Uneven ‘Trial and Error’ Elicits Laughs In Spite Of Itself

John Lithgow makes a highly anticipated return to network comedy in ‘Trial and Error,’ the freshman entry in a proposed mockumentary anthology series.

I laughed at Trial and Error. Actually, I laughed quite a bit when I really shouldn’t have. I love the idea behind it. A comedy anthology series feels so filled with potential that you wonder why someone hadn’t already created one. This show works well as an NBC property because of what came before it. It owes a great deal to the really great Parks and Recreation. Make no mistake, Trial and Error isn’t Parks and Recreation based on the two episodes I’ve seen. That said, Parks and Recreation wasn’t itself out of the gate either.

The series stars Emmy-winner John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun) as Larry Henderson, a South Carolina poet accused of murdering his wife. The pilot begins with a replay of Henderson’s 9-1-1 phone call. In it, Henderson describes the murder scene while expressing anguish over missing a call from the cable guy on the other line. Later, he cooks at home – yes, still a murder scene – and comments that everything reminds him of his dead wife. Of course, he says this in front of the window she fell/was pushed through, crime scene tape still in tact. This show won’t work for you if you don’t at least chuckle imagining the scene.

Comic legal eagles

Lithgow gives more of a reserved comic performance here than you’d imagine. He dominated 3rd Rock, but here, he feels less the focus, more a component of the overall ensemble. That choice works wonders given the strength of the overall cast. Is another Emmy nomination in the cards? Hard to say given the first two episodes. As of now, I’d say he’s more of a supporting presence despite being the face of the series. Nick D’Agosto (Masters of Sex) leads as Josh, the “Northeastern” (re: Jewish) attorney hired to defend Henderson. I equate him Parks‘ Leslie Knope: all wide-eyed and can-do interacting with the colorful locals.

Sherri Shephard plays his lead researcher who suffers from a litany of afflictions, the combination of which is used for great comic effect. Facial amnesia. Dyslexia. Some bizarre disorder where she passes out when faced with extreme beauty. It’s so stupid after a while that you just give up and laugh. Steven Boyer provides the slapstick stupid Southerner comic relief, and your appreciation for his performance depends on your patience for such things. I loved it. Every second. I also loved the surprisingly assured performance of Jayma Mays (Glee) as the cocksure prosecutor, as confident in her sexual appeal as she is of Henderson’s guilt.

Final Verdict

Trial and Error works despite the idiocy behind many of the jokes. At least in my view. I do have a soft spot for ensemble comedies, and this one works on that front. Lithgow delivers a fun performance, and there are enough dumb jokes to warrant attention on the overall series. I’m not going to tell you this is the second coming of The Office or, as previously mentioned, Parks and Rec. It is, however, a worthy experiment in developing a comedy anthology series. Maybe this will succeed just enough to warrant a second season, a tighter and more frequently funny comic gem. For now, Trial and Error will do.

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