In the new NBC comedy “Trial & Error,” the mockumentary sitcom as once practiced by “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” meets the true-crime legal procedural, as lately exemplified by “The Jinx” and the podcast “Serial.” It was bound to happen.
The particular reference here, not that you need to know it, is to a series more than a decade old. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s, extraordinary eight-part 2005 documentary “The Staircase,” was later made into a Lifetime docudrama, 2007’s “The Staircase Murders,” and revisited in the 2013 sequel “The Staircase II: The Last Chance.” (A third installment is in the works.)
John Lithgow plays Larry Henderson, a poetry professor whose wife has died after somehow crashing or being forced through a glass window. As in “The Staircase,” which told the story of Michael Peterson and his late wife Kathleen — did she fall, did he push her? — we are in the South (fictional East Peck, S.C., rather than real-life Durham, N.C.).
Here, as there, the suspect/defendant is a writer who was once involved in a similar murder or accident, has a sexual secret and does not behave as a person who has lost his wife and is accused of killing her might be expected to. (“Do I like the term ‘accused murderer’? If I’m being honest, I do not.”) There are other parallels and borrowings, but by the end of the third episode, “Trial & Error” has begun to take off on its own, differently complicated journey.
Like “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” it’s a story of small-town eccentricity and institutions. Novice lawyer Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto), representing a high-priced “Northeastern” law firm — a euphemism for “Jewish” in a brief running joke — has come to town to pave the way for the big guns hired to defend him. In “Parks and Rec” terms, I suppose he’s the Adam Scott character, though he’s also Rob Morrow in “Northern Exposure,” one of a long line of city mice in a country situation.
Josh is assisted by a dim but eager local investigator Dwayne Reed (the name is a New York drugstore joke), played by Steven Boyer, who has found them office space, shared with a taxidermist. (Josh: “What is that noise? It sounds like a saw cutting through bone.” Dwayne: “You get used to it, I don’t even hear it anymore.”)
Dwayne, who represents an ancient strain of hayseed comedy — he has a brother who is also his cousin — believes there is a word called “studdedly,” and describes an upcoming encounter as “a battle of biblical proportions, like Moses versus Voldemort.”
Dwayne has in turn engaged Anne Flatch (a delightful Sherri Shepherd) as Josh’s “assistant, and head researcher, and intern,” who comes with an encyclopedia set of psychological challenges: dyslexia, facial amnesia, involuntary emotional expression disorder and Stendhal syndrome.
“Whenever I see something beautiful,” she tells Josh, “like a piece of art, I get so overwhelmed, I pass out. It’s a real thing, you can look it up.” (I looked it up; it’s a real thing.)
They’ll eventually be joined by Andy Daly as “the best DNA guy in town,” who is also a compulsive masturbator. (“Trial & Error” is not exactly a family comedy.)
Jayma Mays plays hard-nosed prosecutor Carol Anne Keane — a homonym for Carolyn Keene, the pseudonymous author of the Nancy Drew mysteries. (While we’re on the subject of names, “Larry Henderson” oddly recalls the Lithgow Bigfoot comedy “Harry and the Hendersons.” Also there is a judge named Horsedich.) Along with Krysta Rodriguez as Larry’s daughter Summer, Mays is positioned to provide an element of sexual tension and romantic interest.
Created by Jeff Astrof (whose sitcom career runs back to “Friends” and up through “Angie Tribeca”) and Matt Miller, who developed “Lethal Weapon” for television and created the supernatural crime drama “Forever” — a teaming that presumably mixes comedy chops with mystery know-how — “Trial & Error” is solid and funny, impressively cast and in no significant sense groundbreaking.
Notwithstanding that there’s a suspicious death at the center of it and its headliner may be a murderer, the show is sweet and fanciful, with only the merest concern with how things work in the world. Is Larry guilty? Probably not, but whatever. Even if he is, it will still be comedy.
‘Trial & Error’
When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd