Last year, NBC delivered the first season of its charmingly silly true-crime documentary spoof Trial & Error, featuring John Lithgow as Larry Henderson, a man in a small South Carolina town accused of murdering his wife. Coming to his defense was unseasoned trial lawyer Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosoto), a soon-to-be fish out of water whose lack of professional experience was exacerbated by the extreme culture shock of East Peck, a town that, let’s say, marches to a beat of its own drummer. The result was an endearing, laugh-out-loud comedy that capitalized on Lithgow’s terrific presence, but soon demonstrated it had a delightful ensemble in D’Agosto, Sherri Shepherd, Steven Boyer, and Jayma Hays.
A hybrid of sorts of Parks & Rec and the lamentably canceled Great News, Trial & Error goes for broke with its depiction of the sort of small town eccentricities that made Pawnee, Indiana such a memorable place to spend time. Meanwhile, much like Great News, the show demonstrates a similar willingness to get weird and silly in pursuit of a laugh, resulting in things like Shepherd’s Anne Flatch being riddled with bizarre afflictions, like the one in the season 2 premiere that has her making superhuman leaps into the air when startled. Meanwhile, investigator and all around inept policeman Dwayne Reed (Boyer) manages to be a delightful dolt and charming menace worth a solid laugh or two each episode.
The question going into season 2 was whether or not Trial & Error could move on without Lithgow’s presence. Having successfully solved the murder of Harry’s wife, the series was at something of an impasse, in that its biggest star was rendered inessential if the show was to move on. The solution, then, was to bring on another big name to be the defendant in yet another implausibly high-profile murder case in East Peck. This time around, the defendant happens to be Kristin Chenoweth as Lavinia Peck-Foster, the ultra-rich descendant of the town’s original founders.
Chenowith is remarkable as East Peck’s most powerful woman, who is ostensibly royalty in the eyes of the townspeople, and even the law, as evidenced by the judge presiding over her case offering to pay her measly $10 bail himself. While Lithgow brought a charming incomprehension of the real world, Chenoweth is similarly sheltered, but with a slightly sinister edge that makes it possible she really did kill her husband and pack his body into a suitcase in the trunk of her car.
As with season 1, neither of Josh’s clients are particularly helpful in their own defense; both Harry and now Lavinia seem hell bent on making themselves look as guilty as possible at every opportunity. This time, however, Trial & Error explores the cult of personality that emerges around such public figures and instead of saddling Josh with a case that’s all but impossible to win, he’s ostensibly landed a case that his to lose. The result is a clever twist on the first season that’s a step in a new direction without heading too far afield.
Part of what makes season 2 so entertaining is Josh’s continued attempts to integrate himself into the unique culture and social rhythms of East Peck. With its lead character's dreams of working in a big New York law firm a thing of the past, Trial & Error can put its focus on what makes the show tick: the utter weirdness of its setting and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of bizarre history lessons that are delivered primarily by Dwayne. Those interludes help invigorate the now familiar practice of filming a sitcom as though it were a documentary, a style made popular by the likes of The Office, Parks & Rec, and Modern Family. Unlike those shows, though, Trial & Error feels more like a complete production, as evidence of how the show within the show affords the series a chance to do more than have the actors deliver knowing reaction shots directly to the audience.
Season 2 also has a mystery within the mystery, as East Peck prosecutor and Josh’s sometimes romantic interest Carol Anne Keane (Mays) reveals she’s several months pregnant, but refuses to share who the father is — or who it might be. That affords the brilliant legal minds heading up Lavinia’s murder trial a chance to expand on their “Murder Board” by creating a list of likely candidates with regard to the paternity of Carol’s child. The result is another layer of whimsical nonsense added to the already delightful implausibility of the season’s primary storyline.
Though it deserves a spot on NBC’s Thursday night lineup alongside the likes of The Good Place, Will & Grace, and Superstore, Trial & Error: Lady, Killer makes for a welcome series that’ll keep viewers laughing through the summer.
Trial & Error continues next Thursday with ‘The Murder Clock’ and ‘A Hole in the Case’ @9pm on NBC.