The latest US hit crime drama arrives in the UK.
How far would you go to save your child?
That’s the compelling tagline for Your Honor, the latest US hit show to make it’s way over to the UK. Described as a ‘limited series’ (which at 10 episodes stretches that definition somewhat – more of an album than an EP it would seem), and based off the original 2017 Israeli show of the same name, it’s the latest in a seemingly endless slew of ‘event’ melodramas, precision-tooled for “but what would YOU do” water-cooler conversations in the same mold as The Slap or A Teacher before it. Needless to say, it’s already been dissected in this way on Gogglebox.
Like those predecessors, Your Honor examines the fallout from a single, criminal incident in multiple ways. In this case, that incident is the hit and run killing of a teenager by Adam Desiato (played by Hunter Doohan), a feckless and emotionally conflicted character who happens to be the 17-year old son of well-respected New Orleans judge Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston). Things get complicated (and then some) when the teenager that Adam accidentally killed turns out to be Rocco Baxter, the child of one Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg) – the most notorious, violent crime boss in the city’s history. As you can imagine, this doesn’t turn out well for anybody involved.
That’s the grab, and not for nothing the first episode is a real winner, with a very well-orchestrated set-up by director Edward Berger (The Terror, Deutschland 83) that is both impactful and engrossing. There’s almost a horror movie quality to the aesthetics of the actual incident itself, graphic and tragic in equal measure. Unfortunately, the impact of this scene is increasingly diminished across the series when it’s repeated in the “previously on” introduction to every episode (do we really need these reminders in the digital age of streaming?). From the outset it feels like we’re going to experience some golden age television, and Your Honor has all the right components to actualise that – amazing cast, beautifully shot – but unfortunately the sum of it’s parts aren’t quite up to the job.
Some of these issues are intrinsically linked to the performance of Bryan Cranston, which anchors the show. It’s uniformly excellent as you would expect from this incredible actor, but the spectre of a certain Walter White looms large over this particular characterization. You suspect the show-runners picked him exclusively for the role – another white suburban dad driven to reckless criminal pursuits – purely for the proven track record and the obvious parallels it would draw in the press. But there’s a sense of Cranston coasting here, and he’s not helped by the increasingly ridiculous hoops the script makes him jump through. You could imagine a quite different show if the main role had gone to somebody cast against type, and that might have made the supposed main focus of our collective sympathy a little more relatable. Or even likeable.
The same can be said for Michael’s son Adam. Your mileage may vary on how much empathy you feel for him, but he really doesn’t help himself throughout the story to build some form of emotional connection with the audience. For the most part, like his father, the script reduces him to inexplicable actions that are there only to extend the plot beyond it’s limited shelf life that no person in reality would do (return to the crime scene, then photograph it, then loiter in your father’s court room whilst the case is heard, then befriend and seduce the sister of the person you killed, etc etc), rather than actually grow the character. Along with his father, Adam feels like the least interesting part of this story.
Compare and contrast this with the teenager that actually takes the fall for his crime, Kofi Jones (brilliantly played by Lamar Johnson). Both boys are the same age on paper, but whilst Adam enjoys the luxury of free time that his privilege affords him to fluctuate between child-like outbursts and teenage petulance across the season, Kofi must immediately become an adult in his situation as he’s processed by the state and blackmailed into silence. The racial parallels are obvious and crudely sketched, and the show’s lack of subtlety in telling his story doesn’t reduce the gut-punch impact of Kofi’s fate (or his reluctant acceptance of it), but crucially nor does it make the show any better for it dramatically once his story prematurely concludes.
Because when Kofi dies midway through the season, so does the emotional weight of the story. What we should feel as an audience – righteous anger that this child died needlessly to protect another – is immediately buried under a morass of unnecessary plot points as the back-end of the season devolves into various cat and mouse shenanigans that distract from the real core of this narrative. Even the story that Kofi’s death is supposed to set-up, both in how his former gang indoctrinate his younger brother and the pursuit of his revenge that eventually resurfaces at the very end of the season, feels perfunctory and poorly thought out. Underneath all of this, there was a much more raw and honest exploration of this story that got lost along the way.
Instead, the audience is left to navigate a vast array of weird sub-plots that feel like they were pasted in from other shows. Adam is sleeping with his teacher (A Teacher), Michael is blackmailed by a inept criminal (Fargo). The entire Baxter clan – mean-mugging crime boss dad trying to go straight, devoutly religious wife with a ruthless streak a mile wide, emotionally disconnected teenage daughter who hates her parents, violent idiot of an older brother who hates everybody – all feel like characters airlifted in from The Sopranos. There are good half-hour chunks in later episodes that could have been completely excised at absolutely no detriment to the overall story, or it’s oddly flat and emotionless conclusion.
Which is a shame, because there’s a great show in there somewhere. Instead, it’s just OK. It feels like Your Honor has an ambition to say something meaningful about class and race in modern America, but doesn’t quite have the courage of its own conviction to articulate that truth. Instead, it settles early on into a mildly engaging soap opera that passes the time well enough, without getting too mired with the real minutiae of New Orleans sociopolitical issues that a show like Treme excelled at examining. Overlong and needlessly convoluted, it’s a tale that could have been told in half the time with double the impact.
Your Honor is currently airing on Sky Atlantic and is available as a boxset on NowTV