'Trial & Error' Gives True Crime A Makeover

Evans Vestal Ward/NBC

It had to come to this eventually. The public's hunger for true crime documentaries has become so ravenous that NBC has converted that genre into comedy. In Trial & Error, premiering Mar. 14, John Lithgow plays a Larry Henderson, a Southern professor accused of murdering his wife. Gotham's Nicholas D'Agosto is Josh Segal, the New York City lawyer who crosses the Mason-Dixon line to defend him. And the rest of the ensemble (including Sherri Shepherd, Steven Boyer, and Krysta Rodriguez) is mostly composed of the eccentric and out-of-their-depth characters who are recruited to help Josh and Larry win their case. It's true that the mockumentary style of the show isn't new territory for NBC, the home network of The Office and Parks And Recreation. But since that style is used here to tell the story of a maybe-killer and his legal team, Trial & Error feels like a parody of popular true crime docuseries.

In early 2015, HBO aired The Jinx, director Andrew Jarecki's profile of Robert Durst. Then came the Netflix series Making A Murderer — about the conviction of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey for the murder of a photographer. It won a few Emmy awards and provoked an animated conversation on social media. Avery's legal team even went on tour to talk about the experience. Milestone years for the O.J. Simpson double murder trial and the murder of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey prompted the creation of anniversary programming re-investigating those cases. True crime is so mainstream, it's apparently now sitcom fodder.

The roots of Trial & Error can be traced back to Saturday Night Live, which started capitalizing on this recent national obsession with its brilliant parody of the podcast Serial in 2014 and later cast Kate McKinnon as the twitchy Durst. But this new comedy deals with original, fictional characters, who may or may not have some characteristics in common with some of the personalities featured in those docuseries. "He’s one of those impulsive people who goes through life completely unedited," Lithgow told USA Today of his Trial & Error character. And, though the premise is fictional, it does have inspiration in reality. 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." The Staircase chronicles the case of Michael Peterson and his wife's death in 2001.

Peterson claims he is innocent of that 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 his lawyer David 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 for the show's original inspiration, Rudolph told Bustle:

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.
Tyler Golden/NBC

It remains to be seen if a true crime sensibility can really work in the context of a goofy sitcom, or if the show be too dark for a network audience. The jury's out, but Trial & Error is making its case on Tuesday nights.