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Television Review

With its goofy gags, ‘Trial & Error’ gets away with murder

Nicholas D’Agosto (left) and John Lithgow in “Trial & Error,’’ a mockumentary that makes fun of real-crime documentaries.Tyler Golden/NBC/NBC

I laughed and I cried a few times during “Trial & Error,” a new NBC comedy premiering next Tuesday with two episodes, right after the “This Is Us” season finale. I laughed, and then I cried to myself about how stupid I was to laugh at such a silly show. But there it was: I laughed out loud at this kooky, uneven spoof, whose jokes are almost inevitably about how profoundly stupid the characters are.

Sometimes, idiocy is the ticket.

“Trial & Error” is a mockumentary that makes fun of real-crime documentaries such as “Making a Murderer” and “The Staircase.” The first season revolves around a single case: Larry Henderson, a poetry professor in a South Carolina town, is accused of killing his wife. A “Northeast” lawyer — turns out “Northeast” is code among some locals for “Jewish” — flies down to help Henderson, but Henderson does himself no favors by appearing not to care about his wife’s death. Since John Lithgow plays him, Larry continues to be lovably flakey and implicate himself throughout the first few episodes — when he’s not roller skating or chatting up a stalker.

Nicholas D’Agosto plays lawyer Josh Segal, the “normal” guy who has dropped into this nest of Southern nitwits. His office is in a taxidermy store, his lead investigator is a “Deliverance”-style moron named Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer), and his secretary, Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd), is a dope with a number of strange ailments. I admit, many of my laughs were triggered by Anne and her facial recognition problem, which enables her to feel like she’s with a different man each time she sleeps with her husband. She also has involuntary emotional expression disorder, which means she laughs whenever she is upset — and yes, there is a graveyard scene.


The actors have good timing, and they are graciously upstaged by Lithgow, who is entertaining without yelling out his lines, as he did during his hammy years on “3rd Rock From the Sun.” D’Agosto, from “Masters of Sex” and “Gotham,” hits the right notes with his incredulous reactions, which he also directs at Jayma Mays’s Carol Anne Keane, a fierce and amoral prosecutor. They all serve the material well, which doesn’t help them when the material is below par. The jokes are done one too many times, including my beloved face-blindness gags, so that you can see them coming a mile away. And the story line isn’t just bent; it’s close to nonsense. But still: The cast is solid.


I was not surprised to find that co-creator Jeff Astrof has also been a writer and producer on “Angie Tribeca,” another crime-based sitcom built on bad puns and nutty twists. “Trial & Error” also reminds me of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which similarly kicks around the clichés of Crime TV while trying to make the characters endearing. These are definitely not shows that mine the human condition for funny truths, or anything lofty like that. They’re punchy comedies with punchy scripts. They’re shows that require you to check your brain at the door. When you opt into a series that prides itself on lowbrow amusement, you enter at your own risk.


Starring: John Lithgow, Jayma Mays, Nicholas D’Agosto, Sherri Shepherd, Steven Boyer, Krysta Rodriguez

On: NBC, Tuesday at 10 and 10:30 p.m.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.