It’s easy to come up with the elevator pitch for NBC’s mockumentary sitcom “Trial & Error,” which premiered the first of its double-episode hours March 14: “Parks & Recreation” meets “Making A Murderer.”
A young lawyer (Nick D’Agosto) who thinks he’s a big shot, trying to win a murder case in the small-town South, with knowing looks to camera and surrounded by kooks: It’s a narrative style that’s found comedy in everything from the competitive world of dog shows and the mundanity of office life to the idiocracy of small-town government, so it was only a matter of time before reality-murder docs, easily the buzziest genre of the last five years, was prospected by producers looking to strike the same gold.
This familiar premise could be both a blessing and a curse for the freshman show: While its first season was a little rocky, we tend to forget that a major reason given for “Parks & Rec’s” early low ratings was constant comparisons to “The Office” — which in turn, we tend to forget that, like “30 Rock,” was far from a success right out of the gate. But history looks upon “Office” and “Parks” as the NBC juggernauts they became — so the only question is whether there’s anything fresh for “Trial & Error” to find.
NBC was smart to premiere the show with the first two episodes back-to-back, although we’re still scratching our heads about why that will continue over the 6 weeks of the show’s season: Alone, the pilot (“Chapter 1: A Big Crime In A Small Town”) does merely what a pilot needs to do, and very little more. We meet the key players, set the premise, learn about some character tics, and build a foundation for the story.
That story: Poetry professor Larry Henderson (the always hilarious, brilliantly dark John Lithgow) is accused of murdering his wife. Josh (Nicholas D’Agosto), a young lawyer at an NYC law firm, has been sent to prep the case for trial. What he finds is his ragtag pair of goofy associates: Anne (Sherri Shepherd) who suffers from facial amnesia, dyslexia, and a number of other unfalsifiable ailments, and Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer) who was a sheriff until he shot out his own police car.
The pilot alone leaves little reason to keep watching — it’s standard, slightly offensive sitcom setup: The locals are dumb, the lawyer is out of his element, and this trial is a waste of everyone’s time because the accused can’t stop incriminating himself. But given a little more time to settle in and breathe with episode two and it begins to grow on you, and continue to do so over future episodes.
The running gag of “A Wrench in the Case,” the second half-hour, is that Larry appears more heartbroken about his roller skate key being confiscated than his wife being dead, which implies that Larry’s a cold-blooded killer. (The rollerskating pairs well with several crude and damaging — frankly dangerous — jokes about Larry’s bisexuality, if you were wondering where this show falls on the spectrum of enlightenment, with no indication of a long-con there, at least in the season’s first half.)
In the end, Josh gets the skate key returned, and the real reason Larry wanted it so badly is revealed: It’s not because it was hand-made in Germany and you can’t get them anywhere else, but because it was given to him by his deceased wife, and inscribed with a sweet message of life long friendship. In the final scene, Larry finally breaks down and sobs over his wife’s murder — and Josh, thinking the case was all but lost, decides to stick around and fight.
And there’s the thing: The best thing about the mockumentary-style comedies that came before “Trial & Error” was their heart. The format allows characters to grow into more than just a punch line and become actual, well-rounded people. For every time Ron Swanson tried to shut down the government, he also learned to care about those in his department. For every dumb blunder Andy Dwyer made, he grew into a husband, friend, and karate master.
“Trial & Error” has the potential to become a successful comedy. Let’s just hope they can find their Andy and Ron moments.
“Trial & Error” airs in one-hour blocks Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.