NBC Scores Again with the Hilarious, Manic Trial & Error
John Lithgow as a forgetful poetry professor accused of murdering his wife.
Trial & Error. NBC. Tuesday, March 14, 10 p.m.
Fifteen years ago, when ABC was at the bottom of the Nielsen barrel, it briefly aired a mid-season replacement with the improbable name Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central), a workplace comedy set at a failing TV network where fortunes abruptly turn upward after the programming decisions are turned over to a chimpanzee. (The chimp's expertise was not, however, sufficient to save Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central), which soon expired and was unceremoniously buried in a remote spot of the Lost jungle set.) That was one of the few public airings of the deeply but secretly held Hollywood suspicion that television success and failure are completely random and programming bosses aren't worth their weight in bananas.
At NBC, however, we're seeing that theory quietly contradicted. Not so long ago, it was a basket case, the fourth-ranked network that sometimes fell to fifth in the Nielsen ratings if you counted Spanish-language Univision. Its programming was so bad that the suits in Burbank tried moving Jay Leno to a daily show in prime time to save the expense of five hours of scripted shows that would just have to be canceled anyway. NBC's sitcoms were the poster boys for its corporate desolation, their longevity counted literally in minutes: The Paul Reiser Show, despite its previously bankable comedy star, lasted just two episodes—44 minutes of airtime—before being euthanized, an act that TV critics throughout American criticized as 43 minutes too late.
Those days, very quietly, have ended. In 2010, after giving practically everybody but the Wednesday 9:30 chimp a shot at the job, NBC hired away Bob Greenblatt, the programming boss whose development of shows like Weeds and Dexter turned Showtime from a no-name afterthought to HBO into its fierce rival. And without much ballyhoo, he has turned NBC around.
It leads the Nielsen race this year among the 18-to-49 age demographic, the one advertisers drool over, and is behind only CBS in the overall ratings. And NBC sitcoms, from The Good Place to Superstore, are no longer a dog whistle signaling it's time to thrust a red-hot poker in your eyes.
And now you can add Trial & Error to the list of good signs. A sitcom about a young New York lawyer who by mischance winds up defending an accused murderer in a small South Carolina town, it's many things—a fish-out-of-water legal comedy like My Cousin Vinnie, a punchy mockumentary satire of deadpan Law & Order–style criminal-justice procedurals, an absurdist romp like Arrested Development—and all of them are reasonably funny.
Trial & Error stars Nicholas D'Agosto (Masters Of Sex) as the fresh-out-of-law-school attorney Josh Segal, whose big-time law firm uses him as cannon fodder when a potentially lucrative homicide defense implodes into a case that's not only pro bono but hopeless.
The defendant accused of murdering his spouse, a philandering poetry professor played by John Lithgow, has eccentricities verging on the sociopathic—he interrupted his 911 call reporting his wife's death to chat with a cable installer—and an unfortunate tendency toward forgetfulness. (Say, did I mention the still-unsolved death of my first wife?)
Beyond the more-than-possible guilt of his client, the other obstacles to Josh's defense efforts are a team that includes an investigator (Steven Boyer, Law & Order) fired by the local cops after fatally shooting up his own car and a bumbling paralegal (Sherri Shepherd, 30 Rock) whose dysfunctional mental quirks run the gamut from frequent fainting spells to an inability to remember faces so profound that she has to slap Post-It sticker name tags onto the rest of the staff. "I recognize penises, though," she says brightly, ever the glass-half-full gal.
And then there are the legal speed bumps of the town itself, which has kept its Buggery Act of 1789 on the books and where Death By Bear is the legally prescribed manner of capital punishment—one for which the citizenry seems to have a certain zeal. Not that the locals are unfriendly: When passing Lithgow in the street, they invariably greet him with a hearty shout of "Hope you die, wife killer!"
Call me crude, immature, and jejune—editors do, all the time—but I cannot help but feel a certain fondness for a show in which characters have names like Judge Horsedich. And any comedy casting Shepherd deserves special recognition. She's been in about a zillion sitcoms, even including Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central). Her finest comic moment, however, turned out to be entirely unintentional: While a regular on ABC's screechfest The View, Shepherd said she neither knew nor cared whether the Earth was round. That was followed by her second-finest comic moment: Told that Rosie O'Donnell said the flat-earth remark almost gave her an aneurysm, Shepherd replied humbly: "I'm honored."