One of the many blessings of the peak-TV era is the way it loosens conventions, allowing pockets of brilliant weirdness to flourish in unlikely places. Over on NBC, as mainstream hits like This is Us and The Voice pay the bills, a group of off-kilter comedies are quietly letting their freak-flags fly: The Good Place, A.P. Bio, Great News (may it stream in peace), and the network’s most singular offering, Trial & Error (returning Thursday, July 19 at 9 p.m.). Packed with visual gags and meticulously-crafted lowbrow humor, the legal mockumentary is a worthy entry into that silly-smart subgenre of comedy that brought us everything from Airplane! to 30 Rock.
For those of you who haven’t seen it (i.e. most of you), season 1 of Trial & Error chronicled inexperienced New York attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) as he headed to the fictional town of East Peck, South Carolina to defend local eccentric Larry Henderson (John Lithgow) on charges he murdered his wife. After the perfectly preposterous end to that case (you can stream season 1 for free on NBC.com through July 18), Josh decides to settle in East Peck full-time, and he doesn’t have to wait long to land a new client: Season 2 opens with beloved town heiress Lavinia Peck-Foster (Kristin Chenoweth) being pulled over by police, who discover her husband’s dead body in her trunk.
Hindering Josh as he prepares Lavinia’s defense is his comically unqualified legal team: Anne Flatch (the deftly daffy Sherri Shepherd), an assistant with a never-ending list of weird medical ailments, and Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer), a dimwitted cop who is dangerously careless with his firearm. Once again, Josh is facing off against the ruthlessly ambitious ADA — and his screwball comedy love interest — Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays). Though the show’s writers have put together a real murder mystery, the case is secondary to the giddy shenanigans stemming from Josh’s efforts to prove his client innocent. Every scene is an opportunity for goofy wordplay (Josh investigates the victim’s life insurance policy at East Peck Casualty & Casual Tees Insurance), physical comedy, and relentless penis jokes (residents of East Peck are known as Peckers, as in, “You can’t become a Pecker — you have to have Pecker in you”).
It takes a tremendous amount of commitment and precision to make comedy this stupid work so brilliantly, and once again Trial & Error’s cast proves wonderfully capable. D’Agosto uses his earnest demeanor and subtle delivery to convey Josh’s determined optimism in the face of regular failure, while Mays’ doe-eyed beauty infuses her character’s scathing insults with a delightful incongruity. Though the constant stream of Anne’s odd afflictions (“I have something called hyperacusis, or ‘random dog-level hearing’”) could have grown tiresome quickly, Shepherd’s perfectly-calibrated obliviousness keeps the running gag from running itself into the ground. It’s also nearly impossible to follow an act like John Lithgow (just ask seasons 5-8 of Dexter), but Chenoweth is wholly entertaining as the swanning and flirtatious “first lady of East Peck.”
No doubt we’ll discover whether Lavinia killed her husband by the end of Trial & Error’s 10-episode run, but the real joy here comes from spending time in the quirky East Peck universe, a place as fully realized as Parks & Recreation’s Pawnee. It’s a town where “lady laws” prohibit women from driving “without a man with a red flag in front warning other drivers”; where locals wait anxiously once a year to see if Mickey Moose will see his breath because, as Anne explains, “it tells us how many Saturdays we have in a month.” If you haven’t visited East Peck yet, give it a try — you just might like having a little Pecker in you. Grade: B+