Showtime’s pulpy crime series thrives on sense of place and unexpected thematic weight.
It’s said that New Orleans is the most haunted city in America. It’s easy to see why when the dead are literally at eye-level when you walk through the above-ground cemeteries, or because every building in the French Quarter has at least one good ghost story. The truth is the city really is haunted, but not by things that go bump in the night. It’s haunted by the legacy of slavery, horrific massacres, segregation, and more recently, gentrification, that’s forcing out the working-class Black population who’ve helped make the city special for generations.
Showtime’s new miniseries, Your Honor, adapted from the 2017 Israeli show, Kvodo, is a legal thriller that’s honestly preposterous on the surface but has more to say the deeper it goes. Bryan Cranston stars as Michael Desiato, a respected judge who we first meet in his courtroom, grilling a corrupt police officer on the stand who’s trying to frame a Black mother for a petty crime. When he’s able to get her off; one could almost expect Cranston to turn to the camera and say, “I guess you could say I have a lot of…honor.”
Meanwhile, Michael’s son, Adam (Hunter Doohan), is involved in a hit and run that kills the son (this is when things get preposterous) of the head of a local organized crime syndicate, Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg). After fleeing the scene, Adam confesses to his father, who immediately drives his son to the police station to turn him in (because you know…he has honor), but when they get there, Michael runs into Jimmy and his wife, Gina (Hope Davis). Knowing who he’s up against, he makes the decision to help his son cover up the crime.
This is a pretty ridiculous launching point. The crime isn’t that well-hidden, and we’re supposed to assume that this very loud car crash that occurs in the middle of the Lower Ninth Ward, a populated neighborhood in a populated city, has zero witnesses. Not to mention the fact the show makes no attempt at setting up Jimmy as a dangerous mob boss until Michael explains it to his son towards the end of the episode in word vomit exposition.
This is the trick that writer and creator Peter Moffat pulls on us. He drags us in with a dumb potboiler, then hits us in the face with themes of privilege and injustice towards the most vulnerable, staged in a complicated city that doesn’t show up often in these kinds of shows outside of Treme. It’s also a plus that no one sounds like Bobby Bouche.
Moffat and Edward Berger, who directs the first three episodes (four were made available to critics), use New Orleans in a similar way to how Steve McQueen uses Chicago in his excellent 2018 heist film Widows. The city isn’t used as window dressing or a tourism ad, part of the fabric of the story.
Your Honor shoots New Orleans in deep, dark color tones that make the Crescent City pop, but doesn’t hide the ugliness. We see the comfortable home where the judge and his son live in the suburbs, as well as the Baxters’ sprawling estate in the Garden District before seeing the crumbling facades and spray paint leftover from Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Your Honor shoots New Orleans in deep, dark color tones that make the Crescent City pop, but doesn’t hide the ugliness.
There’s never a subtitle that says look at how racism causes so much inequality but by the time we get to episode two and watch a Black teenager, Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson), walking through an upper-class NOLA neighborhood wearing a hoodie and getting stares, the message becomes clear.
It’s this second episode where the show starts to find itself, and it’s mostly thanks to Johnson who finally gives us someone to root for. Forces involve him in this elaborate cover-up that involves all levels of power in the city, which predictably chews him up — dealing with the tragic consequences.
As the show progresses, the plot doesn’t get any less silly or convoluted. The more Judge Desiato tries to make his son’s mistake go away, the worse the situation gets, harming people he knows and cares for in the process. It’s similar to a certain chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer from Albuquerque.
Between Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad, no one is better at playing characters in over their heads than Cranston. He delivers again here, and while his “Ned Flanders Having a Nervous Breakdown” persona may have diminishing returns, it’s still fascinating to see him think himself out of tight corners.
The show’s plot may be clunky, with too many coincidences and convenient (or inconvenient depending on the character) turns that don’t make sense, but at least it has something interesting to say. Despite being delivered in a flawed package, it’s not afraid to highlight the agonizing disparities that affect New Orleans, where the rich and poor love to shout “Who Dat!” at each other but share little else.
The first episode of Your Honor begins its cover-up on December 6th on Showtime.