort of pseudo-noble way? Hell, Walter did the same thing, believing that he was providing for his wife and child. There’s nothing particularly compelling about Michael’s fall from grace.
Occasionally, Your Honor seems to be tweaking the formula a little. For one thing, unlike Walter (whose incredible mind always kept him a step ahead of his many enemies), Michael is sometimes spectacularly bad at strategizing. An attempt to make Adam’s car disappear — Michael calls in a favor to his best friend Charlie (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a smooth-talking politician running for mayor — ends up backfiring and only further complicates the Desiato family’s dilemma. (It also imperils an innocent young Black man, played by Lamar Johnson, leading to a subplot that halfheartedly decries our inequitable justice system.) At its best, the series imagines what would happen if Walter White was just a guy fumbling through his half-baked schemes and having to react on the fly to his self-inflicted screwups. But there’s very little pulpy excitement in the rising stakes — or the possibility that Jimmy Baxter may unleash hell at any moment once he finds out who killed his son. And that’s because Your Honor thinks it’s saying something profound about guilt and moral darkness — it has no time for glib distractions like absorbing characters or riveting plot twists.
And in that regard, Your Honor also pales in comparison to Breaking Bad. As we watched Walter White sink deeper and deeper into his personal hell, we couldn’t look away because it was all so exciting. We knew who Walter was and saw what he became, and our mixture of revulsion and fascination at his evolution made the show undeniably electric. In a sense, the viewer was complicit — a large part of us wanted Heisenberg to get away with his crimes. Even at Walter’s most evil, Cranston gave us a reason to care.
It’s a feat that’s not easy to duplicate, a fact the muddled Your Honor makes all too plain. Four episodes into Cranston’s new show, I’m assuming some sort of grand reckoning will eventually come to Michael. Or maybe not. I’m not too broken up about it either way.