There is a big question at the centre of taut new crime drama Your Honor; why do good people do bad things? In this show, the answer is love. Just like in the series that made its star Bryan Cranston a household name, Breaking Bad, we see that people will stop at nothing to protect their family.
On the face of it, there are no similarities between renegade Walter White and Cranston’s character in this show, which is based on award-winning Israeli programme Kvodo and written by British writer Peter Moffat (a former barrister, which ties into the plot). Cranston plays Michael Desiato, a high-minded judge who runs marathons and stops at nothing to get to the truth – at one point he jogs past a black defendant’s home to see if a policeman’s testimony adds up. But his commitment to doing the right thing is challenged when his son Adam accidentally kills another boy in a car accident.
The dead boy is the son of mob lynchpin Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg alternating between menacing and loving father), the most ruthless man in New Orleans. When Desiato learns this, he thinks the better of telling the police what his son does and instead puts together an elaborate plan to protect Adam from Baxter’s rough justice. He will pin the blame on a young black gang member called Kofi Jones (in a spirited and touching performance by Lamar Johnson).
In the process, Desiato wrestles with his conscience and we see how this decision affects his whole life. It is an ambitious plot, exposing the weaknesses in America’s justice system, which often wants to find someone to blame for crimes regardless of the truth. But the story is told cleverly, combining light and shade to make gripping drama.
It is tense from the start, and graphic too. If blood makes you squeamish, avoid the first episode. I was anxious throughout, in large part due to Hunter Doohan, who brilliantly conveys the paralysing panic of Desiato’s son Adam. He’s a lanky boy who can’t use the washing machine. When he kills Baxter’s son he is on the way back from a trip to put some flowers at the site where his mother was killed, a gas station on the wrong side of town. He spots a group of black boys staring at him and becomes uneasy, and the crash happens because he is about to have an asthma attack and can’t reach his inhaler. I did wonder why the part of town he is in is quite so deserted – Adam is on a main road but the only witness to his crime is an Alsatian (the dogs always know what’s going on in this show).
The story of Adam’s mother and her death forms an intriguing subplot, as does Adam’s secret relationship with his teacher, Frannie (who wears enviable floaty dresses and ankle boots). The dialogue is lively (and occasionally inappropriate – one of Adam’s friends makes a joke about how his dead mother had “great tits”) and stops Your Honour from being just grand moralising.
There are plenty of twists, giving the drama the feel of a Shakespeare play, as well as an entertaining turn from Tony Curran, playing Jimmy Baxter’s private investigator (we get no explanation of how a Scottish man ended up in New Orleans but there is an enjoyable hint of The Simpsons’s Groundskeeper Willie in Curran’s blunt performance). Cranston has real presence, with his gravelly voice sounding increasingly worn, and his Golden Globe nomination for this performance is deserved.
New Orleans is the other star of the show - we see the difference between Baxter and Desiato’s enormous houses and the dusty roads and crammed conditions that the people who face Desiato in court live in. It is hard to look away from this intense, brooding drama with a social conscience and it lingers long after the credits roll.
Your Honor is on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV from March 2, 9pm