Theoretically, a show like NBC’s “Trial & Error” shouldn’t work. Given its single-camera, mockumentary-style storytelling and silly humor, “Trial & Error” sounds like one of those typical, offbeat cookie-cutter sitcoms that attempts to mirror previously successful comedies like “The Office” and “Parks & Recreation.” However, “Trial & Error” subverts the “formulaic comedy” trope with a talented cast, hysterical one-liners and a premise that is as wacky as it is clever.
Though it’s not necessarily thought-provoking or complex, “Trial & Error” is nevertheless a genuinely funny, sometimes touching show that pokes fun at the criminal justice system and masks the grittiness of crime TV with gleeful absurdity.
While the majority of characters are portrayed as dumb, each of the actors imbue their roles with wit, delivering the whip-smart dialogue with ease and adept comedic timing. Nick D’Agosto (“Gotham”) leads the band of cast members as the tirelessly optimistic attorney Josh Segal, who travels from New York to East Peck, South Carolina to defend eccentric poetry professor Larry Henderson (John Lithgow, “The Crown”). Having played mostly supporting roles, D’Agosto does an admirable job as the lead character, but it’s Lithgow, at his kookiest and funniest, who fuels most of the show’s humor, channeling a nervous energy in his character’s desperation without coming off as pitiful or plain stupid.
With the help of the lead investigator Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer, “The Wolf of Wall Street”), the maladie-ridden secretary Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd, “30 Rock”) and Larry’s daughter Summer (Krysta Rodriguez, “Smash”), Josh is tasked with developing a compelling case for Larry, who was accused of murdering his wife Margaret. Despite the menace of the case’s cut-throat prosecutor Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays, “Glee”), the steadfast Segal and his slightly incompetent team do their best to fight for Larry’s innocence, even when the odds are stacked against them, such as when two breaking news stories reveal Larry’s affair with another man and the murder of his first wife.
These events prompt outrage from the community, but also spark some darkly amusing antics from Josh’s team. Guest star Andy Daly (“Review”) plays forensic investigator Thom Hinkle, who helps Josh find evidence in Larry’s defense, despite having an obsessive compulsion to masturbate in highly stressful situations. Shepherd, whose performance is more outlandish and much tamer than her previous comedic outings, gives Anne an off-kilter, if somewhat deranged edge. Her character suffers from facial amnesia, dyslexia and Stendahl’s syndrome, which causes her to faint every time she observes something beautiful. It’s possible that these kind of odd quirks can become annoying the more they are referenced, but they are also what make “Trial & Error” surprisingly entertaining, strange and humorous.
Along with the brilliant casting and writing, “Trial & Error” utilizes its Southern setting effectively as well. Being a Northeasterner, Josh is a fish out of water who has trouble acclimating to the South’s culture. In one particularly funny sequence, the courthouse security mistakes Josh’s “lip balm” for an actual bomb, but lets Carol Anne through with a gun. Later on, he has difficulty in pronouncing Carol Anne’s and the Judge Horsedich’s names, despite the fact that the correct pronunciation of both characters’ names are impossible even for viewers to understand. It’s easy to play into the many stereotypes of the South, but “Trial & Error” highlights these little cultural tidbits as something casually funny rather than egregiously overt.
This show could’ve started out like the first few seasons of “Parks & Rec” and “The Office,” where the characters weren’t quite yet developed and the humor was too awkward and clumsy. Luckily, “Trial & Error” already seems to have found its footing.