John Lithgow's NBC series has the kind of good bones and fool-proof premise that could make for a great, long-running sitcom
Call it Mocking a Murderer: NBC’s goofy Trial & Error takes familiar hallmarks from recent true-crime thrillers (particularly HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer) and mines them for laughs — sometimes even big ones.
Shot in mockumentary style, the series centers on Larry Henderson (played with aplomb by the venerable John Lithgow), a South Carolina poetry professor whose wife is found dead inside their house. Did he do it? It sure looks like it: Not only was he having an affair with his personal trainer, but, um, his first wife died in identical fashion. Plus, he loves to roller-skate, which in this small Southern enclave counts as highly suspicious behavior.
His only hope is Josh (Nick D’Agosto, a terrific actor who needs to be in a lot more things), a slick fast-talking go-getter defense lawyer from Up North. But Josh quickly realizes he’s in over his head once he encounters the locals and discovers just how weird they really are. He’s basically in a less competent Pawnee. There’s the “retired” cop who becomes his lead investigator (Steven Boyer’s Dwayne), and the head researcher (Sherri Shepherd’s Anne) who can’t remember faces, has dyslexia, and suffers from a host of rare and mostly made-up disorders.
This Diet Parks and Recreation aspect is both a good thing and a bad thing for the show. Good in that all this zaniness is powered by a team of strong character actors (the incomparable Andy Daly eventually shows up as a DNA expert). But there are times when the characters are too willfully quirky. Remember how Dwight Schrute was often an insufferable cartoon character in the later seasons of The Office? There’s a lot of that going on here. Trial & Error might benefit from laying it on less thickly in future episodes.
Still, Trial & Error has the kind of good bones and foolproof premise that could make for a great, long-running sitcom (the plan is to debut a new case every season). The performances are mostly wonderful — you won’t find me bad-mouthing Lithgow — and the already-tiring true-crime genre was due for a good zinging. It got one. B+
Trial & Error premieres on NBC Tuesday, March 14 at 10 p.m. ET.