DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Bryan Cranston, the star of AMC's "Breaking Bad," returns to series television for the first time since that show left the air in a new Showtime miniseries called "Your Honor," which begins on Sunday. Cranston plays a New Orleans judge whose life is torn apart after his teenage son gets into some sudden and very serious trouble. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Bryan Cranston had played the goofy dad on the Fox sitcom "Malcolm In The Middle" then redefined himself brilliantly as Walter White, the meek high school chemistry teacher in "Breaking Bad." What made Walter break bad was the sudden news that he had contracted terminal cancer, leading to a series of increasingly momentous decisions. In the new Showtime miniseries "Your Honor," Cranston returns to series TV, playing another character who gets some sudden life-changing news.
This time, he plays Michael Desiato, a compassionate judge in New Orleans and a single parent raising his teenage son after the death of his wife a year ago in an unexpected tragedy. On the day of that sad anniversary, the son Adam, played by Hunter Doohan, experiences an unexpected tragedy of his own. After leaving flowers at the convenience store where his mother was an innocent bystander shot by robbers, Adam has an asthma attack while driving away. He searches for his inhaler on the passenger seat. And as he takes his eye off the road, he slams into a motorcycle driven by another teenager. Adam, after returning home, tells his father what happened next.
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BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Michael) Where did this happen?
HUNTER DOOHAN: (As Adam) The lower 9th.
CRANSTON: (As Michael) OK. OK. So it would be the new hospital, then. The ambulance would've taken him to - what? - New Orleans East, that right?
DOOHAN: (As Adam) I don't know.
CRANSTON: (As Michael) Well, the police must have said something.
DOOHAN: (As Adam) I drove away. (Crying) I drove away.
CRANSTON: (As Michael) Adam, you drove away before the EMTs arrived?
DOOHAN: (As Adam) I tried to help him. But I couldn't give - breathe...
CRANSTON: (As Michael) So you called 911?
DOOHAN: (As Adam) I tried to. But...
CRANSTON: (As Michael) What do you mean tried to, Adam?
DOOHAN: (As Adam) Dad, please...
CRANSTON: (As Michael) Is it yes or no?
DOOHAN: (As Adam) Help me, please, Dad. I couldn't breathe. I...
CRANSTON: (As Michael) OK. I got you, buddy. I got you.
BIANCULLI: This 10-part series begins like the HBO miniseries "The Night Of," following a young man as he descends deeper and deeper into a horrifying spiral of accidents and consequences. That engrossing 2016 miniseries was created by Peter Moffat, who adapted it from his own British series. Moffat is the adapter of "Your Honor," as well. But this time, he's not working from his own story. Showtime's "Your Honor" is his new version of a 2017 Israeli drama called "Kvodo," which has the same basic plot and is available to sample on YouTube. But for this adaptation for the United States, the location is changed to New Orleans, and other elements are given an American spin, from police brutality to local criminal activity.
One thing stays the same, though, and it's the thing that makes "Your Honor" so gripping from the start. The father, doing the right thing as both a judge and a citizen, escorts his son to the police station to turn him in with an explanation. But when he gets there, he sees the father of the victim and recognizes him as a powerful local mob boss. All of a sudden, the judge realizes that to turn his son in would be to sign his death warrant. So from that point on, what is the right thing to do? And how many people does he have to enlist or deceive to do it?
There's a certain flavor of "Breaking Bad" to this because we're essentially put in the position of sympathizing with and rooting for a person who's breaking and avoiding the law. But that's not a complaint because "Breaking Bad" may be the best TV drama series ever made. And Bryan Cranston, once again, crafts a marvelously nuanced and empathic performance.
And in "Your Honor," he's not alone. The executive producers, in addition to Moffat and Cranston, include Robert and Michelle King, the talented creators of "The Good Wife," so both the characters and the legal twists are fully drawn. Hunter Doohan, as the judge's son, has the same relatable acting skills as Cranston and needs to since he carries most of the show's opening hour. And other riveting characters and actors abound. Michael Stuhlbarg from TV's "Fargo" plays the mob boss, and Hope Davis plays his wife as a very fierce and involved sort of Carmela Soprano to his Tony. And while Margo Martindale from "Justified" and "The Americans" doesn't show up as the judge's mother-in-law until Episode 4, wow, is she worth the wait.
The writers on "Your Honor" include Moffat himself, and the directors include Clark Johnson, an actor and director way back on "Homicide: Life On The Street," and Edward Berger, who did a marvelous job directing another Showtime miniseries, "Patrick Melrose." Showtime provided only four of the 10 episodes of "Your Honor" in advance, but each one both impressed and surprised me and made me hungry to see the next.
Cranston's Michael Desiato is smart enough to think on his feet, and almost every scene requires him to do just that to avoid exposure and danger and to protect his only son, whatever the repercussions to others. The series title, "Your Honor," isn't just the judge's work title. It's also at the center of the show. When it comes to your family, what will you do to save them? And what effect will that have upon your moral code, your relationships with others and your honor?
DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "Your Honor," the new Showtime miniseries starring Bryan Cranston.
On Monday's show, Terry will speak with Kate Winslet. She's starring in the new film "Ammonite," which tells an imagined version of the life of Mary Anning, a 19th-century self-taught paleontologist. In the film, Winslet's character has a passionate affair with a prosperous married woman played by Saoirse Ronan. Winslet's other films include "Heavenly Creatures," "Titanic" and "Sense And Sensibility." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.