Sitcoms rarely take as twisted a turn as “Trial & Error,” a new comedy starring John Lithgow.
“The basic premise of our show: It’s kind of a travesty version of these real-life crime documentaries that have entered the public consciousness,” Lithgow says. “I may or may not have killed my wife by hurling her through a plate glass window. … Funny stuff, right?”
Actually, yeah, it is — at least in the hands of a wild man performer like John Lithgow.
The show, which premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on NBC with back-to-back episodes, mimics the structure of popular nonfiction crime series such as “The Staircase,” “Making a Murderer” and “Serial,” then turns them upside-down by adding a subversive sense of humor.
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Lithgow plays Larry Henderson, a rollercizing poetry professor in a small South Carolina town. He looks guilty, guilty, guilty from the outset. Then he says and does inappropriate things that make him look guiltier and guiltier. (“Back in the day,” he jokes to a film crew, “I was known as a lady killer.”)
Every time Josh Segal, Larry’s inexperienced New York attorney (played by Nicholas D’Agosto), turns on the TV set or picks up a newspaper, there’s damaging new evidence that adds gasoline to the fire.
Meanwhile, the lead prosecutor (played by Jayma Mays) is going for the jugular. The most lenient plea offer she puts on the table is death by electrocution.
Josh’s inept defense team (which also includes Steven Boyer and scene-stealing Sherri Shepherd) are going to have their hands full trying to save Larry.
“The cast is such a fabulous combination of misfits,” Lithgow says. “The last time I was in an ensemble that made me laugh this hard was ‘3rd Rock From the Sun.’
“The miracle is we are all very good at keeping a straight face. We don’t break each other up on camera. But as soon as they say cut, we all fall on the floor.”
D’Agosto (who previously played D.A. Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, in “Gotham”) also has loved every minute of making this show.
“Every actor probably says, ‘It was the most amazing pilot script I’ve ever read — I mean it!’ But here’s the difference: It really was the most amazing script and I really do mean it,” D’Agosto says.
“I think people are going to enjoy it not only because it’s very funny, but also because it has the same kind of twists and surprises that kept people listening to ‘Serial’ and watching ‘Making a Murderer.’”
The true-crime documentary that serves as direct inspiration for “Trial & Error” is “The Staircase.” The Peabody Award-winning miniseries chronicled the 2001 trial of Michael Peterson, who stood accused of bludgeoning his second wife to death (and then staging an accidental fall down a staircase).
“I think this is set apart from other comedies by its premise,” Lithgow says. “Every time I describe this show to people, they say, ‘Why didn’t anybody think of this before?’ We’re satirizing a formula that has just recently emerged. So we’re the first ones to get a crack at it.
“I think audiences will tune in and watch every week because it’s got the structure of a murder mystery. You want to know what’s happening next. It throws people off. There are red herrings. You think you’ve got it and you’re wrong. Sometimes you’ve got it and you were right.
“It’s got all of those kind of narcotic addictive qualities that keep you watching.”
Plus, it’s got Lithgow.
“He is amazing,” D’Agosto says. “So talented and fluid and free and inventive. And his enthusiasm apparently grows with every decade of acting that he gets under his belt. His enthusiasm is off the charts.
“It was an honor to work with him.”
Trial & Error
- 9 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday
- KXAS/Channel 5