Last night, NBC aired the last two episodes of the first season of its new comedy mockumentary Trial and Error. Starring John Lithgow, Nicholas D’Agosto, Jayma Mays, Krista Rodriguez, Steven Boyer, and Sherri Shepherd, Trial and Error told the story of the trial of Larry Henderson (Lithgow), a man from East Peck, South Carolina, accused of killing his wife, Margaret. The season followed lawyer Josh Segal (D’Agosto) and his team (Boyer and Shepherd) as they tried to defend Larry against the accusations made by prosecutor Carol Anne Keane (Mays).
The first thing I liked about this show was the way it parodied “true crime” style shows. TV networks are increasingly producing these documentaries about various true crimes, and they’re always done in this cheesy, over-the-top style, so the fact that creators Jeff Astrof and Matt Miller decided to parody that style of documentary television for this series was a stroke of genius. It combines the comedic sensibilities of other hit NBC sitcoms The Office and Parks and Recreation with the guilty pleasure audiences get from watching those true crime documentaries. And it does this with great success.
Much praise must be given to the cast, all of whom come to this show with a lot of dedication and amazing comedic timing. Sherri Shepherd and Steven Boyer had this perfect chemistry together as Anne Flatch and Dwayne Reed, respectively. They both played foils to Josh’s New York intelligence with their southern naivety. Add into that mix a brilliant as ever performance by John Lithgow (both simultaneously sinister and touching) as accused murderer Larry Henderson, one of those love-to-hate-her performances by Jayma Mays as Carol Anne Keane, and a gut-wrenchingly funny performance by Krysta Rodriguez as Larry’s daughter Summer and you have the perfect cast to deliver a grounded yet surreal comedic performance set in this small town in South Carolina.
As for the mystery itself, it was pretty off-the-rails ridiculous. Each episode ended with some kind of revelation that almost always came from out of the blue. There was really no way anybody could have predicted who Margaret’s killer, but that’s something I actually loved. It worked perfectly with the surreal, irreverent style the show had built up for itself over 13 episodes. Nothing in this show, or in the town in which it was set, was at all predictable. Things didn’t make sense; characters were so dumb it was hard to believe someone could be as dumb as they were. But this was all part of the charm. The “stupid humor” worked as well as it did because the show knew how to make the audience care for the characters. We liked them, despite their flaws – many as there were – and so the humor was able to lean on the backs of such well developed and likable characters.
The pacing of the season itself was really good, too. Shows like this always run the risk of dragging along for too long, having to pad the middle episodes to make the mystery last until the finale. This show moved slowly, but, again, it worked because of how well the characters worked. Every new clue, even those that turned out to be red herrings, worked to push the audience to new understandings about the characters, so it ultimately didn’t end up being a negative thing that it took weeks for any real new evidence to be revealed in the case. The fun was in watching as this group of bumbling idiots tried to piece together a plausible case in order to defend Larry.
Another thing I liked was the fact that Larry was portrayed as a bisexual man, and was proud of it. Early on, the audience learned that Larry had been having an affair with his personal trainer, Alfonso. He didn’t love Margaret any less, but he had needs that she couldn’t fulfill. And it’s made clear early on that Margaret was aware of the affair and was totally fine with it and gave her consent to it. The portrayal of Larry as a polyamorous bisexual man was something that television rarely does, and it’s even rarer that it wasn’t done as a joke in this show. Larry’s bisexuality was done with respect and it was an important part of who he was as a character, and it served as a pivotal force in several episodes, leading to emotional moments within the narrative itself and a deeper understanding of Larry’s character. Lithgow played this with such passion and dedication that it was easy to empathize with Larry and the pain he clearly felt throughout the season as he lost one person after another.
Really, Larry was just such a well-written character in general. Each week, we learned something new about him. Sometimes this new information seemed contradictory when paired with the information we had previously been given, but that’s how humans work. Humans are contradictory animals. We can possess two traits that seem like they shouldn’t go together. Someone can be extremely emotional and loving while coming off as cold and aloof. And so I liked that the show portrayed this with Larry, and they portrayed it in a way that was positive. Josh had to learn how to deal with Larry’s contradictory personality traits, and the more Josh dealt with Larry, the more Josh understood him and the closer the two became.
I tip my metaphorical hat to all involved in the making of this show. Jeff Astrof, Matt Miller, and writers Bill Callahan, Mike Schiff, Craig Gerard, Matthew Zinman, Sherry Bilsing-Graham, Ellen Kreamer, Amy Aniobi, Kassia Miller, Patrick Kang, Michael Levin, and Bill Martin managed to craft a hilarious, moving, and complete story that was told over the 13 episodes. Yeah, the show had an open-ended ending, but it told the complete story of The People v Larry Henderson. The ending of the season just leaves itself open for subsequent seasons; all the plot threads for this season were tied up, leaving just a teaser for a future case that the team might take on in subsequent seasons as the “cliffhanger” of the season.
Directors Jeffrey Blitz, Jennifer Celotta, Ken Whittingham, Dean Holland, Matt Sohn, Rebecca Asher, and Ryan Case made truly wonderful choices when it came to the direction of the series. Whether it was the onscreen text that would sometimes change (like when the dog whisperer changed her job title midscene, the onscreen text changed as well), the usage of music throughout the show, or the general execution of the writers’ ideas, these directors managed to put together a comedy worth remembering.
I give Trial and Error a solid 4 out of 5 wands. It wasn’t a perfect TV show, but it was entertaining, had me coming back each week for new episodes, made me care about the characters, and most of all made me laugh. Hopefully, NBC will deem the show worthy of a second season. One can only hope!
Trial and Error aired Tuesdays on NBC and can be watched on NBC’s website as well as Hulu.