In its first season, the NBC sitcom criminally (pun intended) skated under the radar despite featuring John Lithgow as an earnest accused murderer in a sharp parody of the “The Staircase” true crime documentary. Hopefully, its very solid second season – featuring Kristin Chenoweth as an eccentric heiress in a sharp parody of “The Jinx” – will get more people to realize what they were missing.
East Peck, South Carolina, the fictional town at the heart of “Trial & Error,” feels like a bizarro world Pawnee, Indiana with a heavy drawl. Its citizens are fiercely loyal to the strange idiosyncrasies of their beloved town, and woe betide the stranger who tries to suggest they might know better. “Trial & Error” initially highlighted East Peck’s oddities by bringing in Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto), an optimistic rookie lawyer sent from New York to cover a murder case whose “Northeastern” roots earned him widespread skepticism. His wide-eyed bewilderment at his surroundings could have easily turned into one-sided mockery of Southern quirks, but not only did D’Agosto make Josh a genuinely kindhearted straight man, but the show made the “Peckers” he encountered wonderfully strange in their own ways. In season 2, “Trial & Error” has Josh fully embrace the challenge of becoming a Pecker himself, and in turn, doubles down on the town’s quirks to prove the power of its singularly absurd voice.
Take the “Lady Laws,” a newly revealed archaic set of East Peck bylaws that, among other things, requires women drivers to make their way through traffic with the help of a man warning everyone else that there’s a “LADY DRIVER!” on the road. Or take Anne (Sherri Shepherd), the pluckiest and unluckiest citizen of East Peck, South Carolina. As she tells the camera with a pleasantly blasé expression in every episode, her many afflictions include face blindness, laughing uncontrollably at inappropriate times, and passing out when she sees something beautiful. As her conditions pile up with every passing episode, “Trial & Error” rarely lets an opportunity to indulge them go by, even if it’s just by letting Shepherd loose in the background of an otherwise unrelated shot. In the season 2 premiere, Anne reveals a new condition that comes so out of nowhere that spoiling it would be spoiling half the fun, but Shepherd is more than up to the challenge of selling it. Anne’s conditions make for a running joke as bizarre as it is hilarious – not to mention perfectly emblematic of “Trial & Error” at its smartest, weirdest best.
Season 2 reunites season 1’s mismatched defense team of Anne, Josh, and well-meaning blockhead Duane Reede (Steven Boyer). They’re more confident after winning a seemingly impossible case, but constant complications from new suspect Lavinia Peck-Foster (Chenoweth) and the return of their ferocious opposing counsel Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays) make it clear that their work is once again cut out for them.
Of the five episodes screened for critics, the premiere is the strongest by a wide margin – which isn’t to say that the season slides downhill so much as that premiere is fantastic. It’s hard not to miss Lithgow, but Chenoweth’s Lavinia is a melodramatic treat. The show lets Chenoweth unleash every ounce of her theatrical flair, highlighting Lavinia’s need to be adored with ostentatious flourishes and sporadic bursts into song. She might not seem like an obvious choice for a gender-flipped Robert Durst, but she quickly proves to be an excellent one.
Taking on “The Jinx,” however, does mean that this season has a bit of a trickier structure to nail. After all, the most fascinating aspects of the Durst case happened far outside the confines of a courtroom, which made for some of “Trial & Error’s” most fun material in season 1. It will be fascinating to see where “Trial & Error” goes in the back half of the season – especially since the show also brings in the new wrinkle of an intrepid podcast host (Amanda Payton) tracking the case in the hopes of scoring a “Serial”-esque scoop.
So, yes, there are approximately a million comedies on TV, and yes, true crime is a well-trod category. But even when it’s unclear where “Trial & Error” might be heading, its determination to stay as sharp and strange as its Peckers makes it worth a detour.
Comedy series, 30 mins. 5 episodes out of 10 watched for review.
Cast: Kristin Chenoweth, Nicholas D’Agosto, Sherri Shepherd, Jayma Mays, Steven Boyer, Amanda Peyton.
Crew: Executive producers Jeff Astrof, Matt Miller, Jeffrey Blitz.