'Trial & Error': TV Review

Tyler Golden/NBC
Not quite a guilty pleasure, but the stars acquit themselves well.
3/14/2017

NBC's true crime documentary spoof never really comes together, but John Lithgow, Sherri Shepherd and Steven Boyer deliver some laughs.

When recently reviewing the CBS legal drama Doubt, I invoked ambivalence at an all-star cast potentially trapped in a show that was unworthy of their talents — and thus no longer available to be on shows I actually wanted to watch. Doubt was shelved after two airings, an act of mercy since nothing in the three episodes I saw gave any hint that the series had the potential of rising to the level of its stars.

The contrast I want to make here is to NBC's Trial & Error, a comedic legal mockumentary boasting a terrific cast that only sometimes is well enough used. Having seen six episodes of Trial & Error, I remain disappointed because of how much better a show with an ensemble featuring John Lithgow, Sherri Shepherd, Jayma Mays and Steven Boyer probably ought to be. But there were enough laughs throughout that I suspect this particular series could eventually rise to their level. It's not there yet, and you may have to be a fan of one of the stars to exhibit the necessary patience.

But truly, who isn't a John Lithgow fan?

The five-time Emmy winner (and inevitable upcoming nominee for The Crown) plays Larry Henderson, a compulsively eccentric poetry professor accused of murdering his wife. The crime attracts enough media attention for attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D'Agosto) to be dispatched from a large New York City law firm down to East Peck, South Carolina, to oversee Larry's defense. Setting up his offices adjacent to a taxidermy shop, Josh recruits the best assistants the small town has to offer, including compulsively eccentric investigator Dwayne Reed (Boyer), compulsively eccentric researcher Anne Flatch (Shepherd) and Larry's not overwhelmingly eccentric (or memorable) daughter Summer (Krysta Rodriguez) to go up against the town's compulsively eccentric prosecutor Carol Anne Keane (Mays), who is determined to use the case as a stepping stone to greater local power.

Trial & Error is absolutely zeitgeist-y, parodying our ongoing fascination with true-crime documentaries like The Staircase, The Jinx and Making a Murderer. To straddle this difficult line, NBC paired sitcom veteran Jeff Astrof (Friends, $#*! My Dad Says) and hourlong veteran Matt Miller (Chuck, Forever). Adding aesthetic bona fides is director Jeffrey Blitz, whose credits include the documentary Spellbound, as well as format-bending comedies like The Office and Review.

It's a tough formula to crack. Trial & Error wants to function at least somewhat as a whodunnit, advancing the Henderson case on a weekly basis with the accumulation of evidence, courtroom procedure and the introduction of motive, red herrings, suspects and everything else you'd expect from a 42-minute episode of Law & Order. I don't think Trial & Error has much to say about why this is a genre that interests people in 2017, nor does it have anything at all to say about the legal system, much less how the legal system works in rural parts of the South. We've just reached sufficient genre critical mass that viewers can recognize the tropes from the genre, and Trial & Error is taking advantage.

If the pseudo-dramatic, serialized part of the plot works at all, it's only because of how evenly Lithgow's career has been split between playing genial comedic everymen and chilling sociopaths. The actor's ability to make his rollercizing character both unrelentingly silly and also possibly amoral works so well that if the finale of Trial & Error decided to be entirely straightforward and dramatic, it could probably work, at least as far as Larry is concerned.

An unfunny finale would also probably work for Josh, because D'Agosto has been given a character who functions only as a boring straight-man, alternating between resignation and incredulity at East Peck and its residents, all depicted as inbred hicks and degenerates to varying degrees.

Whatever affection a show like Parks and Recreation had for the hypothetical humanity of Pawnee is absent here, and that's where Trial & Error suffers most. There are too many easy jokes about The Fugitive just arriving at local movie theaters or the town's various historical embarrassments for East Peck to be anything other than a cheap-shot backwards burg, and by the end of six episodes, my "Ha ha, look at the rednecks" tolerance was pretty much gone.

Any patience I had for characters built on a loose compilation of quirks came from the actors themselves.

Shepherd's character in particular is nothing but quirks, as nearly every episode has her adding to the list of conditions she suffers from, including Facial Amnesia, Foreign Accent Syndrome, Stendahl's Syndrome and Dyslexia. The assumption is that eventually the accumulated oddities converge into a character, but through six episodes, the chuckles come from Shepherd's enthusiastic commitment to each disparate bit of strangeness, little else. The joke with Dwayne, other than the same drugstore gag The Night Of already did, is basically that he's really dumb, but in East Peck he's above average. Boyer, a Tony nominee for his spectacular work in Hand to God, has later episodes in which he finds shadings.

The series has yet to find any pairings or relationships with any real repartee or comedic chemistry, so the show is a lot of individuals elevating tired material with strong line readings, including guest stars like Bob Gunton, Cristine Rose, Ginger Gonzaga and Patricia Belcher.

Waiting for Trial & Error to be more than just a loose assemblage of oddball character beats joined together by some hand-held camera work, self-conscious talking heads and occasional glibness about murder wasn't a painful way to spend a few hours. But it's still an initial letdown, because all of the elements are here for Trial & Error to be something really good.

Cast: Nicholas D'Agosto, John Lithgow, Sherri Shepherd, Jayma Mays, Steven Boyer, Krysta Rodriguez
Creators: Jeff Astrof and Matt Miller
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 and 10:30 p.m. ET/PT, then airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (NBC)

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