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‘Trial & Error’: Making a Funny Murderer?

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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  • John Lithgow
    John Lithgow
    American actor
  • Steven Avery
    American convict


It’s a great premise, although some viewers will inevitably consider it in poor taste: Trial & Error is a sitcom about a man accused of murdering his wife. The man is a small-town poetry professor played by John Lithgow, who portrays fussy outrage superlatively — especially because it looks as though there’s a reasonable chance that this dithering eccentric may have done the terrible deed. Show creators Jeff Astrof and Matt Miller have recognized the untapped market for true-crime parody, and are shrewd enough to give us a suspect utterly unlike Making of a Murderer’s Steven Avery. Lithgow’s Larry Henderson is a vain versifier who becomes very excited when a TV report on the murder includes an example of his work: “My poem was on television? Did they say anything about the meter?”

You don’t get too many sitcom jokes about metrical precision in poetry, but Trial & Error usually plays things much more broadly than that. The defense team’s lead detective is named Dwayne Reade (lots of jokes about the similar-sounding drugstore chain) and, as played by Steven Boyer, talks like one of the Darryls on the old Newhart show. Larry’s defense lawyer is imported from Manhattan, a nice young man, Josh Segal, played by Nicholas D’Agosto. He’s our measure of sanity in the oddball town of East Peck, S.C. (When Josh says, “My client is innocent — this is a witch hunt!” someone calls out, “No, the witch hunt’s November 4th.”) In court, he faces off against an ambitious prosecutor (Glee’s Jayma Mays) named Carol Anne Keene. (With a sitcom so addicted to wordplay, I immediately thought that her name was similar to Carolyn Keene, and expected a Nancy Drew detective joke. Not so far, though.)

Sherri Shepherd, who proved her sitcom strength on 30 Rock, plays a researcher for Josh, but her character, Anne Flatch, is here mostly for her array of unusual traits, such “face-blindness,” an inability to recognize features on a human face. She also has a condition that compels her to laugh hysterically whenever she experiences something upsetting. There are times when Anne’s panoply of maladies gets in the way of Shepherd’s own comic talents.

The show is filmed in a fake-documentary style similar to another NBC series, The Office, and seems to be trying for the wall-to-wall eccentric-character comedy of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but it’s certainly not as good as those two shows, nor would we expect it to be this early on. The cast is so talented, though, that the series has potential. I’m not sure how long it can maintain the murder-trial setup, and I’ve already noticed, after viewing five episodes, that whenever it strays from its true-crime parody roots, the less funny and more silly-wacky-zany it becomes. Lithgow is superb every time he’s on camera, but Trial & Error has its own trial-and-error growing pains to go through before it either settles into something you want to watch every week or a novelty that doesn’t sustain itself.

Trial & Error airs two episodes starting at 10 p.m. Tuesday, and thereafter airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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