NBC's new comedy Trial & Error replicates the look and feel of the typical true crime documentary, with plenty of added humor. The central suspect in the show's fictional murder mystery, Larry Henderson, isn't real, nor is the show explicitly based on the facts of any real case. But, at least according to the show's creator, it was the first breath of the current true crime phenomenon that inspired the original concept for the series. According to The Hollywood Reporter, executive producer Jeff Astrof originally pitched Trial & Error as "[True crime documentary] The Staircase but as a scripted comedy with a comedian like Steve Carell at its center." That original idea was long before the half-hour comedy eventually came to fruition — I mean, Steve Carrell hasn't been a TV star for a while now — but as more time has passed, audiences' love for true crime has only increased.
Larry Henderson, as played by comedy and drama veteran John Lithgow, is a clumsy, forgetful, bumbling, roller-blading poet, whose alibi is incredibly weak on the night when his wife mysteriously dies from a blow to the head, blood all over his home, quickly making Larry the chief suspect after everything down to his 911 call is incredibly suspicious.
As for the real case that inspired the show, there are some surface similarities to Michael Peterson, a novelist whose wife Kathleen was found dead in 2001. Both Peterson and the fictional character are bisexual. Both wives had large life insurance policies. Aside from that, the show dramatizes the character and the circumstances for effect. Bustle reached out to Peterson's lawyer David Rudolph who had this to say about the premise and show in general:
Basing a comedy on the death of a woman is incredibly offensive to anyone and everyone who was touched by her death — family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. But in the age of Trump, I guess that offensiveness has become the new norm. I sincerely hope this show fails miserably, as it should in any reasonable world.
As for the real life case, Peterson claims he is innocent of the crime, but, after a 15-year legal battle, "he acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of voluntary manslaughter and accepted the guilty verdict for the felony without admitting guilt," according to The News and Observer. He was released with time served (eight years) and Rudolph said this about the plea to The News and Observer.
"He’s entering this plea because it is 15 years. He served eight years for a crime he did not commit. He’s 73 years old, and he has no faith in Durham law enforcement being interested in the truth as opposed to being interested in convicting him and twisting evidence to that purpose."
As Trial & Error is a fictional show, there are certainly other things about Larry Henderson that don't really resemble Michael Peterson — among them that he is almost carelessly callous and his poetry is clearly embarrassing while Peterson was a well-regarded novelist. Additionally, Rudolph offered these inaccuracies saying, "It just demonstrates the vacuousness and/or stupidity of the producers."
Michael Peterson is not clumsy, forgetful or bumbling. He is not a roller-blader, or a poet. He did not offer an 'alibi;' he spent the night with Kathleen drinking wine and watching the movie America’s Sweethearts, as confirmed by two witnesses who stopped by the house around 10 p.m. that night. There was not 'blood all over the house,' and there was absolutely nothing suspicious about his 911 call, which we played to the jury during our opening statement, because of how distraught Michael was on the call.
Larry's fate will be sealed by the end of Trial & Error's first season. "This year was inspired by The Staircase, maybe [if we get a second season] we'll be inspired by The Jinx or Making a Murderer. Thankfully people have killed a lot of people," Astrof told THR.
Perhaps the results of the Peterson case could suggest how Trial & Error Season 1 will end. As noted above, Peterson did accept the manslaughter plea, but, in the years since, there's been some skepticism about his guilt — there's even one theory that Kathleen Peterson was killed by an owl, and, in a trailer for the show, Sherri Shepherd delivers a similar defense.
In order to make the show a comedy, many of Larry Henderson's qualities have been exaggerated. But, there's no denying that it's certainly capitalizing on a time where true crime is fascinating the public — even when the stories behind the shows are all too real.