Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd) has an affliction that’s mighty troublesome in her position as a legal researcher. Well, she’s not just a legal researcher—she’s an intern who’s also the assistant to the defense in the murder case at the center of Trial & Error—and she has several maladies interfering with her work. But there’s only one that’s a smart thematic match to this mockumentary take on true-crime docs like Making A Murderer, The Jinx, and (the inspiration for the show’s first season) The Staircase: Anne reacts to moments of tragedy and trauma with fits of delirious laughter.
Like the many sources of Anne’s giggles, the basics of Trial & Error are no laughing matter. As in The Staircase, an eccentric academic (John Lithgow) is suspected of his wife’s murder, and the evidence is heavily stacked against him. Lithgow is an inspired choice for the defendant, one Larry Henderson, a poet in the small town of East Peck, South Carolina who can’t stop saying things that make him sound like he killed Margaret in cold blood. And yet Trial & Error itself never comes across as cold-blooded, because it sets the action within a cartoonish community on the level of Springfield or Pawnee. Into this town of loose screws wanders Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto), an out-of-town lawyer prepping the Henderson case for his boss back in New York. His team in East Peck includes Anne, failed cop Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer), and Larry’s shrewd daughter Summer (Krysta Rodriguez).
Margaret’s older brother, Jeremiah Jefferson Davis (Bob Gunton), hired Josh’s boss on the basis of his “Northeastern” heritage, and that name, the pause Gunton takes when he makes this regional reference, and the gesture he makes toward his nose ought to tell you everything you need to know about East Peck. The town has some kind, compassionate citizens—most of whom are assisting Josh in Larry’s case—but it’s largely populated by short-sighted, self-serving assholes with an intense skepticism toward outsiders. (Caught between them: Jayma Mays as striving assistant D.A. Carol Anne Keane.) East Peck is the type of place that has a “third-most popular pet psychic” and where a disembodied voice keeps shouting “witch” during one episode’s trial scenes. It’s a deep-seated silliness lampooning small-minded groupthink, the giddiness of which makes up for the many pages Trial & Error copies directly from the Parks And Recreation playbook: The local color, the colorful local history, even the local candy tycoon.
Working in Trial & Error’s favor: Lithgow’s batty lead performance, and a flair for visual humor. The flies on the show’s walls pick up the occasional clue, but they’re better at capturing shots full of jokes, from an inappropriately placed Hangman game with the solution “L_RRY H_ND_RSON” to the screen-cap-worthy illustrations of outdated East Peck laws. More than any other mockumentary this side of Review (whose producer and director, Jeffrey Blitz, serves as producer and directs the pilot here), Trial & Error puts its jokes in the foreground and the background, introducing whole characters—the creepy taxidermist renting office space to Josh (Dave “Gruber” Allan) and Jeremiah’s boozy bride, Josie (Cristine Rose)—as visual gags themselves.
And Lithgow is a one-man gag machine, backing up those three Emmy wins for 3rd Rock From The Sun with his portrayal of Larry. Playing an accused murderer who’s also a lovable kook is a formidable task, and Lithgow rises to it. He plays the right level of dumb with his damning statements (“There are subtle reminders of Margaret everywhere” he says, standing in front of the window her body fell through) and throws his lanky body into scenes involving Larry’s “rollercising” regimen. (Not roller skating, mind you: Rollercising.) He sets the tone for the show’s unique (and volatile) mix of menace and mirth, and as the investigation takes its twists and turns, he presents a sympathetic figure in spite of everything else the camera picks up. So go ahead and laugh at Trial & Error. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be funny. But there’s a lot of talented people hard at work on this show making sure that Trial & Error is presenting nothing that resembles “normal circumstances.”
Reviews by Will Harris will run weekly.