'Your Honor': Bryan Cranston on 'Breaking Bad' and his new morally compromising role in Showtime series

Gary Levin, USA TODAY
·5 min read

How far would you go to protect your child?

That's the provocative question posed by "Your Honor," a 10-episode Showtime series premiering Sunday (10 EST/PST), that stars Bryan Cranston as a morally upstanding New Orleans judge who faces a heartbreaking choice: When his teenage son (Hunter Doohan) kills a boy on a motorcycle in a hit-and-run accident, Michael Desiato's first instinct is to go to the police and confess.

But when Desiato learns the dead boy's father, Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg), is also the city's most ruthless crime boss, he makes a split-second calculation that changes everything, and his efforts to deflect blame escalate, with spiraling consequences.

Bryan Cranston as Michael Desiato and Hunter Doohan as his son, Adam, in Showtime's thriller limited series "Your Honor."
Bryan Cranston as Michael Desiato and Hunter Doohan as his son, Adam, in Showtime's thriller limited series "Your Honor."

The project, based on the 2017 Israeli series "Kvodo," marks Cranston's first major TV role since AMC's acclaimed "Breaking Bad" ended in 2013. But the actor, 64, has been plenty busy, playing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in a biopic and a scientist in a "Godzilla" remake; President Lyndon B. Johnson and an addled "Network" news anchor in Broadway plays; and (briefly) a villain on "Sneaky Pete," an Amazon series he co-created.

"When 'Breaking Bad' was ending, I gave myself a self-imposed three-year moratorium on television, because I just intuitively felt that the character got so out of control and the show was lauded, as I was very thankful for," Cranston says. "But I think I needed a break, so that the audience can relax from that to be able to see me in another way."

But he relishes playing "characters that are flawed, struggling, but trying to do the right thing," especially at the hands of writer Peter Moffat ("Criminal Justice," adapted by HBO as the acclaimed 2016 limited series "The Night Of"), and power-producer couple Robert and Michelle King ("The Good Wife," "Evil"), who know their way around a courtroom.

Bryan Cranston as New Orleans judge Michael Desiato, who goes to extreme lengths to protect his teenage son, in "Your Honor."
Bryan Cranston as New Orleans judge Michael Desiato, who goes to extreme lengths to protect his teenage son, in "Your Honor."

"The premise of this was just so unbelievably attractive," Cranston says. "As a parent myself, thinking 'What would you do to save the life of your child,' my answer would be, 'Almost anything.'"

Parallels to "Bad" are undeniable: Desiato, like "Bad" dad and chemistry teacher-turned-meth-dealer Walter White, are ethical average guys who make bad choices to do the right thing for their family. White sought to protect his kin financially from his expected death due to lung cancer, only to (eventually) turn into a glowering criminal overlord.

Benjamin Hassan Wadsworth plays a hit-and-run victim and Michael Stuhlbarg is his crime-boss father in Showtime's "Your Honor."
Benjamin Hassan Wadsworth plays a hit-and-run victim and Michael Stuhlbarg is his crime-boss father in Showtime's "Your Honor."

"What’s different about this is he's completely altruistic and impulsive," Cranston says. "He’s got the responsibility of determining right and wrong, dispensing justice to the society that he lives in. And all of a sudden, he now has to be on the other side of the fence. But it’s still very difficult for him to think as a criminal, as opposed to thinking as a righteous person. So he stumbles and he makes mistakes along the way, because he’s not built that way. And he knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that if his son came forward and confessed to this hit and run accident, he would not survive. Jimmy Baxter would make sure that (his) son would be killed at some point. And so all bets are off."

Robert King suggests a holiday-gathering exercise: "Ask members of your family, if they found out you murdered someone, who would turn you in," he says. "There's a dividing line between what you do for the world and the ethics of a situation in the abstract, and what you'd do for a loved one who depended on you. That's where the show's ethical fault line lies."

Lamar Johnson as Kofi Jones in Showtime's 'Your Honor.'
Lamar Johnson as Kofi Jones in Showtime's 'Your Honor.'

There are parallels to "The Night Of," which stars Riz Ahmed as a New York City cabdriver suspected of a murder and inexorably chewed up by the criminal justice system as a series of bad decisions cascades into calamity. In "Your Honor," a racial component is added to the mix when a Black youth, Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson), is drawn into the drama.

"They have definite tonal connections, the two shows," Moffat says. "I have a kind of ambition when I’m setting out to make something that I want people to talk to the television while they’re watching. Like, 'No, don’t do that,' which requires a fast-paced story and the ability to empathize with the protagonist."

The project, which could spawn a sequel, has been in the works for at least two years, and after production was shut down by COVID-19 in March, with 75% of the series filmed, Cranston caught the virus shortly after returning home to Los Angeles, after his wife, Robin Dearden, became infected. (Symptoms were "mild," he says: "We had two-and-a-half, three days of a little achey-ness, and then about a week of just extreme exhaustion.")

Bryan Cranston as Michael Desiato, a judge and worried father, in "Your Honor."
Bryan Cranston as Michael Desiato, a judge and worried father, in "Your Honor."

The cast and crew returned to film in New Orleans in October, with strict safety protocols, including face shields during rehearsals, and completed the finale – directed by Cranston – just two weeks ago.

The actor was crucial to conveying how an everyman would wrestle with an unthinkable tragedy.

"We wanted to cast someone who had an inherent decency about them," Moffat says.

Adds Michelle King: "He has a gravitas that you absolutely believe him on the bench, and a compassion that you believe him as a loving father and just an intelligence that you really want to see him wrestle with important questions."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Your Honor': Bryan Cranston on role as judge who lies to protect son