Bryan Cranston returns to TV in ‘Your Honor,’ but this grim tale is easily dismissed

That’s too bad, given its pedigree, which begins with its star, Bryan Cranston, whose indefatigable work as Walter White in “Breaking Bad” remains a towering achievement in TV history. The rest of the cast comes with similarly impressive credentials in the edgy exploration of the criminal impulse — “Fargo’s” Michael Stuhlbarg, “The Americans’ ” Margo Martindale, “For the People’s” Hope Davis, “True Detective’s” Carmen Ejogo, among others — and yet they all struggle with a premise and a script that gives them little guidance on how far to go with “Your Honor’s” resolute dourness.

Tonally, the series is a mess; in the four episodes made available for this review, Cranston seems to be trying on the role like a custom-made suit that just won’t fit. He plays Michael Desiato, a well-regarded New Orleans judge who is nevertheless a part of the city’s inherently corrupt dynamics, unwittingly or otherwise. Viewers are to understand this as a natural part of civic life in the Big Easy, and the fact that “Your Honor” is set there is one more challenge the show doesn’t need; fairly quickly, “Your Honor” burns its roux and spoils the gumbo. Early on, a coroner quotes Voltaire during an autopsy: “To the living we owe respect; to the dead we owe only the truth,” to which the sheriff replies “Well, Voltaire didn’t live in New Orleans.” (Ugh. Eye roll.)

On the first anniversary of Desiato’s wife’s death, his teenage son, Adam (Hunter Doohan) makes an early-morning pilgrimage to the neighborhood where she was killed. Startled by an approaching group of young Black men, Adam flees in his beat-up Volvo station wagon and starts to have an asthma attack; fumbling to find his inhaler, he veers into an oncoming motorcycle driven by a teenage boy, colliding with him head-on. In a scene that is certainly too gruesome, Adam approaches the boy, watches him die, fails to follow through with a 911 call and flees. He spends the day attempting to clean up; when Michael gets home from work, Adam tells his father what happened.

The entire series hangs on Michael’s next move. With hardly a trace of hesitation, the presumably upright judge decides to cover up his son’s crime. He’s mainly motivated by fear, now that the teen motorcyclist has been identified as Rocco Baxter, the son of the nefarious Jimmy Baxter (Stuhlbarg), who runs the local oyster mafia. (Another eye roll.) Michael immediately realizes that if he doesn’t cover it up, the Baxter family, including Jimmy’s creepy wife, Gina (Davis), will have Adam killed.

The show asks the viewer to wholly accept this radical, but far from original, take on parenting: That a father’s love is so powerful he will embark on a complex web of lies to protect his flat-out guilty son. Michael keeps noting how Adam “has his whole life in front of him” and sets about destroying evidence, calling in favors from the underworld and meticulously building Adam’s alibi. (For the same implausible display of devotion, see Apple TV Plus’s wearisome “Defending Jacob,” in which Chris Evans played an evidence-tampering prosecutor whose teenage son is accused of murder. The shows could almost be twins.)

“Your Honor” seems to be written by people who’ve only heard about human nature and whose understanding of tragic consequences is strictly theoretical. The show veers rather clumsily into a race-related angle, as the police pin the hit-and-run on a young Black man from the Desire gang named Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson) and the Baxters begin to exact their revenge. New Orleans’s special complexity on race-related matters is proffered as a subplot, but isn’t explored enough to gain traction. The fleeting nods to local politics also feel extraneous.

Because it’s Cranston, it’s tempting to compare and contrast the judge’s lapse into criminal deceit with Walter White’s transformation from high school chemistry teacher to meth kingpin — perhaps “Your Honor” is hoping viewers are trained by now to ruminate privately on the evil that men may do.

But the story and pacing are not at all up to that task; even watching Michael scramble and squirm to keep his lies intact (especially with the arrival of Martindale, playing his highly skeptical mother-in-law) fails to become the nail-biter it intends to be. There are six episodes left, which may yet fill in some much needed context and backstories, but so far, it’s only looking grim and grimmer.

Your Honor (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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