Silliness abounds in “Trial & Error,” a crime mockumentary buoyed by John Lithgow’s performance as an accused murderer who seems perpetually clueless about the seriousness of his plight. High art it’s not, but as breezy, reasonably clever comedies go, this NBC show earns a favorable verdict.
The format seeks to wed the popularity of true-crime programs like “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx” with the deadpan style and uncomfortable glances toward the camera of “The Office.”
The marriage yields mixed results, although the serialized nature of the case against Lithgow’s character, poetry professor Larry Henderson, helps pull viewers along from one episode to the next, kicking off with a two-part premiere after the “This Is Us” season finale before sliding into its time slot.
Set in a small Southern town, the series centers on Larry being accused of murdering his wife. Josh (Nicholas D’Agosto), a young lawyer with a big New York firm, is tasked with defending him, having been recruited by Larry’s brother-in-law (Bob Gunton), who drawls that he was determined to hire an, er, “Northeastern” lawyer.
Lithgow is well served by a role perfectly suited to his goofy side — less Robert Durst than “3rd Rock From the Sun.” Just how kooky is Larry? In the middle of calling 911 to report that he thinks his wife is dead, he puts them on hold to accept a call from his cable company.
The supporting cast is equally eccentric, the best being Sherri Shepherd as one of the locals tapped to assist Josh, a woman who suffers from a series of obscure psychological conditions, each more outlandish than the next. Jayma Mays (“Glee”) also co-stars as the prosecutor, operating in a small-town courthouse where everyone appears to be part of the same rotary club.
That down-home aspect adds a touch of “My Cousin Vinny” to the proceedings, with Josh as the perpetually confused fish out of water, dealing with archaic state laws that remain on the books, and local TV anchors who don’t hide their contempt for Larry.
The episodic format, meanwhile, constantly introduces new wrinkles in the case, pointing toward Larry’s guilt or innocence. In that regard, it’s a slick way to do a broad comedy with some of the more binge-able attributes of a serialized drama.
Nothing about “Trial & Error” feels particularly fresh or novel. Still, as light NBC comedy tryouts go, the network has certainly made bigger errors than this.
“Trial & Error” premieres March 14 at 10 p.m. on NBC.