Mockumentaries and NBC seem to go hand and hand. The Office broke ground with the genre in the television world, and Parks and Recreation served as proof that the format was not a fluke, but a gimmick people enjoy watching. Trial & Error looks to maintain that streak of success for NBC, while simultaneously playing into the growing fascination of true crime shows like Making A Murderer. Creator Jeff Astrof, who's worked on comedies like The New Adventures Of Old Christine and Grounded For Life, looks to blend our fascination with the macabre into something funny. While it initially stumbles a couple of times, Trial & Error is guilty of a hilarious and thought-provoking start.
Trial & Error focuses on Josh (Nicholas D'Agosto), a young New York attorney who has been sent by his boss to South Carolina to lay the groundwork for an upcoming trial. Josh is tasked with defending poetry professor Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), who has been accused of killing his wife, Edna Henderson. After meeting his inexperienced team, seeing a damning mountain of evidence, and having some even more shocking and unexpected details revealed about Larry early on in the case, Josh finds himself without the help of his employer and he is forced to defend Henderson practically on his own. With such a tough case as his first, Josh struggles to find a way to prove Larry's innocence to the court, himself, and a town already set to hang Henderson.
The question of innocence is one the audience will also wrestle with a lot, as John Lithgow makes an enigmatic and phenomenal alleged murderer. Lithgow's Larry Henderson is loads more jolly, and definitely stupider, than Lithgow's other run as a killer in Showtime's Dexter years ago. Larry Henderson has the confidence of O.J. Simpson mixed with the wit of Steven Avery, and it's a hilarious combination. It also leaves you wondering if he is indeed a secret mastermind, or he is really just that dumb.
While Lithgow's scenes are the shining moments of Trial & Error, a bulk of the show follows D'Agosto's Josh and his efforts to dispute the ever growing pile of evidence against his client, which sees him interacting with an unwilling community that doesn't care for his client, nor Josh himself and his "North-Easterner" ways. Nicholas D'Agosto plays a solid straight man to an increasingly zany cast, such as his "facial blind" assistant Anne (Sherri Shepherd), or his incompetent salt-of-the-earth lead investigator Dwayne (Steven Boyer). Josh also nails that "fish out of water," vibe you've felt if you've ever been some place far from home and you want so desperately to fit in almost as much as you don't. Sometimes, it's so spot on, it hurts.
Trial & Error balances comedy with mystery and a bit of legal procedure, but oftentimes the latter two take a backseat to the funny; and at least early on, that balance isn't quite as solid when compared to similar types of shows like The Office or Parks And Recreation. (Not that either of those was excellent during respective first seasons.) There were times I laughed out loud, times I thought "that's funny," and times I just pushed on through the joke. Trial & Error is always swinging for the funny, and while the jokes may not always connect, it's golden when they do.
That tonal difference is the biggest one between the previously mentioned shows and Trial & Error. Those shows had some character drama instilled in them to break up the funny bits, often putting audiences right between the feels and the laughs. Trial & Error is definitely a more absurdist take, so those "dramatic" moments are instead just more humor, which causes some of the jokes to fall flat. The humor also can interrupt some of the parts involving the court proceedings, which you find are not as fleshed out as big TV drama courtroom scenes. (Then again, we've learned elsewhere that courts aren't always up to snuff in smaller cities either.) While I definitely enjoy the show, I do think just a tad more seriousness would keep the funny moments hilarious and weed out some of the lesser jokes that don't quite hit the mark.
Small complaints aside, this is a show I see myself sticking with until the end of the season and beyond, if there's a way to make it work for more than just one year. Even now, It's nagging at me on whether Larry Henderson is actually innocent or if he's taking us all for a ride. If he is innocent, what really happened and why does he look so guilty? This investment is what will keep the show interesting going forward as it works on nailing that winning formula similar shows have utilized in the past.
Much like other NBC mockumentaries, time will tell if Trial & Error grows into something more spectacular, or just remains "pretty good" as it continues its inaugural season. I'm certainly hoping for the first option, because there's nothing I'd love more than seeing John Lithgow on network television right now. Watch it for him, stay for the mystery and jokes. Trial & Error premieres this Tuesday at 10 pm ET on NBC. Head to our midseason premiere schedule to see what other new shows are hitting the schedule soon.