Trial & Error: The Schurest Non-Schur Show
The golden age of television is winding down. Part of it isn’t necessarily due to a lack of quality but an overabundance of quantity. Every channel is in the prestige drama business, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have gone greenlight crazy. I haven’t counted, but I imagine there are more hours of television produced in a year than there is time in the year to watch them all. None of this is really surprising. The only thing that is still surprising me is how strong networks are still going.
When I refer to networks here, I am talking about those networks that were around basically at the very beginning of broadcast television in the US. ABC. NBC. CBS. Plus some late additions like Fox or CW (as it is known now). They can be characterized by police procedurals which are as clever as their comedic sidekicks are (not very), creature-of-the-week genre shows that are basically just dressed up procedurals, and a small variety of easily consumed sitcoms that are basically meaningless. It is stuff large groups of people like because that is TV at its best (when it doesn’t try to out-clever the audience or challenge their morality). I personally want more, so I have pretty much sworn off those networks except for a few exceptions, many of which have the same thing in common: Michael Schur.
Michael Schur came to industry fame as a writer and producer on the US version of The Office. You might recognize him as Mose, Dwight’s dim-witted Amish-looking live-in cousin. He went on to create Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place, three of my favorite TV comedies. If you didn’t know they were created by the same person, you probably wouldn’t be surprised given the thematic similarities. The heart of each show is the idea of a inherently human endearing niceness. Both Parks and B99 are about close knit professional groups who save each other from early onset loneliness becoming substitute families to each other in the process. Meanwhile, The Good Place takes more of a direct approach to sincerity and kindness by having characters discus and learn or else be damned, literally. It is as if Schur made a whole new genre where he took the trademark sitcom snark and made it a quirk of a genuine support system rather than a roguish likability that allows us to overlook the fact that Zack Morris, Jim Halpert, or even Bugs Bunny kind of act like dicks. I had hoped that this post-postmodern return to sincerity would catch on, but channel surfing seems to say otherwise, until I found a new show, currently airing in its second season, called Trial & Error.
Trial & Error banks off the true-crime TV craze, which is 90% thanks to Netflix, by making the fauxdocumentary version of it. It has all the makings of The Office/Parks and Rec, where the main characters often look to the camera and explain their feelings, are introduced with on-screen name graphics, and where some non-sequitors are depicted through security camera footage. It is a tried and true structure that I thought I was over but it never feels like old hat when it comes to Trial & Error.
It stars John Lithgow as Larry Henderson, a poetry professor at a nearby college, who was also a prominent published poet in the 70s. He had groupies and everything. He is standing trial for the mysterious death of his wife that he swears he didn’t do despite all the evidence mounting against him. His rich in-laws help pay for a fancy New York lawyer, Josh Segal, played by Nicholas D’Agosto. Our readers might recognize him as Harvey Dent from Gotham or as a Hunter, Jan’s assistant, from The Office. Right off the bat, the two of them have an immediate endearing father-son relationship, continuing the trend of substitute families from Schur’s other shows. They are also both enduringly sweet people who honestly try to better other people’s lives, and half of the comedy comes from their naivete in doing so.
The other half comes from the setting. It takes place in the fictional South Carolina town, East Peck. Like Pawnee it is brimming with a colorful cast of obnoxious townsfolk, a rich history of tragedies and bizarre happenstance, and a number of weird culture-shock traditions. A cannonball for instance is set off twice a day at both 5 o’clocks in honor of some Civil War event that I don’t quite remember. I do remember that being hit by said cannonballs are the third leading cause of death in East Peck and for a good portion of the population the cannonballs are shot off at a different time because they have two different time zones. Yea, it is that kind of insane place. Luckily, Josh doesn’t need to navigate this town alone. He has two assistants in the matter. His investigator, Dwayne Reed, and his assistant/researcher, Anne Flatch.
Dwayne is a former local cop played by Broadway star, Steven Boyer. He couldn’t quite cut it as a cop, and he is barely cutting it as an investigator. He never really seems to know much about anything except the town’s own history, but he isn’t shy about it. He knows how to ask the right questions, which usually give Josh the idea for a new direction. Anne, played by 30 Rock’s Sherri Sheppard, is an absolute delight. Her competence at her job is out balanced by a number of bizarre afflictions. Any number of triggers could cause her to obsessively walk backwards or burst into spontaneous laughter at the worst possible moment. When she gets scared, she jumps 6 feet into the air, literally. Her funniest affliction is her face blindness, which is also probably the only one that actually exists. Thankfully, the jokes are pretty harmless. Usually, she just puts the wrong picture on the investigation board or gets caught doing something genuinely nice for people she thinks are strangers but are actually her friends.
They are currently 4 episodes into the second season. John Lithgow is gone, and Kristin Chenowith is now playing the member of the East Peck community wrongfully (presumably) arrested for murder that Josh has to defend. Given Chenowith’s past with quirly spritelike Southernbelles, it should come as no surprise that she is pitch-perfectly feeling the very large void left by Lithgow. However, I don’t think NBC has much confidence in the show overall. They are burning through two episodes every Thursday, which is never a good sign. I like having the two episodes to watch at once, but a content provider should never be in rush to get rid of their content. I just want people to give this show a shot. It is the Schurest show not made by Schur.
PS: As I write this, NBC allowed the deadline to renew to lapse. No official word on this show’s future.