Is true crime, as a genre, really ripe for satire? On the one hand, the recent resurgence of interest in real-life murders thanks to podcasts and documentaries offers plenty of opportunity for comedy gold—think Fred Armisen’s shuffling, mumbling Robert Durst in season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or Saturday Night Live’s Christmas-themed parody of Serial. But to build an entire series around a murder is a tricky proposition: Either you delicately use humor to illuminate a larger point about trial-by-media and the absurdities of the justice system, or you throw caution (and propriety) to the wind. Trial and Error, a new NBC mockumentary whose first two episodes air Tuesday, mostly does the latter, hoping audiences will laugh enough at its portrayal of a backward southern town that they’ll forget the considerably less hilarious nature of the source material.
Trial and Error, created by Jeff Astrof and Matt Miller, stars John Lithgow as Larry Henderson, a nutty and impulsive poetry professor accused of murdering his wife. It’s loosely based on the 2004 French true-crime miniseries The Staircase, which followed the trial of the novelist Michael Peterson. In the opening scene, Larry calls 911 after finding his wife unconscious in their home, but his strange behavior (he puts the ambulance dispatcher on hold while he speaks to the cable company and has a yen for roller skating) soon makes him the prime suspect in her murder. Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) is the upstart New York lawyer sent to Larry’s fictional small town of East Peck, South Carolina, to defend Larry, with roughly 90 percent of the subsequent jokes directed lazily at how retrograde the town is. (“This whole trial is a witch hunt,” Josh proclaims in one hearing, before being informed that the witch hunt is actually on November 4.)