John Lithgow stars in "Trial & Error"
Mockumentaries, when placed in the right hands, wield a very special power in that they can take decidedly unfunny subject matter and make it hilarious. From the multiple Christopher Guest-created offerings on the big screen ("This Is Spinal Tap," 1984; "Best in Show," 2000) to "The Office," "Parks and Recreation" and "Modern Family" on the small, it's a genre that's seen a lot of success over the years.
Pair it with the true-crime format that's so hot right now and Bob's your uncle. "Trial & Error" is a wonderfully goofy freshman comedy that's murder mystery-meets-mockumentary, and has gleaned mostly favorable reviews so far. The season finale airs Tuesday, April 18, on NBC.
Drawing from recent documentary hits such as "Making a Murderer" on Netflix and HBO's "The Jinx," "Trial & Error" is a comical whodunit story led by the much-lauded John Lithgow ("3rd Rock From the Sun"), fresh off his stint as Winston Churchill in "The Crown." The five-time Emmy winner stars as Larry Henderson, a small-town poetry professor accused of murdering his wife by flinging her through a plate-glass window.
It certainly doesn't sound like comedy fodder but, what can I say, it's funny. The ubiquitous Lithgow is a masterful vehicle for the hapless Larry, who is completely clued out to the seriousness of his situation. Even when it starts to really, really sound like he's the guilty party (his first wife also met her end with a plate-glass window -- coincidence?), he still manages to come across as affable, if a bit buffoonish. His head is perpetually in the clouds, and his priorities are all over the place; for instance, he seems to put as much import on the cable guy showing up as he does on the violent murder of his wife. The challenge, for Lithgow, was portraying someone who could be a killer, or who could end up being totally innocent.
"He had to be likable, along with scary and potentially murderous. It was a curious cocktail," Lithgow said of his character during a BUILD interview. "Of course, you've got comedy on your side. If somebody is funny, then you're crazy about him."
Coming to Larry's defense -- and straight-man to his goofball -- is fresh-faced young lawyer Josh Segal (Nicholas D'Agosto, "Masters of Sex"), who travels from New York City to the small South Carolina town of East Peck, eager to take on his first major case. Though hopeful and well-meaning, the naive Josh is totally out of his element as he tries to work not only with the eccentric Larry, but also the oddball locals who make up his (mostly useless) defense team.
This consists of redneck lead investigator Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer, "The Wolf of Wall Street," 2013), whose bumpkin status is cemented in the revelation that his brother is also his cousin, and assistant Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd, "The View"), who allegedly suffers from an ever-lengthening string of rare and improbable medical ailments, including face blindness. The main cast also includes Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays, "Glee"), the ambitious and aggressively flirtatious prosecutor who has her eye on the title of district attorney and wants to see Larry hang, and Larry's daughter, Summer (Krysta Rodriguez, "Smash"), who also becomes a murder suspect.
Nicholas D'Agosto as seen in "Trial & Error"
Though the series pulls elements from true-crime shows in general, this first season is specifically inspired by "The Staircase," a documentary that hit Sundance channel in 2004. The doc examines the case of Michael Peterson, a man suspected of the mysterious murder of his wife, Kathleen, in their North Carolina home.
"['Trial & Error'] is shot in exactly the same way. We rigorously observe all the rules and rituals of that genre," Lithgow told E! News, "and yet everybody in it is completely ridiculous."
Neither viewers nor the majority of the cast of "Trial & Error" will learn the truth of Larry's guilt or innocence until the finale, which additionally serves as an introduction to next season's crime. If all goes according to plan, showrunners are banking on seven seasons, with each one focusing on a different case, but with the same cast and setting.
"Every year is a different crime. The main characters in the town will stay the same," co-creator and executive producer Jeff Astrof told the Hollywood Reporter following a Television Critics Association press tour panel. "This year was inspired by 'The Staircase,' maybe [if we get a second season] we'll be inspired by 'The Jinx' or 'Making a Murderer.' Thankfully, people have killed a lot of people!"
Of course, the extent of Lithgow's presence in a second season will depend on the outcome of Larry's trial, which we're about to learn. The show may be comedically driven, but at its heart it's still a murder mystery, and avid follows are keen to learn the identity of the killer, once and for all. As D'Agosto told E! News, "It's very funny, it's very outrageous, but at the end of the day we're all really trying to solve something very serious."
Do yourself and favor and get caught up on "Trial & Error," then find out whodunit in the two-part season finale, airing Tuesday, April 18, on NBC.