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John Doyle: John Lithgow shines in cheeky mockumentary Trial & Error

Sometimes the gulf between network and cable, in quality and brazenness, is most glaring when a network attempts a sassy comedy. It looks a little lame, lacking a true cutting edge. But, then you throw in John Lithgow and it looks a lot better. A lot.

Such is the case with Trial & Error (Tuesday, NBC, CTV, 10 p.m.), a cheeky new send-up of the true crime documentary genre that has thrived, especially on cable and streaming services, in the past few years.

In sending up the genre, this show borrows a lot. Not so much from serious-minded journeys into crime, but into recent and acclaimed offbeat comedies. In fact, it borrows heavily from Parks & Recreation. It is mockumentary in style, and the cameras follow a crime from its discovery through the murder trial. But it's set in a little place called East Peck, which is in South Carolina but seems to be just down the road from Pawnee, home to Parks & Rec.

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Things start, as they must, with a 911 call. Local poetry prof Larry Henderson (Lithgow) is calling to say he's just found his wife dead and there's blood everywhere. However, he feels obliged to put the 911 dispatcher on hold because he's getting a call from the cable company, which has been ignoring him.

Obviously, Larry is the main suspect. His wife's wealthy family decides he needs a smart "practising Northeasterner" of a lawyer (by that, they mean Jewish) to defend him. So, along comes young New York lawyer Josh Simon (Nicholas D'Agosto), who immediately hires the top local private investigator. That turns out to be Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer), who is the definition of redneck. Dwayne's office is shared with a taxidermist and his assistant is Anne (Sherri Shepherd), a woman who suffers from many disorders, including "face-blindness."

Every character has a mannered idiosyncrasy and the dumb foolishness piles up. Turns out Larry might have been having a thing with his personal trainer, a large and muscled chap. As Josh's nemesis, local prosecutor Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays from Glee) points out that the Buggery Act of 1877 has never been repealed. Mind you, she's free that evening and, as it happens, that Buggery Act is almost never invoked.

You get the picture: Trial & Error is a light spoof of Making a Murderer and HBO's The Jinx, with absurdism added in every few minutes. It is a fact that the genre being mocked can veer into crazy, detailed analysis of the law and of minor details that don't actually have much to do with the primary crime. It is a fact that some of the people who are featured in a major true crime investigation documentary can be presented as one-note figures, almost caricatures. And Trial & Error has sport with all that.

Anyone who has watched Making a Murderer or others of the genre with skepticism can appreciate where this spoof is going. In fact, the skeptical audience for such immensely detailed documentary is represented by the Anne character, who doesn't only have face-blindness (a comic tick meant to mirror the viewer's confusion about all the characters), but she also suffers from fits of inappropriate laughter. It's Anne that steals scenes in this spoof.

In the midst of it all, Lithgow does his doofus act. Few actors have his sense of zaniness and timing. He can take the most glaringly melodramatic scene and shatter it with a well-aimed zinger of utter ridiculousness. Here, for instance, while faced with the prospect of death row and execution, he suddenly asks his lawyer: "Can you make your own final meal? I'm on a low-sodium diet!"

There aren't a lot of outright laughs in Trial & Error. It's a slow-burning comedy, far from spectacular, but it has its merits. It acknowledges, by way of spoofery, that most criminal investigations are about dumb human error and old, ridiculous prejudices and assumptions. It doesn't go for the jugular; it goes for jokes. And it is saved from being utterly irrelevant by Lithgow's enthusiasm for off-the-wall sincerity presented as ludicrously funny.

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If it were on a cable channel it would have more bite, but it's an exuberant and earthy send-up and a pleasant distraction from the grim reality contained in the material that it mocks.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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