The dark American legal drama Your Honor asks a very personal question of judge Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston). When his son Adam (Hunter Doohan) is involved in a hit and run, how far will a father push the legal, moral and ethical line to protect his child? The answer is as unsettling as it is confronting.
The co-creator of Kvodo, the Israeli television series on which it is based, framed it as a challenge to a fundamental notion of parenthood. "It is a common thing that a father [or mother] is supposed to do anything for their son or daughter," Shlomo Mashiach said. "I try to question this convention, and ask what is anything? Anything? Is there no human or moral legal boundary?"
Cranston, best known as the star of the critically exalted cable drama Breaking Bad, sees that moral axis as the foundation stone of Your Honor. "And what we discover about our own sense of morality is that it may not be as solid as we think it is," Cranston says. "This story presents a scenario that is very relatable if you're a parent, to think that your number one responsibility is to protect your child, physically, emotionally, intellectually."
When the 64-year-old Los Angeles-born actor sat down with British lawyer-turned-screenwriter Peter Moffat to discuss the US adaptation, Cranston says he was immediately hooked by the question. "That's what really got me, that if you felt your child's life was really in danger, would you become a criminal to protect him or her? And I think the quick answer to any parent is yes."
But then things get complicated. "You dissect the question," Cranston says. "So, would you destroy evidence? Yes. Would you lie? Yes. Would you coerce and try to bribe someone? Yes. Would you kill another human being or do something that would hurt an innocent person? And then there's the pause. Then there's that moment of, personally, no, I wouldn't."
The series has come to US television via the producing partnership of Robert and Michelle King, whose credits include The Good Wife, The Good Fight and Evil. Moffat, who wrote Criminal Justice and Cambridge Spies, was brought in as the project's screenwriter. And Cranston was lured to the part by its complexity, and the opportunity to work with all three.
Moffat was presented only with the premise of the original series initially, and did not watch that series before writing the US adaptation. "I kind of stayed up half the night, just writing and thinking, very quickly, incredibly unusual for me, because I'm a slow writer, about the possibilities for this extending the premise into a full-blown drama," he says.
"I was so energised by what I was doing that I really quickly realised it might be a dangerous thing to go and watch the original because I was so absorbed in my own development at the premise that I thought I could get really knocked sideways," he adds. "I stayed away from it for a really long time until I was confident about what we were doing."
The ethical dilemma at the heart of the series – when presented with a child's criminality, what would a parent do? – is best explored not by asking what they would do, but by asking what they would not do, Moffat says.
"I think it's a harder question, and I don't think we have a shared perspective on that; I don't think there is or can be a collective agreement on [an answer]," Moffat says, pointing out that the questions surrounding each step, and each subsequent step, become more complex as the process continues.
"Suddenly, very quickly actually, you're into difficult territory," he says. "And so far you're probably still saying, I have to, because it's your child. I love the idea that you and I, and hopefully an audience, can have a conversation about jurisprudence, and about the difference between morality and the law."
Is there a difference? "Of course, yes," says Moffat. "Otherwise we would all have done what Hitler asked us to do, had we been living in Nazi Germany. But those are great questions to be able to ask of an audience and of oneself in creating a drama like this."
Moffat's discipline as a writer is tight, as are his expectations of the actors who work with his scripts. "I say this at the table read when the cast are first gathered together: every comma matters, and a semi-colon isn't a comma, it's very important that it's a semi-colon," he says. "I will have thought about that with much care, otherwise it won't be there.
"At the same time, I don't want [the cast] to feel that the script slows down their interpretation of what they're performing, so in other words, it's an invitation to a conversation. I see Bryan every single day; we talk about every single scene, every single line, that conversation is genuinely possible. That's the starting point.
"When he suggests something needs to change, I know that he's taking me seriously and the other way around too," Moffat adds. "And I do take him seriously because I'm not an actor and an actor has a sense of things that it's possible that a writer doesn't share. So you have to listen; you have to not be precious about your work because it might be that he's making it better, and there are many instances when that was true."
From Cranston's perspective, he thinks his greatest asset was his lack of legal experience. "The Kings, of course, have tremendous experience in courtroom dramas, and you can feel that, but also Peter was a solicitor in London for several years in criminal court," Cranston says. "So I can ask layman questions like, is this clear? What happens in a courtroom in such a case? What is the protocol?"
To prepare for the role, Cranston also took himself to New Orleans to shadow a local judge. "To see other judges in action, in various stages of a trial, and then I did my own research, talking with our legal consultants. What works, what doesn't, how do you make it interesting? How do you make a courtroom drama where most people are stationary, how do you make that interesting? So that was all part of the conversation, and everyone contributed. It's been a fun experience."
The series also marks, for Cranston, a return to television after a spell on the stage, working on two high-profile productions, All The Way, about US president Lyndon B. Johnson's efforts to push the Congress into supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a stage adaptation of the 1976 film Network, first in London's West End and later on Broadway.
Having spent the better part of a decade working in an environment where every wrinkle could be ironed out tomorrow night, Your Honor is a return to a format where an actor gets a single pass to put to film his best take.
"Speaking for myself, though I think a lot of actors who would agree with me, the most enjoyable, rewarding time work in your performance is on stage, where you are entrusted with telling a complete story, every performance," Cranston says. "A beginning, a middle and an end, and if the play is worth it's salt, it's dynamic, and it's emotional, and it's ferocious at times, and it has a message, and it leaves you thinking, or angry, or joyful, or whatever.
Television is, Cranston says, in contrast, a "bits and pieces" business. "You're putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle, a little bit every day, and you don't get the reward of the complete picture until it's all said and done," he says. "There's a pace in film or television that you need to adjust to, so you can't keep that vibrating energy at will – you have to let it go.
"Our responsibility is to tell an audience a story, is to take them by the hand and guide them through the story and promise them that, if they follow you, that they will be rewarded at the end," he says. "They don't care, and nor should they know, or even care, how hard it might've been that you worked until 5.30 in the morning, or that you're exhausted. I take that responsibility very seriously, and that's always with me, and that keeps me honest, it keeps me working hard."
Your Honor premieres on Stan on Monday, December 7.