|Nicholas D’Agosto and John Lithgow|
NBC’s long-running sitcom The Office left its mark on contemporary television in a number of ways, not least in the sudden emergence of a number of mockumentary-style comedies, most notably NBC’s Parks and Recreation and ABC’s hit Modern Family. However, it’s striking that both of these shows seem to have essentially discarded the sub-genre’s main conceit: the idea that everything we see and hear is being recorded by a camera crew that exists within the world of the show. The Office spent a considerable portion of its final season acknowledging that there had been other characters, long familiar to the denizens of Dunder-Mifflin but completely unknown to us, present throughout the show’s run, and it dealt with some of the logical complications that might ensue from that situation. Parks and Modern Family, on the other hand, became almost Brecht-lite; characters speak directly to the audience, calling our attention to the show’s artificiality, but there’s rarely any pretense that they’re actually talking to a person behind the camera.
It’s hard not to think of the quirks of the mockumentary sub-genre while watching NBC’s new Trial and Error, which premiered on March 14 and airs on Tuesday nights. In large part, that’s because creators Jeff Astrof and Matthew Miller seem to have attempted to reverse-engineer the success of The Office and Parks and Recreation; the latter’s influence is especially evident from their attempts to quickly establish the show’s setting, a fictional South Carolina town called East Peck, as a quirky but lovable backwater, à la the equally fictional Pawnee, Indiana. Here, the conceit that everything that we see is the result of a camera crew following around the characters is frequently acknowledged, oftentimes to satisfying comic effect.