“Trial & Error” should not be as funny as it is. The sitcom is kind of a tea-cozy murder mystery with a bemused affection for its rural setting that is reminiscent of NBC’s departed “Parks and Recreation,” full of punchy one-liners like “30 Rock,” and in a mockumentary format like “The Office.” The new NBC comedy seems to have been carefully constructed from elements of great Must-See-TVs of yore, and that’s a process that doesn’t always yield great programming. Even the idiosyncratic ensemble that gathers around the case also feels like an homage to “Parks and Recreation” — there’s the too-cool young brunette, the “citified” lawyer from “elsewhere,” a black woman with the funniest lines on the whole show, and a dedicated public servant determined to make her mark. And to top it all off, “Trial & Error” is headlined by John Lithgow, who won three Emmys as the lead of NBC’s long-running “3rd Rock from the Sun.” (With all of these imported influences, one wonders if “Trial & Error” is also a description of how this comedy was developed.)
But what “Trial & Error” does know is just how easy and fun it is to watch talented performers commit to being ridiculous — especially around the organizing principle of the murder mystery, which most of us could follow along with in our sleep. The show is a lighthearted, zany spoof of shows like “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer,” those true-crime documentary series that take a viewer into the real-time investigation of a convoluted case. “Trial & Error” skewers the heavy-handed truth-telling that the format can be guilty of by recasting an entire murder mystery with the most outlandish details. Margaret Henderson’s murder scene is criss-crossed with parallel tracks through the blood — left, regrettably, from her husband (and prime suspect’s) roller skates, after he helplessly rollercized through the carnage upon discovering the body. Lithgow plays Larry Henderson, the “rollercizer” in question, who is accused of murder and struggles to overcome his own basic goofiness in order to convince the rest of the town that he is, in fact, innocent. (During the subsequent murder trial, the town lists Larry Henderson as the fourth most-frequent cause of death in East Peck, South Carolina. Third most-frequent? Cannonballs.)
In desperation, Larry enlists the help of New York lawyer Josh Simon (Nicholas D’Agosto), who is hired primarily because he is Jewish (the Southerners’ euphemistic slang for this is “practicing Northeasterner”). Josh sets up shop in East Peck, only to discover that the best investigator in the area is a redneck unfortunately named Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer) who shares space with a taxidermist and is managed by Anne (Sherri Shepherd), a woman who means very well but suffers from any number of odd, minor psychological disorders, including “face-blindness.”
It’s frequently possible to see the jokes in “Trial & Error”coming from a mile away, but the commitment of the performers somehow makes even the silliest punchlines very funny. Case in point: Shepherd. She’s playing a character so minor that it takes a half a paragraph to explain who she is — but by the third or fourth episode, she’s stealing scenes like a thief, making the most out of ludicrous premises like “face-blindness” or “Stendahl’s Syndrome” (in which the sufferer, upon witnessing great beauty, falls into a dead faint). She also laughs hysterically when she’s very upset, and occasionally picks up accents after she’s been under anesthesia. Combining all of this with face-blindness makes for some difficult days for Anne. To alleviate confusion in the second episode, she labels the rest of the cast with nametags. This includes tagging one of the taxidermist’s masterpieces with “BEAR,” just so there is absolutely no confusion.
And quite surprisingly, given that murder is usually the province of drama, one of the most successful elements of “Trial & Error” is the story’s organizing mystery element, which both uses suspense to hilarious effect and provides a structure for the sillier comedic moments. Lithgow’s Henderson — who is, of course, a joy in the lead role — routinely protests his innocence, but both literally can’t form a human connection to save his life and has a mountain of evidence piled against him. This leads to some actual doubt about whether or not he is guilty of the crime, which avoids some of the treacly gooeyness of people coming together in crisis to fight the good fight.
Instead, “Trial & Error” is a comedy of errors, conducted by very silly people in a small town that is enough removed from the real world that the stakes of this murder seem very low, indeed. Like Pawnee, East Peck is the world writ small, with its one racist evil millionaire, one long-suffering judge, one nosy sheriff. It makes for a nice escape, especially in the hands of comedians who know how to make television comedy into an oasis from the real world.
The producers of “Trial & Error” have publicly stated that if the show continues, each season will deal with a new case — meaning that Larry Henderson’s guilt should be wrapped up by the end of Season 1, just in time for this crew of incompetents to create another mystery to solve.