The opening of “Your Honor” is a full horror movie in and of itself. Over 15 tense and terrible minutes, director Edward Berger traces the growing unease of one chilly New Orleans morning with ominous patience. A teenager (Hunter Doohan) wakes up in bed with his girlfriend (Sofia Black-D’Elia), kisses her goodbye and heads out for the day with his inhaler, some flowers and a photo of his dead mother resting on the passenger seat of his car. Across town, a richer teenager gets on his new motorcycle, hugs his doting parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Hope Davis) and hits the road. Meanwhile, a determined man (Bryan Cranston, also executive producer) jogs through streets and graveyards with equal urgency, barely taking a breath as sweat seeps through his shirt. If it weren’t for the fraught music steadily creeping from the background into the foreground, nothing about any of this would seem particularly noteworthy. But it’s not long before everyone’s disparate paths intertwine — quite literally, in the case of the two teenagers, who end up colliding in the middle of a desolate road with a sickening crunch that leaves them both reeling, bloody and begging for help.
In this critical moment, “Your Honor” is stark, unsparing and very effective. The more overwhelmed Adam (Doohan) becomes, the more the camera homes in on his shaking face, making it impossible for the viewer to look away. For several minutes, the only dialogue comes from a 911 operator straining to make sense of Adam’s shaky breathing on the other end of the line. Otherwise, all we can see and feel is his full-body panic, made visceral by Berger’s unflinching directing and Doohan’s vulnerable performance. When Adam finally makes the fateful decision to leave the scene before anyone sees him, it feels as classic a horror movie misstep as any: an awful mistake that will cost him more than he can possibly know in that one terrified moment.
It’s no coincidence that of the four episodes of “Your Honor” made available ahead of the limited series’ premiere, these extremely taut first minutes are by far the most compelling. Detailing this one event and its immediate aftermath makes both Berger and writer-showrunner Peter Moffat focus on what’s at stake in a way that subsequent episodes struggle with. Based on the Israeli series “Kvodo,” the show’s linchpin is ostensibly Cranston’s Michael, a judge who prizes morality above all else until Adam, his son, is endangered. (That “Your Honor” — get it now? — counts “The Good Wife” masterminds Robert and Michelle King as executive producers should come as no surprise.) But as “Your Honor” sprawls further out and into the lives of its many characters, it gets lost in the weeds of its storytelling.
The show’s attempt to keep the narrative relatively contained results in some truly roundabout reasoning for relating just about every character in the show to another, no matter how implausible. “This is New Orleans — everything connects,” Hope Davis’ deadly matriarch purrs at one point, by way of explanation. And sure, that may be so. Yet even as the series finds a way to, for instance, get an unlikely group of people to sit around the same dinner table for the sake of heightened drama, it finds less of a reason for twists like, say, the fact that Adam’s girlfriend turns out to be his teacher. Four episodes in, this inherently unbalanced “relationship” doesn’t get nearly the consideration or critical examination that it should. It’s just yet another complication thrown into the mix to confirm that most everyone on-screen has a secret just waiting for the worst possible time to emerge.
That the show works so hard to include as much story as possible speaks to its overarching ambition. Through its complex web of characters, it explores the politics of race, policing and privilege that define New Orleans — and indeed, as “Your Honor” would be the first to say, the United States as a whole. In the first four episodes, the series takes pains to convey that the team behind it knows the dynamics and implications at play in its hyper-realistic world. Men like Michael, a well-off white judge, and Jimmy (an electric, bombastic Stuhlbarg) are able to pull strings for their teenage sons in a way that the poorer Black parents of their district can’t, with devastating consequences. For one: 17 year-old Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson, a quiet force) unwittingly becomes collateral damage of Michael’s desperate plans to protect Adam. In some of the show’s most painful sequences, leering cops bat him around like dogs playing with roadkill.
But the face of “Your Honor” isn’t Kofi; it’s Michael, a “nice” guy who keeps putting powerless people in harm’s way to keep his own family safe. Both he and the show may know it’s wrong, but that doesn’t make it much less disgusting to witness over and over again.
“Your Honor” premieres Sunday, December 6 at 10 pm on Showtime.