Big news. Peter Moffat, writer of the very enjoyable lawyer dramas North Square and Silk, and also of The Village, which was Downton Abbey as re-imagined by George Gissing, has made the move to the US. Not only that, but his series for Showtime (on Sky Atlantic in the UK) has Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame as its star. Yes, I know I should be pleased for him; I should probably make like Liz Truss and say something toe-curling about British exports. (Him and Wensleydale, eh?) In truth, though, I feel a bit conflicted. The thought that Moffat might never again write for Maxine Peake and Rupert Penry-Jones is surprisingly hard to bear. Cranston, television’s current favourite Everyman, is great. I’m as full of admiration as the next person for his ability to express skulking suburban rage. But he’s hardly Neil Stuke, is he?
As its title suggests, in Your Honor (next on, 9 March, 9pm), we’re once again in lawyer-land. Cranston plays Michael Desiato, a New Orleans judge whose liberal credentials and general moral rectitude are established early on: in the courtroom, he’s the kind of guy who accuses lying cops of racism and tends to be lenient with single mothers. His life, we understand, has recently been difficult. A year ago, his wife was murdered outside a bodega. But in other ways, he’s blessed. His work is interesting and important. He has a teenage son he adores. His lovely house in one of the nicer parts of the city is all polished parquet, many shades of teal and delicate Shaker-style benches on which no living person will ever sit.
The series turns around a single event. I’m going to avoid spoilers, but I think it’s all right to say (since this happens in the first 15 minutes of the series) that for Desiato, a perfectly good day turns into pretty much the worst 24 hours it’s possible to have when his son, Adam (Hunter Doohan), knocks down and kills another teenage boy in a hit and run accident. The victim’s identity, which I won’t reveal, means that, as his father immediately grasps, it’s not going to be enough for Adam to confess that he was having a severe asthma attack at the time of the accident, and thus could not think straight. In fact, confessing at all would be a very bad idea indeed. It’s time for them both to start lying – and doesn’t one untruth always lead to another? Watching Desiato desperately fabricate his son’s alibi is almost painful: if his stories were cashmere sweaters, the moths would be at them before they’d even been worn.
This series isn’t gripping. It’s mesmerising – if, that is, you’re the kind of person who feels that in life the line between success and a total botch job is precariously thin; that things can go catastrophically wrong at any time. The first episode made me feel physically sick, and I became so agitated watching the second I had to turn it off. But you may be made of sterner stuff than I am, and even though I am a total coward, I still recommend it. The plot is as tangled as Spanish moss. The dialogue is beautifully restrained (minutes at a time can go by without anyone saying anything at all). Moffat, last seen (in a writerly sense) outside a pub in the Inner Temple, seems to have found his inner Eudora Welty, as well as his inner John Grisham.
And then, of course, there’s Cranston. His performance is a thing to behold. One minute, he’s just this bloke: dogged, decent, a bit dull. The next, he’s been overtaken by something I can only describe as vulpine. It’s amazing, the way he’s able to convey a brain that is working feverishly, even as he pretends to all around that everything is absolutely as normal: an actor playing a man who is acting. There are other people in the cast I can’t mention without giving things away, and they’re all good. But it’s Cranston who powers this. I find his watchability fascinating. In actorly terms, he has so little charisma. What’s his secret? I think I want to get to grips with this even more than I want to know how he’s going to protect his stupid, scared-shitless son.
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus