Photo: NBC

Death, as a rule, is not funny. It’s certainly not funny when it happens to you or to someone you love, and statistically speaking, it’s generally not funny at all. Laughing in the face of death is one thing, but to actually laugh when death has taken a victim… Well, that’s just cruel.

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Mind you, in making these statements, we’re talking about reality. Once you get into fiction, all bets are off, which is why it’s so easy to laugh at Trial & Error without feeling guilty about it.

Also helpful: the fact that it’s really funny.

To borrow a line from the very beginning of the pilot episode, Trial & Error tells the story of “a big crime in a small town,” setting its sights on a lanky gentleman by the name of Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), a poetry professor at East Peck Community College in East Peck, South Carolina, who is accused of murdering his wife, Margaret. Larry seems to be a nice enough guy, but he’s a quirky fellow with a tendency to focus on things which make him look guiltier than he may actually be, like when he called 911 to report that Margaret was “genuinely injured and possibly dead,” only to try and put the operator on hold in order to talk to the cable company, who was calling in on the other line.

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“I didn’t do it. I wouldn’t hurt a thing,” Larry assures everyone who’ll listen, and two of those listeners are—somewhat surprisingly—Margaret’s brother and sister-in-law, Jeremiah and Josie Jefferson Davis (Bob Gunton and Cristine Rose). Jeremiah’s biggest concern is that they’ve gotten Larry a “Northeasterner” for an attorney, since they “just seem slyer than the rest of us.” Josie, meanwhile, appears to have been drinking for quite some time already and has no intention of doing anything other than continuing to drink.

It seems probable that Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) has a slyness quotient that isn’t going to break any records, but he’s got wide-eyed enthusiasm to spare, having just flown in from New York with boundless excitement about the case before him. That excitement quickly begins to wane, however, as he begins to discover the reality of his surroundings, starting with Dwayne (Steven Boyer), who serves as both his ride from the airport and his lead investigator. When he gets to his local headquarters, he discovers that his home base while he’s working on the case is a taxidermy shop, where the sound of blade on bone is always in the air and the smell of formaldehyde fills your lungs every time you turn around. Oh, yes, and his assistant and head researcher, Ann Flatch, is suffering from any number of maladies, including facial amnesia, dyslexia, and Stendahl’s syndrome, which causes her to pass out when she sees something that strikes her as particularly beautiful.

As if all of these things weren’t bad enough, when Josh finally meets Larry, he realizes that his client is going to be a real handful. He also gets a lesson in the fine art of rollercizing, which Larry loves and yet no one else seems to be participating in with him. Still, Josh continues to maintain his optimism until he meets lead prosecutor Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays), who asks that bail be set at $93 million. It’s ridiculous, of course, and Josh asks for a far more reasonable amount: $10,000. When the judge splits the difference and sets bail at $7 million instead, Josh chalks it up as one for the win column.

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It’s not, though. Not really.

Thankfully, Larry does manage to get out on bail, and he’s also blessed with the arrival of his daughter, Summer (Krysta Rodriguez), who meets Josh in a coffee shop and—because he doesn’t realize who she is—soon learns of his limited confidence in both her father and his innocence. She doesn’t tell on Larry, however, because she knows that her father’s options are pretty limited and she wants him to stay confident that he’ll come out victorious.

That doesn’t last long, though: Within a few minutes, it’s revealed that Larry’s been getting up close and personal with his personal trainer, Alfonso Prefontaine (Kevin Daniels), an affair he tries to explain away by saying, “Sexuality is fluid, and sometimes my fluids go towards men.” It’s a relationship that cannot by tolerated by Margaret’s brother and sister-in-law, however, who promptly turn around and give the fees that they’d been giving to Josh’s firm to the prosecution instead.

