Saturday, April 1, 2017

Jury’s Still Out: NBC’s Trial & Error

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.

Trial & Error also owes a clear debt to the recent success of true-crime documentaries like The Jinx and Making of a Murderer, but for obvious reasons a network sitcom has to hew closer to the sunny side of life, even if, in this case, it’s all about a murder trial. The murder in question involves the untimely death of the wife of poetry professor Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), and Henderson is arrested for the crime. Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto), the New York lawyer who’s sent down South to defend him, quickly despairs of his task, since the evidence against him seems pretty strong, and the defendant is wont to saying things that only further damn him in the eyes of the public. Hindered more than helped by investigator Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer) and assistant Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd), abandoned by his firm, and alternately menaced and propositioned by the ambitious and deeply sexually frustrated assistant D.A. Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays), Josh (along with Larry’s adopted daughter Summer, played by Krysta Rodriguez) nevertheless manages to find enough evidence to cast doubt on Larry’s guilt.

Like NBC’s delightful The Good Place, Trial & Error is heavily serialized, which most half-hour shows tend to shy away from. That might account for why it airs two episodes on the same night every week, although that could also indicate an eagerness on NBC’s part to burn off the episodes as quickly as possible. That latter impulse may not be unwise: it’s by no means a bad show, but, like many new comedies, it doesn’t feel like it’s arrived fully developed. This wasn’t a problem for shows like The Office or Park and Recreation, both of which had short, forgettable debut seasons, but it matters more this time because Trial & Error relies so heavily on its concept.

Jayma Mays and Nicholas D’Agosto (Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward/NBC)

Among the components of the show that don’t feel fully realized are the performances, many of which feel like shtick. D’Agosto’s very much in straight-man mode, and he’s mostly required to blink in astonishment at East Peck’s quirky residents or stand agog as each new catastrophe befalls him. Shepherd’s character somehow manages the (admittedly impressive) paradox of being both over- and underwritten: she’s an assortment of idiosyncrasies that stem from her laundry list of bizarre psychological conditions, which includes an inability to recognize faces and a compulsion to break out laughing in response to tragedy. It’s both too much and not enough, and it feels mean-spirited to boot.

On the other hand, some of the caricatures populating East Peck are broad but appealing, and it’s worth noting that this happens most consistently when the actors playing them are allowed to find just a hint of nuance. Boyer’s Dwayne is in many ways a conventional hayseed stereotype, but there’s a pathos to his desperate need for acceptance and friendship that establishes a contrast with his dim-witted hijinks. Rodriguez’s Summer is on the other end of the scale: she’s clearly meant to be a normative character whose relative grounding in reality marks her as Josh’s likely love interest as the narrative progresses. Still, she gives us hints that she’s not above the wackiness of the show’s setting, such as the way she plays her sudden onrush of self-consciousness as she spits out increasingly lame excuses for her romantic relationship with a local pyromaniac.

John Lithgow is, of course, the star attraction, but, like the rest of the cast, he’s somewhat hindered by the show’s broad tone. He plays otherworldly befuddlement well, but his Larry becomes more interesting and sympathetic when he’s allowed just a hint of humanity, as when his seemingly misplaced outrage over the choice of flowers for his wife’s gravesite reveals itself as an attempt to cope with his grief over her death. Still, his predicament points to a larger issue that bedevils Trial & Error: for a show that’s so heavily dependent on serialization and concerned with a fairly dark topic (Larry is, after all, on trial for his life), its tone prevented me from getting too invested in it. Parks and Recreation had time to build its world and establish the oftentimes serious stakes involved in its goofy characters’ escapades, while The Good Place’s otherworldly and expertly realized setting helps to justify its tonal and narrative oddities. Trial & Error has some funny performers and an intriguing conceptual premise, but right now it simply doesn’t seem capable of reaching the lofty status of its forerunners in the mockumentary sub-genre.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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