‘Trial & Error’ Review: John Lithgow Brightens Up NBC’s New Single-Camera Comedy

     March 7, 2017

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The influence of the unparalleled Arrested Development is as apparent in NBC’s new single-camera comedy Trial & Error as it was in Parks & Recreation and is in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Where the two other shows operated in modes of small-town melodrama and serial cop dramas, Trial & Error melds the comedic filmmaking style to the true-crime genre, following the trial of one Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), who is suspected of brutally murdering his wife. Despite flanking Lithgow with a reliable cast including Nick D’Agosto, Sherri Shepherd, Steven Boyer, and Jayma Mays, however, the comedy series is thwarted by a single, unwavering issue: it’s not particularly funny.

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Image via NBC

One might argue that humor is hugely subjective, and it is, but there’s a difference between jokes that simply don’t land for everyone and a recognizable lack of jokes in general. The latter issue is more where Trial & Error lands, for the most part. The crux of one joke is the revelation of a picture of Henderson making out with another man; another one hinges on Shepherd randomly cracking up at inappropriate things. These are primarily quirks and the writers assemble quite a lot of them, but none of them reveal anything particularly insightful or even nuanced about the characters. Six episodes into the series, there was still a feeling that D’Agosto, playing Henderson’s hopeful lawyer, and Krysta Rodriguez, in the role of Henderson’s flirty daughter, were just portraying types without any sense of interior life or a feeling for idiosyncratic passion. The same could be said of Mays’ prosecutor and Boyer’s local investigator.

The laughs are meant to come predominantly from the idiocy or naïveté of these characters, which puts it at odds with Parks & Recreation, in which the characters had plenty of skills, opinions, and passions but also often proved to be self-saboteurs. This would seemingly put it into the same camp as Arrested Development, where moronic, desperate action often drove the loose narrative, but Trial & Error never gets as absurd or imaginative as the originator so regularly did. None of the characters in Trial & Error seem to be really good at anything and it begins to feel like a problem of condescension by the writing team, a wanting to go for the easy joke of stupidity or aloofness over something more personal and personable.

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Image via NBC

Despite the estimable cast, the issue here might simply be that the show has opted for actors over comedians for the most part, trading in someone like Nick Offerman or Aziz Ansari for Lithgow, who can be funny but is a dramatic actor first and foremost. He proves to be at once lovable and involving here but the series gives him nothing to really dig his teeth into and thus, the central figure of the plot becomes completely innocuous. The result is a familiar yet no-less-depressing annual occurrence on network TV: a comedy built for vague amusement rather than real laughs.

Rating:★★ – Wake Me When It’s Over

Trial & Error airs on NBC at 9 p.m. EST on Tuesday nights.

Television