After HBO and Netflix struck gold with serialized true-crime documentaries (“The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer”), a flood of similar projects followed, in which cold cases and suspiciously prosecuted crimes have been stretched into elaborately layered whodunits that last several episodes — often without a final answer.
It was inevitable, then, that satire would want in on this game, and that seems to be the point of NBC’s new mockumentary-style comedy “Trial & Error” (premiering Tuesday), in which John Lithgow stars as Larry Henderson, a South Carolina poetry professor and dedicated “rollercizer” accused of pushing his second wife, Margaret, through a plate-glass window and killing her. A similar fate befell Larry’s first wife, and that, combined with his tone-deaf reaction to either incident, makes him a particularly unsympathetic defendant.
His rich brother-in-law tells the camera that this case calls for “a Northeastern” attorney (while touching his nose to imply that Larry needs a Jewish lawyer), which is how an ambitious young New York law-firm associate, Josh Segal (“Gotham’s” Nicholas D’Agosto) is sent to the small town of East Peck to handle Larry’s defense.
Forced to share office space in a taxidermy shop, Josh discovers just about every yokel cliche there is — some of it funny, some of it not even worth mentioning. Sherri Shepherd plays Anne, an office assistant who has a host of rare disorders, including an inability to recognize faces; Steven Boyer plays Dwayne, a hilariously inept legal investigator. And “Glee’s” Jayma Mays plays Carol Anne, a hard-driven prosecutor determined to use Larry’s case as a means to become the next district attorney.
“Trial & Error” moves along at a quick clip (NBC is helpfully sloughing it off two episodes at a time) while it wrings whatever’s left from the mockumentary glory days that brought us shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” It’s not nearly as funny as either of those, and it sometimes sacrifices its most promising potential (making fun of true-crime serializations) to pick off easier targets (making fun of the South).
Lithgow, of course, is great at just about anything he sets his mind to, and if you find yourself wondering why a guy like him would follow up something as classy as playing Winston Churchill in Netflix’s “The Crown” with something as basic as this — well, all I can do is remind you that really good actors usually have a serious work ethic. They like variety and they like being employed as much as possible.
Lithgow’s effort rubs off on his energetic co-stars, who elevate the material and give it a spark it otherwise wouldn’t have. D’Agosto is especially entertaining as an attorney exasperated by a difficult client — his straight-man setups help many of the bumpkin jokes along, even when they’re predictable: “My client is innocent,” Josh tells reporters gathered at the courthouse. “This whole trial is a witch hunt.”
“Uh, no,” Dwayne corrects him. “The witch hunt is on Nov. 4.”
Trial & Error (one hour) double-episode premiere Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC