NBC’s true crime mockumentary “Trial and Error” follows the case of Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), a man accused of murdering his wife via glass window. It takes place in the fictional East Peck, South Carolina. Attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) flies down from New York to defend Henderson with the help of some earnest but oft-worthless locals, Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer) and Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd). While the show essentially spoofs “The Staircase,” a documentary of a murder trial in North Carolina, it feels much more like a true-crime version of “Parks and Recreation” with a heavy dose of “Arrested Development.”
East Peck, its citizens, and its traditions could have come from discarded ideas for Pawnee, but with more Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel because it’s the South. Its “Arrested Development” roots (intentional or no) are often uncanny: Camera work harkens back to the Bluth’s documentary. Michael Bluth could have easily played the lawyer, who’s about as competent as Barry Zuckercorn. Replace Lithgow’s character with George Bluth and you might not notice a difference.
Opposing counsel is a manipulative “prosecutie” like Maggie Lizer. There’s even a lengthy, censored description of a sex act that would make Gob proud. This should be high praise. Yet its heavy-handed nature holds “Trial and Error” back. “Trial and Error” consistently goes for the predictable, “network sitcom” joke. Too often, characters say something to the camera while something in the background contradicts them. The townsfolk are exhaustingly stupid. The attorney, playing the straight man, regularly explains the joke when an acerbic comment or condescending look would do.
Let’s Pull It Together, Folks
A season-spanning joke for one assistant involves rare, but real disorders (face blindness and Stendhal syndrome among them). It’s the sort of “long-joke” that could have come back around to being funny, but only one disorder was exploited well and consistently for humor. The others seemed tacked on for the sake of zaniness.
Almost every episode features some new, often outrageous, twist in the case. Small-town lawyers might find themselves nodding at the verisimilitude. But the absurdity at times makes it difficult to suspend disbelief, which is saying something for a show that so deftly mines comedy from murder.
Despite the criticism, “Trial and Error” has its moments. Lithgow almost always delivers. His aloofness comes across as believable and organic. Boyer’s character succeeds as an endearingly earnest fool. Perhaps most importantly, “Trial and Error” has good DNA. The co-creators have writing and production credits from shows like “Friends, “Angie Tribeca,” and “Chuck.” It shows enough promise that it could really take off in its (recently announced) second season, just like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” did. Future seasons will supposedly focus on other crimes but feature the same town and characters. The show might be better served by replacing the characters like an anthology show, or least relegating most of them to the periphery.
Regardless, a little more subtlety would take this show from “funny” to “hilarious” quickly. “Trial and Error” can be a great network sitcom, if it stops acting like a network sitcom.