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True crime reality TV gets mocked by a sitcom in NBC’s Trial & Error

True crime reality TV gets mocked by a sitcom in NBC’s Trial & Error
NBC's Trial & Error includes lawyer Josh (Nicholas D'Agosto), accused murderer Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), and Larry's daughter Summer (Krysta Rodriguez). (Photo by Tyler Golden/NBC)

The midseason show I have most been looking forward to this year is a sitcom: NBC’s Trial & Error, which debuts tonight.

That’s in part because the show, starring John Lithgow, is a mockumentary that was inspired by a terrific documentary series. But my excitement is mostly a result of this trailer:

That combination of screwball comedy and reality TV conventions just works for me—there are absolutely shades of The Office and Parks and Recreation here, a lot of good-hearted incompetence with one sane protagonist at the center. But an accused murderer being followed by cameras adds an extra dimension of absurdity.

Trial & Error (NBC, Tuesdays at 10) follows a lawyer, Josh Simon, who comes to a small town to defend Larry Henderson, played by John Lithgow, who’s accused of killing his wife.

Josh, played by Nicholas D’Agosto, has a not-exactly-crack legal team that includes a character played by Sherri Shepherd who has multiple maladies, including face blindness.

Absurdity from reality

The same documentary reality series that inspired Serial was, incredibly, the inspiration for Trial & Error: The Staircase.

At TCA in January, executive producer Jeff Astrof said that “around five years ago in the writers’ rooms across Warner Bros., and probably across the sitcom world, a documentary called The Staircase was going around. And I remember I watched it with my wife, and…I said, ‘If this guy was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen.’ And my wife gave me as much encouragement as any time she ever has, and she said, ‘Yeah, maybe.'”

Astrof pitched the series repeatedly, and Warner Bros. finally greenlit the series. “It was fantastic, and the timing was really great because right at the time everybody was watching The Jinx and Serial, and we had handed in our script. And that’s when Making a Murderer came out. And we were just, like, If we don’t do this now, someone else is going to do it.”

John Lithgow, who’s played both a sitcom dad and a serial killer during his career, said,

“Primetime true crime documentary series—we were completely teed up for a great satire, a great parody. Nobody has done this yet, and it was brilliantly written. And my character, I loved the challenge of playing a part who, at any given moment, is completely could completely plausibly have committed or not committed this crime. This seemed to me a wonderful kind of magic trick to pull off, and I love challenges like that. They created a character for which this trick can work.”

To make a fictional sitcom seem as much like a doc as possible, the production hired Jeff Blitz, the director of Spellbound and other documentaries. However, the producers also made a decision to not show the documentary crew—though initially, they wrote in a filmmaker character, but ended up cutting him.

If the series is renewed, the plan is to use other true-crime reality series as inspiration, but keep the core cast of characters the same so “every year, we you get to know the characters more,” Astrof said. “We may be inspired by The Jinx or Making a Murderer. Thankfully, a lot of people have killed a lot of people. So there’s a lot of choices.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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