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Trial & Error Is the Perfect Chaser to Jury Duty

If you're looking for another delightfully silly comedy about the justice system, there’s one ripe for re-discovery.
  • Left: Nicholas D'Agosto and John Lithgow in Trial & Error; Right: Ronald Gladden in Jury Duty (Photos: NBC/Amazon Studios)
    Left: Nicholas D'Agosto and John Lithgow in Trial & Error; Right: Ronald Gladden in Jury Duty (Photos: NBC/Amazon Studios)

    Amazon Freevee's Jury Duty is both a a fascinating high-wire reality TV deception, wherein an entire courtroom trial is fabricated for the purpose of fooling one unsuspecting person, and a skillful and deeply silly comedy about that same trial. Ronald Gladden wasn't just a regular person cast in a fictional trial; he was a regular person cast in a sitcom about a fictional trial. In that way, the TV series that Jury Duty most immediately brings to mind is Trial & Error. The short-lived NBC comedy had no prank element, but it did have a similar streak of absurdist legal comedy, making it the perfect show to re-discover now, whether you've just watched Jury Duty (you should!) or are simply in the mood for one of the best comedies of the last decade that never got its due.

    Trial & Error premiered as a mid-season show in March 2017. Created by the team of Jeff Astrof (The New Adventures of Old Christine) and Matt Miller (Chuck), the show was a mockumentary that followed a headline-making murder trial in the very small (fictional) town of East Peck, North Carolina. John Lithgow played Larry Henderson, a man accused of murdering his wife by throwing her through a plate-glass window, while Nicholas D'Agosto (Masters of Sex) played Josh Segal, the inexperienced "East Coast" lawyer (yes, the residents of East Peck do take that as shorthand for "Jewish") sent to defend him. The 13-episode first season followed this same murder trial from the initial 911 call to the verdict to the post-verdict revelations.

    One thing that became immediately clear to anyone who'd seen the 2004 docuseries The Staircase, which followed the murder trial of Michael Peterson, accused of filling his wife, was that the Larry Henderson trial WAS the Michael Peterson trial, riffed on to a dogged degree. Every peculiarity that Lithgow heightened about his character was a play on Peterson, while the mockumentary conceit of Trial & Error mimicked The Staircase and its parade of new revelations as the case went along.

    This immediately gave Trial & Error a second layer — not only was it a broadly comedic series about an inept or corrupt small-town legal system, but it also served as a parody of true crime in general and one of the genre's most notable shows in particular. (Yes, the owl theory does make an appearance.) When HBO Max debuted ar a limited series based on The Staircase that starred Colin Firth and Toni Collette in 2022, it led to the surreal experience of watching The Staircase and mostly thinking about how much it reminded you of Trial & Error.

    Instead of two Oscar nominees as its leads, Trial & Error had Josh's delightfully bumbling team, including Steven Boyer as Josh's investigator, Dwayne Reed, and Sherri Shepherd as researcher Anne Flatch. Shepherd in particular was a standout, playing Anne's revolving door of bizarre medical disorders with real commitment. Meanwhile, Glee alum Jayma Mays was a scream as prosecutor (and would-be District Attorney, if the election goes the right way) Carol Anne Keane. Take all the eccentricity that Parker Posey brought to her performance as the prosecutor in The Staircase and add to it crack comedic timing and a penchant for filthy come-ons, and you'll get a sense of what Mays brought to the table.

    Trial & Error was not a ratings hit, though it was favored enough by NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt to get a second season. The good news was that the second batch of episodes featured Kristin Chenoweth as East Peck socialite Lavinia Peck-Foster, who was accused of murdering her husband. The bad news was that the episodes were burned off two at a time over the summer of 2018, and by early 2019, the show was officially canceled.

    The audience for Trial & Error wasn't large enough to warrant a loud public mourning upon cancellation, but it remains a shame that a show as unambiguously funny couldn't find its footing on network TV. In an era when the definition of comedy has been stretched and shifted to encompass any half-hour TV program that isn't explicitly depressing (and even then, get ready for FX's The Bear to make an Emmy run in the comedy categories this summer), Trial & Error comes across like a breath of silly air. The show wasn't wry or arch or in any way subtle. It didn't rope fans in to get invested in a romantic storyline. It wasn't dark and it didn't deliver potent social commentary. But there was sneaky intelligence in the way it approached its broad comedy matched by an energetic execution.

    Obviously, a show like Jury Duty couldn't quite go that big without giving away the game. But a gag like Ronald's sequester roommate and his chair-pants or James Marsden acting as a sexual accomplice by jumping on a bed feel is, if not indebted to Trial & Error, then at least spiritually bonded to it.

    Trial & Error remains a hidden gem, awaiting discovery by anyone who cares to seek it out (it's currently streaming on Prime Video). And if you're among those who appreciated the show when it aired, Jury Duty is the perfect reminder to go check it out again. The show has lost none of its laugh-out-loud comedic potency, and if Carole Anne Keane were here, she'd probably say something suggestive about potency. There's no better time to go watch.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Trial & Error, Amazon Prime Video, NBC, Jury Duty, Jayma Mays, John Lithgow, Kristin Chenoweth, Nicholas D'Agosto, Sherri Shepherd