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Josh isn’t sure how to proceed at first, since the absence of funds means that he’s going to be left defending Larry all by his lonesome, and he’s no longer entirely confident of Larry’s innocence. After further studying the crime-scene photos, however, Josh spots both a bloody handprint and some bloody tire tracks, and he begins to consider a theory that doesn’t involve Larry being the murderer. It’s a theory that gets put on hold when everyone on the defense team learns the highly unfortunate coincidence that Larry’s first wife died the same way Margaret did: She was thrown through a plate glass window.

Whoops.

From there, we’re on to the second episode, at which point we get a deftly handled encapsulation of what’s happened up to this point—seriously, even with the two episodes back to back, it’s done remarkably subtly—and a quick confirmation of how Josh’s confidence in his team and their chances of proving Larry’s innocence are shrinking a little more every moment. Still, Anne’s excitement about having her position is palpable, which could ultimately pay off with actual results, and Dwayne… Well, they can’t all be winners.

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Upon trying to enter the courthouse, Josh finds that being an out-of-towner is definitely resulting in special treatment from the security folks… and not the good kind of special. (An example: They let Carol Anne in with her gun, but they won’t let him in with his balm.) He’s also finding himself regularly in verbal battle with Judge Horsedich (Patricia Belcher), who pronounces her name in such a manner that I’ll just have to let you work it out for yourself how she manages it, but suffice it to say that it makes about as much sense as the pronunciation of Sade. As far as Larry’s concerned, however, there’s only one issue that matters, and that’s the fact that they’ve confiscated his roller-skate wrench, and he wants it back in the worst way. But Josh thinks that Larry’s being ridiculous, and he doesn’t speak up. He’s too busy planning out what their next tasks should be.

Having examined the police video from the night in question, Josh and his team, along with Larry, attempt to recreate the events of the murder, but they fail to do so, making them giddy about the fact that Larry couldn’t have committed the crime in the manner that had been suggested. Larry also assures Josh that his first wife wasn’t murdered, that she simply fell through a plate glass window during a poetry reading.

As for the bloody handprint, that requires the assistance of a specialist. Enter Thom Hinkle (Andy Daly), who—like everyone else on this show—has a medical quirk: When he’s stressed out, he becomes a compulsive masturbator. Needless to say, the pressure of the case has him slipping away on a regular basis, but he does work out that the handprint is devoid of fingerprints… and Larry, as we neglected to mention earlier, has a left hand that’s numb and, presumably, has no fingerprints on it. Larry, however, has a comeback: He’s not responsible for the handprint, because he knows that Margaret would never let him hear the end of it if he’d left it.

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So whose hand is it?

What, like they’re going to let us know this week? Not hardly. We do, however, finally see Larry get his skate key back, and when we do, we find out why he was so hellbent about it: It was inscribed by Margaret. Upon holding it in his hand and reading it, both Larry and Josh break down in tears.

This is the man who killed his wife? I’ll be honest: I’m pretty damned skeptical. But we’ll see what new developments next week brings.

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Stray observations

  • Trying to pick out favorite lines from this series seems like it’s going to be a fool’s errand, but in terms of physical comedy, Dwayne’s attempt to duplicate Margaret’s incident by jumping through a pane of glass, once to bounce off it, made me laugh so damned hard.
  • I hope Ann continues to reveal other maladies from which she’s suffering.
  • Hopefully we’ll get to see more from Dave “Gruber” Allen as the resident taxidermist in the near future. It seems like a waste just to see him through the window.
  • Clearly, the Buggery Act Of 1789 is being broken all the time.
  • Anyone want to place bets on how many episodes it takes for Josh and Carol Anne to hook up?
  • Boy, that Andy Daly is a busy boy, isn’t he?
  • In addition to Patricia Belcher as the judge, I hope most of us recognized Marla Gibbs, a.k.a. Florence from The Jeffersons. And that reminds me: If you’ve never read my interview with Ms. Gibbs, please do. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
  • Man, it’s been quite a while since I’ve done regular episodic reviews for TV Club—not since the end of last year’s seasons of The Middle and The Goldbergs—and that is apparently just long enough to forget how long it takes me to write a review of two episodes. I’ll try to get these in much earlier from now on.

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