Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
A lot can be said about NBC’s handling of comedy in the post-Office era, or at least after season 7 when the once cultural phenomenon fizzled out to become a smaller, home remembrance kind of offering instead of a Steve Carell powerhouse. Parks and Recreation rightfully took its mantle with its small-town government show that occasionally stepped into true greatness, cementing itself as one of the final NBC comedies worth caring about in a long while.
Trial & Error is the latest attempt to recapture some of the spark from the mockumentary glory days, but with a more relevant premise that positions it as a “murder trial comedy,” where one case is the focus of an entire season. More specifically, this is a spoof of true crime documentaries a la Making a Murderer, using laughs and character quirks to break through the seriousness and tell a long story about an eccentric man who may or may not have murdered his wife.
That man is Larry Henderson, played by John Lithgow, a roller skating poetry professor who by all accounts seems guilty thanks to the timing of his emotionally insensitive reactions to the supposed reality of his wife’s death and an extramarital affair that plays off of a joke that may have been more provocative 20 years ago. A young Northeastern lawyer, played by Nick D’Agosto, has been hired to help clear Larry’s name, but that’s not going to be so easy because he now has to navigate a small South Carolina town with endless quirks and incompetent side characters serving as his legal team.
A show like this is at least valuable in reminding audiences how a relevant premise (in the sense that this show has good timing in delivering a parody of the true crime motif) can still be executed in the least inspiring way. It’s no surprise to frequent watchers of NBC that the executives are hell-bent on making sure their new shows borrow religiously from past successes and rival innovations, and that’s more than apparent throughout a show that owes much to Arrested Development, The Office, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn 99.
This is offset somewhat by good writing and a funny joke here and there, but it’s unfortunate that Trial & Error also suffers from having some of the most disturbingly unlikable characters this reviewer has seen outside of a CBS sitcom.
The competent characters (the ones who are good at their jobs and get things done) are either villains or “straight” characters, while the supporting cast with the exception of Lithgow are offensive caricatures whose roles boil down to poking fun at rednecks and people with disorders. It’s definitely low-bro for a network like NBC, unfortunately, and though Trial & Error tries at times to wrap up its episodes with a bit of heart, it all falls fairly flat as a small reminder that shows in general take time in building up their characters and rhythm.
This show is a strange case because in some respects, the writing is reminiscent of a great comedy, with decent dramatic twists that get the viewer invested in Larry’s case. That’s also thanks to Lithgow, of course, who hams it up in his first sitcom in about 10 years, and it’s clear he was born to be a brilliant weirdo.
But unlike the documentaries and podcasts this show tries to mock, Trial & Error is nowhere near as addicting or intriguing, perhaps because the set up of its mystery is too ambiguous and lightweight to believe or sink your teeth into. There’s no entry point for the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of any of the characters, which is a stealth trick that elevated some of the most engaging murder documentaries of the last few decades.
It’s no wonder, for example, that season 2 of Serial was largely disappointing for that same reason, and it seems the wrong lesson that will be taken from this show’s initial failures is that the problem lies in how this isn’t based on a true story, though perhaps there’s something to that since with a true story, you can genuinely work off of absurdity without losing any credibility. For now, Trial & Error has little of both, but it might give you a few chuckles at the very least.
As mentioned, a lot can happen over the course of a first season (just look at the aforementioned Parks and Recreation). Who knows? Maybe a few new characters and a plot shakeup could be enough to invigorate what is, for now, a mostly forgettable piece of work.
NBC's latest mockumentary sitcom is somehow an irrelevant spoof of modern crime documentaries. Aside from a few laughs and the fun of seeing John Lithgow at full blast again, it mostly misses what should have been an easy target.