The true-crime genre is as played out as frat-bros wearing socks with sandals, suburban white kids trying to be gangster and political posts on social media. Somehow or another, though, TV shows featuring sadistic assholes with a penchant for murdering their ex-wives and wearing their faces while doing their kooky dances are all the rage.
Now I have to admit I have been guilty of sticking my neck out while passing a horrific car accident and Googling pictures and videos from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, but even I don’t understand the appeal of watching the exploits of Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy. Yet somehow, true-crime docs and TV shows have permeated the American culture like man buns, “making it rain” and Brent Musburger’s use of “From Downtown.”
Since I’m just a lowly sports writer and aspiring satirist and not Sigmund Freud or Ivan Pavlov, I will not attempt to explain America’s obsession with the genre using Oedipal complexes and ringing bells, but I will use the remainder of this article to discuss the awesomeness of NBC’s satirical answer to the true-crime phenomenon.
Trial and Error, the brilliantly offbeat John Lithgow whodunit caper has the highest profile of most mid-season shows given its Big Three network pedigree, but any hype this show gets ain’t enough. Check this show out: It’s a perfect combination of screwball comedy and reality TV conventions and it’s profoundly good. Created by Jeff Astrof of Friends and Angie Tribeca fame and Matt Miller, who developed Lethal Weapon for the small screen, it would get by on star power alone, with Lithgow as the eccentric, gender-fluid, roller-skating poetry professor accused of murdering his wife and Jayma Mays as a power-hungry, sexually frustrated prosecutor who needs a death penalty conviction to seal her run for DA. There is no one you’d rather watch roller skate through a puddle of blood or carry an arsenal of guns through a metal detector into court and when you do, it’s precision of the highest caliber.
The show throws enough perfectly placed knuckleballs at the audience to make Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro proud. Lithgow’s Larry Henderson, despite claiming his innocence, has enough O.J. in a White Bronco moments to make him look guiltier than Colonel Mustard wearing a bloody leather glove in the study while holding a candlestick. Lithgow brings the same type of zaniness to the show that he brought to 3rd Rock from the Sun and it makes us love him one minute and call him a sociopath the next. The 911 call, which he abruptly ends after the cable guy he’s been waiting on beeps in, his insistence on getting his roller skate wrench back — which we find out his dead wife gave him — and the terrible one-liner “Back in the day, I was known as a lady killer” after the reveal his first wife died the same way are just some of the knuckleballs thrown at us to keep us guessing about Henderson’s guilt. In a nutshell, Henderson is a mix of Robert Durst and The Office’s Michael Scott.
And the knuckleballs don’t stop there. Henderson’s legal team is the exact opposite of The Dream Team, led by a doe-eyed lawyer (Nicholas D’Agosto’s Josh), a retired police officer (Steven Boyer’s Dwayne) who quit the force after forgetting to put his car in park during a routine traffic stop and the head researcher (Sherri Shepherd’s Anne) who can’t remember faces, has dyslexia, laughs at inappropriate moments and passes out when she sees beautiful paintings.
The only problem with the show is it completely misses its opportunity to skewer the justice system, the media and public’s fascination with gory crimes and the prejudice that is built into both institutions. If Astrof and Miller really wanted to satirize the genre and our obsession with it, then they should’ve opened the series with Nancy Grace having a talk with Henderson and Johnny Cochran breaks in and tells Grace they are waiting on her in Hell.
And boom … There’s satire right there. Oh, snap!