What would you do if your child killed someone in a hit and run? “The answer,” says Peter Moffat, “is fairly obvious. You have to take your child to the police station.” But what if it turns out the victim was the son of the biggest mob boss in New Orleans? “You turn around,” says Moffat. “You can’t send them off into probable death. That’s not something any parent can do.”
This conundrum forms the centre of Moffat’s new drama, Your Honor, a remake of the hit Israeli show Kvodo. In it, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston plays another father bending the rules for the benefit of his family – this time Judge Michael Desiato, who is forced to confront the consequences of protecting his own son from the justice system he upholds. As he scrambles to cover up the crime, using his legal connections at every turn, Desiato sucks others into the case – and is forced to face the damage his own desperation has caused. Desiato, says Moffat, “knows how the system functions, how he can manoeuvre it to his advantage. It just felt great to write.”
While Your Honor excels as a taut thriller, it’s no coincidence that the protagonist is a judge. A former barrister, Moffat left life at the bar after the success of his first play, A Fine and Private Place, which led to the TV series North Square, and then Silk and the Bafta-winning Criminal Justice. Like North Square, Silk was set in the highly politicised world of a barristers’ chambers – following Maxine Peake through professional and personal battles. Criminal Justice may have been more narrowly focused, following an individual case through to its conclusion – but its clear that the law is his dramatic niche, and it’s not something to which he objects.
“I’m lucky that’s my pigeonhole,” Moffat says. “The law is more fascinating to me now than it was when I started out, not least for the politics of it all. There are still elements that make me angry.”
This is the first time Moffat has had the opportunity to explore these issues in a US context and, while he happily acknowledges the flaws in the British system, he believes the problems in America dwarf them. “I felt myself to be pretty unshockable,” he says. “And then I went to America – in particular Chicago, then New Orleans. I couldn’t believe it.”
In Louisiana, he visited Angola, the largest maximum security prison in America, where “some people are treated like animals. The iconography is astonishing – in a country whose original sin is the enslavement of black people, they can put people in chains and make them work in fields, on a former plantation. It’s the most appalling thing. It shocked the hell out of me and I felt pretty compelled to write about it.”
He adds: “Twenty-five per cent of the world’s prison population are in American prisons. And they have 5% of the world’s population. If you’re poor, if you’re disadvantaged, if you’re black, then your chances to do well are massively diminished.”
Moffat delves into these issues further in his next series, 61st Street, about a promising black high school athlete who is swept up into the Chicago criminal justice system. As with Your Honor, and unusually for US drama, the team based the writers room in the south side of Chicago, where the story is set. “It just gave us so much,” says Moffat. “Texture, sounds and people – outside the window, or coming into the room and being with us.”
Moffat admits that the higher stakes of the US system – with its life and death sentences – offer rich pickings for any dramatist. But he also knows there’s power in drama: it can reach people in a way that journalism or documentary can’t. But is he – as a white, British writer – the best person to help draw attention to these issues? Moffat is happy to confront his own privilege and the responsibilities that brings. “If a production is spending a lot of money, and if they want to be safe, then there’s definitely still a lot of work coming to white, middle-aged men like me, because they can see that you’ve done it before. But I think it’s changing. I just have to write – it’s how I get paid.
“I do ask myself, however, if I’m in the way of other people who should be writing but are not able to – because there are people like me around. And in order to work against that, I do everything I can, especially in America, to bring in and bring on younger writers who are different from myself – and give them power, authority and control over what they’re doing.”
Your Honor was the first time Moffat had worked in a US writers room. And as head writer, he was able to shape that group to reflect the country he was trying to capture on screen. “The whole starting point for who was going to be in the room was, ‘Who can tell me things I don’t know?’ It’s always tempting to surround yourself with like-minded folk, and I decided to do the opposite. I made sure all of the writers were from very different backgrounds from mine, and from each other, so that it was a genuinely diverse group that could represent all kinds of sectors of society. It was an unbelievably exciting experience.”
Of course, there was one other voice in that mix, the undoubted star of the show, Bryan Cranston, on whom success and failure rests. Moffat worked closely with the actor, spending upwards of four hours a day going through his character and the shape of the story. He calls it “one of the richest experiences of my writing career” – and the relationship stood them in good stead when filming was halted due to the pandemic, with 35 days of filming still to go.
“It’s courtroom drama,” says Moffat, “and those courts are nothing if not packed with human beings. So I had to introduce a Covid storyline. But it didn’t feel like a square peg in a round hole. We were talking about the corruption of a man’s soul – there’s this plague without, and there’s a plague within. It really suits Bryan’s character to say, ‘I don’t want the public and the press in here.’ The fact that he was talking about keeping out an existential threat – that was trying to get in and corrupt all of us – was a reasonably apposite way of doing things.”
If that all sounds a bit highbrow for a crowdpleasing thriller, fear not. “As a writer you get into the big fat jurisprudential philosophical moral problems,” Moffat says. “But you also know this is solid thriller territory. So all the big questions aren’t too pompous – they’re tucked in alongside the action. It’s a happy combination.”
• Your Honor launches on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on 2 March.