Since long before Hurricane Katrina but perhaps especially after, television writers and movie makers have descended on New Orleans with a hunger. Partially, that’s thanks to the tax breaks afforded productions by the state of Louisiana—many films, in particular, have shot in the city while pretending to be somewhere else, not really engaging with one of America’s most fascinating, beleaguered cities. Other projects, like David Simon’s alternately lively and mournful civic ode Treme, have really dug into the mise en scenè, exploring the dizzying contours of a city flush with new wealth and gripped by old poverty, a place where opportunity and desolation often commingle, sometimes on the same block.
Treme was similar in scope to Simon’s previous series, The Wire, which investigated the city of Baltimore from a variety of municipal perspectives. Though, The Wire was more fixated on crime and consequence, while Treme had a more rambling sociology, touching on matters of police and justice but also wandering into music, real estate, tourism, and more. The post-Katrina New Orleans shown in Treme was spirited, troubled, fertile, aching. If not a city in full, it was at least a vivid slice.
Now along comes another prestige cable series (this one’s a mini) determined to reexamine the Crescent City, albeit through a soapier lens. Unfortunately, Your Honor (Showtime, December 6) doesn’t seem to see the suds; it is perhaps too convinced of a depth that isn’t always there. Occasionally—in the four episodes (of ten) that I’ve seen—that self-seriousness pays off and the series, adapted from an Israeli show by lauded British dramatist Peter Moffat, achieves a certain tragic gravitas. But much else plays as elegant pulp, rather than the credible, searing inquest into a city and its ills that the series might think it is.
The setup is effective. Bryan Cranston plays Michael Desiato, a supposedly noble judge who does a bad thing, covering up a hit-and-run death for which his teenage son was at fault. The first two episodes of the series are all about that nervous, increasingly devious scramble, which suits Cranston quite well, as it did on Breaking Bad. It’s gripping, watching Michael’s decency falter as he uses his intimate knowledge of justice to do an injustice. Matters are further complicated—and the series takes on a less believable tone—when it’s revealed that the motorcyclist killed in the accident is the son of the city’s most dangerous crime boss, Jimmy Baxter, a Scotsman (sans burr) played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Police and mobsters alike close in on the case, missing a crucial piece of information, while Michael manages the coverup and grieves for his wife, who died the year prior.
There are ever more complications in Your Honor, which by the end of episode four has shown no signs that its narrative growth is slowing. The series is meant to be a grand mural, showing how one seemingly discrete incident has ripple effects across all strata of city life. Your Honor effectively renders those concentric circles on occasion: somewhat unwittingly, Michael helps frame an innocent Black teenager, Kofi (a painfully sympathetic Lamar Johnson), for the hit-and-run, a terrible development that the series follows to its inevitable grim end. In that, the show makes a stark point about how the self-interested machinations of a wealthy, white, well-connected elite so often yield collateral damage, inflicted upon the poor and marginalized. I hope the series continues to track that theme, as Michael’s character shifts from protective father to active component of a vile system.
His being a judge perhaps already placed him in that system, though the series takes pains to establish early that Michael is one of the good ones. That his morals are so quickly cast aside is perhaps the point. But nearly halfway through Your Honor, the show has yet to truly contextualize its hero—or anti-hero. Just how ironic the title of the show is intended to be remains to be seen.
The soap really gets lathered into a froth with Sthulbarg’s plot arc, a too-familiar depiction of a gentleman-gangster (not terribly removed from the actor’s work on Boardwalk Empire) with a dark Lady Macbeth by his side. Jimmy’s malevolent wife, Gina, is played by Hope Davis, who gives good icy, ruthless matriarch. But her character feels a bit outsized for the desired human scale of the series. Your Honor is gradually setting up a turf war sparked by a false arrest—the teenager nabbed for the hit-and-run is gang affiliated—all while the real culprit is protected by his increasingly corrupt father. There’s a tinge of classical drama in that, a lie giving way to larger ruin. Which is intriguing, and could prove satisfying if the series can stay on a focused course.
Regardless of the outcome, though, there will still likely be something discomfitingly touristy about Your Honor—the way it feigns concern for a city’s problems but really uses them as melodramatic grist, embellishing and eliding when narratively necessary or convenient. Even The Wire did some of that, of course, but it’s far more glaring here. Showtime is clearly aiming for the awards-y fences with this series, yet its best intentions lead it somewhere less than profound. I am as enrapt with Your Honor as one is with a passingly engrossing novel read on vacation—the intricacy of its crisscrossing plots has a pleasing density, a heft of writerly and readerly work if not thematic impact. At the near-midpoint of the series, it seems all too possible that Your Honor won’t successfully mine the potent truths it’s so ardently trying to delve into and illuminate. The series may have to settle for being a simpler entertainment, one that touches on salient things but does so roughly.
If nothing else, the series is a fine showcase for a variety of always-welcome actors. Isiah Whitlock Jr. (a notable Wire alum) plays a mover-and-shaker political candidate who’s on Michael’s side, for now. Whitlock adds a dynamic texture to the proceedings, playing a character whose shiftiness and respectability are in curious, symbiotic dialogue with one another. (I kind of wish the show was about his character.) Margo Martindale eventually arrives, peppering things up as a hard-charging former senator and the mother of Michael’s dead wife. Carmen Ejogo lends warmth and the faintest curl of suspicion as a civil rights attorney involved in a sure-to-be calamitous romantic relationship with Michael. Amy Landecker operates in a similar, though not romantic, role, as a cop friendly to Michael’s family who will probably have to turn on them eventually—or join them in their subterfuge. It’s a talented group of actors, all elevating the material above its deceptively B-grade station.
Again, I’ve only seen four episodes, which is probably not enough to fairly assess a series as wide-ranging and ambitious as this. I plan to stick with the show, as I’m eager to see where it winds up, what its ultimate conclusions and prescriptions may be. In this ever-distracted and oversaturated television era of ours, that intention may be testament enough to the worthiness of Your Honor. It does not (yet) bring any epic clarity to New Orleans and its people. But it will do well enough for some chilly Sunday nights, wherever you find yourself biding your time this winter.
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