The art of crafting what I’ve come to call “anxiety TV” is an aptly taxing challenge. Shows where the central protagonist spends most of their time concealing illicit activity — or simply looking guilty — are often classified as thrillers, but series like “The Flight Attendant,” “Ozark,” and yes, “Breaking Bad” aren’t your typical murder-mysteries where good guys hunt bad guys. They’re stressful, often agonizingly so, because they’re built from many, many scenes where the people we’re asked to care about make increasingly risky choices, construct increasingly elaborate lies, and inch ever closer to being exposed. If they’re caught, it often means their lives are either ruined or over, which only compounds the viewer’s anxiety on their behalf.
Despite the three progressively excellent examples listed above, these kind of stories aren’t easy to do well — especially on TV. Without a steady stream of humor (a la Kaley Cuoco’s zippy new HBO Max original) or satisfying surprises, all that worry can quickly prove exhausting or intolerable over six-to-10 hours, let alone multiple seasons. “Dead to Me,” “Defending Jacob,” and plenty more programs that don’t start with the letter “D” have struggled to balance a constant undercurrent of anxiety with believable twists, effective jokes, and/or enough plot to fill the time. (Kyle Chandler forever, but “Bloodline” suffered from all three.)
Enter “Your Honor,” the de facto third part in Bryan Cranston’s Anxiety TV trilogy, preceded by “Breaking Bad” and “Sneaky Pete” (which he created, produced, and co-starred). Peter Moffat’s high-stakes Showtime drama focuses on a New Orleans judge who helps cover up his son’s gruesome manslaughter, and the 10-part limited series is unrelentingly intense, with barely a whiff of relief, let alone laughs over the first four episodes provided for review. But unlike Cranston’s classic AMC series, which was character-driven from the jump, or his Amazon Prime Video creation, which emphasized family bonding and slick tradecraft, “Your Honor” over-invests in tension and under-invests in compassion. Moffat’s story clouds the morality questions evoked by the title’s double meaning, and asks you to see yourself in its characters while fast-forwarding through choices that skew just how honorable our protagonists were in the first place.
Kicking things off on dueling low notes, “Your Honor” first sees Judge Michael Desiato (Cranston) on one of his many lengthy runs through the city. Passing notable New Orleans landmarks like an above-ground cemetery and a slow-moving trolley car, Michael eventually arrives at a small house. He stops, stares, and then walks up to the porch and peers inside. After a young boy asks him what he wants, Michael runs off, waving an apologetic hand as he trots on down the road. Though the purpose of his not-so-impromptu pit stop is unclear at first, it’s soon explained when Michael, presiding over a court case, hears testimony about a drug arrest that happened there earlier in the week. The judge, assured in his own view of the facts, starts questioning the arresting officer more fiercely than the defense attorney, purposefully walking him into a perjury charge.
Skip Bolen / Showtime
This is… quite a stretch. It’s not what judges are supposed to do, let alone what they actually do, and such inflation of their responsibilities — for entertainment’s sake — is exactly the kind of thing that can spoil a gritty, grounded show like “Your Honor.” What’s supposed to be a scene illustrating Michael’s upstanding integrity does just the opposite: It makes us doubt his judgment right off the bat.
The same can be said for his son, Adam (Hunter Doohan), whose own questionable activity is cut against his dad’s in the opening montage. Adam, still grieving the loss of his mother, goes for a drive to pay his respects at the place where she presumably died. But when he sees a group of Black men walking toward him, he gets scared and drives off in a fluster. His panic increases when an Escalade pulls up behind him, causing him to drop his inhaler and swerve into the middle of the road — where he runs head-first into a motorcyclist.
Adam panics, rushes home, and calls his dad for help. The title card drops, and the show is off to the races. At that point, Adam doesn’t even know he’s killed the son of a local mafioso named Jimmy Baxter (played with quiet ferocity by Michael Stuhlbarg), but that’s what convinces his father to help cover up the accident. Even if his son is charged with manslaughter (which he would be), Michael fears Jimmy will kill Adam himself — an eye for an eye, kid for a kid.
The Jimmy factor not only lessons the moral quandary laid at Michael’s feet — protecting your kid from a mob boss is a much simpler choice than protecting your kid from the courts — it turns “Your Honor” into a fanciful delusion. We’ve got a judge not acting like a judge, a kid very much acting like a kid, and a situation that’s unlike anything the average viewer is bound to run into. (No one is watching the first episode and saying, “Oh yeah, that could definitely happen to me.”) Gone is the vicarious thrill of putting yourself in their shoes and in its place is a more typical bad guys hunting “good” guys scenario that’s only pretending to carry any moral questions. Yet the anxiety remains, and hoo boy does it wear you down.
Skip Bolen / Showtime
For what it’s worth, Cranston is still great. The six-time Emmy winner is asked to do a lot of capital-A “Acting,” and it’s a testament to his abilities that you connect with Michael at all. Stuhlbarg, in far less screen time, is at least equally gifted. He turns what could be a cartoon mob character into a pulsing, unpredictable, and deeply pained human being. Quite frankly, it’s amazing just to see how many emotions he can evoke by manipulating his near-permanent sneer. Carmen Ejogo and Isiah Whitlock Jr. are also solid, and Hope Davis, as Jimmy’s wife Gina, offers a big, delicious foil to Stuhlbarg’s internalized anger.
Still, these achingly anxious first four episodes don’t offer much more than tension. Adam’s arc makes him less sympathetic by the minute (especially when an innocent Black teenager gets blamed for the white kid’s mistake), and Michael’s is mainly stacking up lie after lie. Not quite a well-acted B-movie about two powerful men squaring off over the fate of their families, nor a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be an honorable man in crooked world, “Your Honor” merely evokes memories of better shows that are worth the worry.
In “Breaking Bad,” we see Walter White evolve over six seasons; he starts as a desperate, dying man making an extreme choice to protect his family, but he becomes “the one who knocks” — a crime kingpin whose near-death experience gives him an excuse to explore his existential darkness in reality. Each choice that pushes him further down an irredeemable path is equally agonizing and thrilling; we want to see him pursue those extremes in part because he wants to, and in part because we want to explore them as well, from the safety of our living room sofa.
But “Your Honor” is a straight-up nightmare, not nihilistic wish-fulfillment. As soon as the viewer’s connection to Michael and Adam is cut — whether it’s by their unacknowledged privilege, murky judgment, or far-fetched daily lives — the story turns ugly and pointless. It feels like we’re wallowing in misery that no one has to go through, and the effect isn’t thrilling but dreadful. Perhaps later episodes will find stronger footing, but for now, don’t worry about it.
“Your Honor” premieres Sunday, December 6 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.