Trial and Error – television review

Who doesn’t love John Lithgow? I mean, Third Rock from the Sun – glorious. The elder statesman of comedy and poster boy for amiable kooks everywhere still pops up with great regularity on both the big and small screens, even at age 71. So his new show Trial and Error (now airing on the 7 Network) is already ahead, just by his mere presence. But there’s more to this show than just another stellar performance from Lithgow, even if he is the glue that holds it together.

Trial and Error is the brainchild of Jeff Astrof and Matthew Miller, who have solid track records in television between them. Astrof has been involved in a range of comedy projects including The New Adventures of Old Christine and Angie Tribeca; while Miller is probably best known for his work on The 100 and Forever. Those backgrounds allude to the mix of comedy and drama in the series; one that plays a deadly serious situation – a murder trial – for laughs.

Lithgow plays Larry Henderson, a seemingly mild-mannered poetry professor. But Larry’s life is up-ended when his wife is found dead, having fallen – or been pushed – through a plate glass window. With Larry charged with his wife’s murder, wet-behind-the-ears “Northeastern” lawyer Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) finds himself duck-shoved from New York and into the small town of East Peck, South Carolina – and the unenviable role of trial attorney. His defence “team” consists of cheery but challenged assistant Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd) and clueless investigator Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer). His job isn’t made any easier by the fact his office is some spare rooms in a taxidermist’s studio.  Josh finds him up against local prosecutor Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays), a woman who knows the ins and outs of the local community and some very helpful local laws. Although Josh manages to get Larry out on bail, he soon finds that his gormless client is his own worst enemy.

The show is shot in the observational style familiar from The Office or Parks and Recreation, in which it appears a film crew is following the characters around. This is interspersed with (fictional) news footage in which explosive details of the case and its background are revealed.

Clearly Trial and Error is tapping into the current fascination for true crime, evident in everything from O.J.: Made in America to podcasts like Serial. The use of the “reality” TV format adds to the authenticity; but also to the humour. This a real Janus of a show – wallowing in the tropes of the true crime genre but at the same time gleefully parodying them. In the first three episodes for example, the gravity of Larry’s predicament is brought home – he could literally be on trial for his life.

To make light of that requires some solid comedic effort, and the writers mostly deliver. While the real “zingers” in the dialogue are somewhat sporadic, there’s a “density” to the jokes (a la Parks and Rec) that keeps you coming back for more.