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‘Your Honor’: Bryan Cranston’s acting is laudable on a series sometimes laughable

The ‘Breaking Bad’ star returns to the dark side as a judge who won’t let his guilty son be judged on the new series that premieres Sunday on Showtime.

Judge Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston, left) uses his legal know-how to help his son (Hunter Doohan) avoid blame for a fatal hit-and-run in the new Showtime series “Your Honor.”
Judge Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston, left) uses his legal know-how to help his son (Hunter Doohan) avoid blame for a fatal hit-and-run in the new Showtime series “Your Honor.”
Showtime

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Bryan Cranston plays a straitlaced, middle-aged man who relies on skills honed from years at his day job as he resorts to increasingly desperate criminal measures, all the while telling himself he’s doing all of this for his family.

One can’t help but be reminded of “Breaking Bad” when watching the new Showtime limited series “Your Honor,” with Cranston playing just such a role. Only this time Cranston plays the liberal-minded, New Orleans-based Judge Michael Desiato, a widowed father who makes a rash decision not to hand over his teenage son Adam (Hunter Doohan) to the police after Adam killed another teenage boy in a hit-and-run accident. From that moment, Michael commits one felonious act after another, all in the interest of saving his son from prison — or a fate even worse.

“Your Honor” isn’t close to being in the same league as “Breaking Bad.” At times, you can’t help but roll your eyes at the stupidity of certain main characters. But it’s an addictively lurid thriller in the vein of the recent HBO limited series “The Undoing” — with a plot element that mirrors the FX series “A Teacher.”

There’s a LOT going on in this series (I’ve seen the first four of nine episodes), which is based on the Israeli series “Kvodo” and begins with a premise that reminded me of a notorious chapter in the life of the infamous mob boss John Gotti.

In 1980, Gotti’s 12-year-old son Frank was riding a friend’s minibike when Gotti’s backyard neighbor John Favara accidentally ran over Frank and killed him. A few months later, Favara disappeared and was never found.

In “Your Honor,” Judge Desiato’s son accidentally kills the son of the most powerful crime boss in New Orleans, Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg), and leaves the scene of the crime.

When Michael learns the identity of the victim, he knows Baxter will stop at nothing to exact his revenge and kill whoever took his son. So he conspires to cover up the crime and find a patsy to take the fall.

As an experienced judge who has dealt with thousands of criminals and hundreds of lawyers and cops (and has friends in high places), Michael has more than few tricks up his sleeve to stay one step ahead of the investigation — although it feels as if the walls are closing in on Michael and Adam, who has a few secrets of his own, given that he’s been sleeping with his high school teacher (Sofia Black-D’Elia).

“Your Honor” makes great use of the New Orleans setting, even when we’re scratching our heads and wondering how Michael (who is training for a marathon) seems capable of literally running to a number of key locales across the city, usually with the goal of stopping something from, well, breaking bad.

The series is photographed in dark tones befitting the storyline and seems to almost revel in grisly closeups. The fatal auto accident is depicted in brutally realistic fashion.

Isiah Whitlock Jr. steals scenes as the judge’s best friend.
Showtime

Cranston is his usual commanding self. There’s a moment when he explodes at his whining son that’s Shakespearean and chilling. (It’s not the first and won’t be the last time Adam comes across as a sniveling, self-pitying little snot.)

The ensemble cast is one of the finest of any 2020 series, with Carmen Ejogo as an upscale lawyer and possible romantic interest for Michael; a scene-stealing Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Michael’s best friend, who is running for mayor; Hope Davis as the coldblooded wife of Jimmy Baxter; Amy Landecker as a detective friend of Michael who is beginning to suspect something isn’t right about the hit-and-run investigation; and the ubiquitous and invaluable Margo Martindale as Adam’s fiercely protective politician-grandmother.

Even when the intertwining storylines grow ever more tangled and veer into the outlandish, these fine actors sell every line they speak. It’s great acting in a just-pretty-good show.