Turning a murder case into anything close to comedy is a tricky proposition, even when the victim is a fictional character. But over the course of two seasons, NBC’s “Trial and Error” has turned that challenge into a jumping-off point; it throws off distinctions of sitcom, parody, and TV legal proceedings and makes a story that’s wholly its own.
Where other shows might make the central attorney at the heart of each case the series’ beating heart, Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) is more of an idealistic conduit of relative calm around which the future of his law career and the town of East Peck exist in a constant state of flux. After successfully guiding his ragtag group of colleagues through the trial of Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), Josh gets an even bigger challenge: defend the beloved, extravagant Lavinia Peck-Foster (Kristin Chenoweth), who’s charged with killing her husband.
“Lady, Killer” (the Season 2 subtitle) is about as close to self-contained as you can get for an anthology season, even one that incorporates many of the characters and the town from the Lithgow era. As the season progresses, there are more references back to earlier episodes involving Lavinia then those involving Josh’s previous client. And on the spectrum of small-town true crime sendups, “Trial and Error” is less “American Vandal” than “Parks and Recreation”; it’s more concerned with building out the many eccentricities of its East Peck, South Carolina setting than matching the beat-for-beat rhythms of an hours-long docuseries.
When Chenoweth spoke with Indiewire, her parting message was describing “Trial and Error” as “silly, silly, silly.” It’s an appropriate word, repeated the appropriate amount of times. Case in point: the various afflictions visited on Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd, having the time of her life), Josh’s sole assistant. The week-by-week reveals of her new gifts (or curses, depending on how you look at them) keep things from getting too self-serious and let “Trial and Error” harness a regular amount of chaos to shake off encroaching familiarity.
So simple in their setup and unapologetic in their execution, it’s hard to believe some of the other recurring gags in this season haven’t popped up before in the annals of sitcom misunderstandings. Usually bolstered by the efforts of Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer; the character names on this show are a blessing all their own), this show’s specific brand of linguistic acrobatics leads to a wave of malapropisms and inverted meanings that cascade over the audience — often quicker than they can be registered. “Trial and Error” also flexes its joke muscles in a bevy of choice tossed-off comments, like when one character describes a bottle of liquor as “the official Rum of Peck Elementary.”
Occasionally, the show leans into its own devices a hair too far — like, in the first episode, when a running gag goes one joke too many with the word “Pecker” — but for the most part, these recurring jokes soar on the backs of the ensemble’s impressive physical skills. Joel McCrary’s tiny-voiced judge is a delightfully deployed character filled with detail, and a recurring joke with a set of flags is one of the funniest, most satisfying bits of town characterization that a sitcom has implemented since “Parks.”
As with the first “Trial and Error” season, which squarely used “The Staircase” as its season-long framework, there’s an element of subversion here; it isn’t overt, which makes it all the more enjoyable to witness. The writers are back for more chyron antics (Jayma Mays’ returning Assistant DA character is introduced as “Carol Anne Keane — Prosecutor, Pregnant Woman”). Meanwhile, the comically small legal defense team takes great glee in breaking down each unexpected turn in the case. (Any time Dwayne and Anne chant in unison at new bits of evidence is a real treat.)
This season also incorporates the sudden arrival of Nina Thompson (Amanda Payton), an investigative podcast host that soon entraps most of the major players in this twisty saga. This part feels the least inventive of the season’s satirical swings (the title “M-Towne” is about as thinly veiled a spoof as the show has), especially when the Nina serves mainly as a romantic wedge between the on-and-off-again Josh and Carol Anne.
But if Josh is the willing, puppy-dog dupe at the center, keeping the freight train of the case chugging along, the glorious destination is Chenoweth, who delivers some of the most exuberant work of her career here. She doesn’t just own Lavinia as a character, she’s bought up all seats on the Board of Directors and gobbled up all existing shares. Finding the perfect balance between a potential devious mastermind and a lonely heiress with very specific needs and tastes, Chenoweth luxuriates in Lavinia’s hero complex and turns her into a gleeful lightning rod for all the action swirling around her. Much to creators Jeff Astrof & Matt Miller’s credit, Chenoweth even gets a chance to indulge her trademark vocal stylings at various points throughout the season.
All of this combines to form something that’s a delicate tonal dance, especially where murder is concerned. Tossing any semblance of trial procedure verisimilitude out every courthouse window, the show instead finds a specificity of zaniness in comedy characters who present themselves unapologetically as characters. Unhinged at times, oddly thoughtful at others, “Trial and Error is more than parody; it’s a welcome wave of silliness.
“Trial & Error: Lady, Killer” premieres Thursday, July 19 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.