During the first two episodes of “Your Honor,” I was just about riveted. The new Showtime drama starring Bryan Cranston seemed to be reaching for the high intensity levels of “The Night Of,” the intelligent HBO thriller from the same writer-producer, Peter Moffat. The story begins, as it did in “The Night Of,” with a devastating depiction of the events that become the prime mover for the rest of the series — in this case, a hit-and-run accident. We see those long, ghostly minutes of silence after the crash, before the sirens approach, one bloody body in its final throes, a soul about to flee, the other body whole, but dazed and confused and about to choose flight over fight.
The driver at fault is the teen son of Cranston’s Judge Michael Desiato, Adam (Hunter Doohan), and during the crash sequence, in what feels like suspended time, we get to track every choice he makes. It’s directed with a sure hand by Edward Berger, so that viewers feel the full weight of each moment as Adam, who’s having an asthma attack, decides to leave the boy he has hit to die with his head up against the curb. When Adam gets home, he makes sloppy efforts to hide the accident, each step of which will become important later on, when his father joins him in the coverup.
And, alas, much of what comes after the forceful opening is a disappointment. What we see in the four episodes that Showtime made available to critics is a father slipping very quickly into illegal, immoral activities to protect his son. He’s a compassionate and ethical judge, we learn in an early segment featuring him on the bench, and he has a deep wish to help the New Orleans community where he lives. But, like Cranston’s Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” he spins out in a big way — OK, I’ll say it, he breaks bad. The title “Your Honor” refers to his professional title, but it also seems to be asking him, “Your honor?” He suspends his own sense of what is right, and fast. It takes the judge very little time to start messing around with evidence. His wife, Adam’s mother, was murdered a year earlier, so he is even more driven to hold onto the only family member he has left.
It’s an extremely slippery slope, especially when Michael discovers that the kid Adam killed was the son of a crime boss (Michael Stuhlbarg) who will stop at nothing to avenge the death. Each plan Michael enacts to cover up the crime goes spectacularly wrong, and it becomes clear that he is only good at helping, not hindering. He’s no Walter White, who, while he may have started making meth to get money for his family, found his true self while building a drug empire. Michael Desiato just keeps screwing up, and he doesn’t yet know about his son’s extremely problematic romantic relationship, which I won’t spoil here. The thought of six more episodes watching more things run amok isn’t an especially happy one, although the addition of Margo Martindale in episode four and the promise of Maura Tierney later in the season do offer some hope. Also, there are race issues simmering in “Your Honor,” as we see the justice system’s embedded racism enter into the story line, and perhaps they will develop and bring some variety and thematic resonance to the second half of the season.
Cranston’s performance doesn’t quite manage to ground all the coverup commotion; he turns up the volume a little too much on Michael’s desperation. Perhaps he’s trying to distinguish Michael from Walt, who kept his cool; perhaps he just doesn’t have a handle on his character, who is written as a collection of parental clichés and ethical unlikelihoods. Who is this man rejecting the legal system that he lives by and that pays him? Let’s see if we find out.
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Hunter Doohan, Michael Stuhlbarg, Hope Davis, Carmen Ejogo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Amy Landecker, Margo Martindale, Maura Tierney, Sofia Black-D’Elia
On: Showtime. Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.