Viewers suffering withdrawal from Third Rock From the Sun were given hope when NBC announced it would debut Trial and Error, a new sitcom whose opening episodes would feature veteran actor, John Lithgow, playing defendant Larry Henderson.
Broadcasting a show about an elderly man and starring the 71-year old Lithgow proves some willingness on NBC’s part to welcome comedic talent at any age. Impressed with Lithgow’s versatility, education and 5 Emmys, I had high hopes for the sitcom.
Yet initial descriptions of the show caused some doubt. Described by the network as “an outrageous fish- out- of- water comedy,” it depicts a young lawyer named Josh, from New York, who travels to a small town to defend John Lithgow’s character against a murder charge. Hmmm, a highly educated man from New York traveling to a small town to do some good. So far, it sounds like Northern Exposure.
In 1990, Northern Exposure debuted on CBS, introducing audiences to Joel Fleischman. Dr. Fleischman is a recent medical school graduate, arriving in Alaska to begin working off his debt as part of a student loan repayment program. Throughout his tenure as the only doctor in rural, Cicely, Alaska, Fleischman encounters characters, the likes of whom he’s not likely to meet again in the lower 48.
His landlady is beautiful Maggie O’Connell, a bush pilot who came up to Alaska to escape the pettiness of Gross Point, Michigan. The town’s radio station is owned by Maurice Minnefield, a pompous, former astronaut who can often appear set in his ways. The characters were quirky and funny because of their perspectives.
The characters on Trial and Error are eccentric in a more controversial way than those on Northern Exposure. To defend Larry, an office is hastily setup with an investigator named Dwayne Reed whose name the lawyer points out is like a chain of drugstores in the New York region. Dwayne describes a male relative as a brother/cousin, an apparent running gag about Southerners committing incest. Original and funny, right?
Josh’s assistant, Anne, suffers from a number of neuroses including “facial amnesia,” which may not sound real but which good old Google says is. In Anne’s case, she can’t remember faces but she can remember penises. Original? Funny? What do you think?
Anne also has “Stendhal Syndrome,” another little known disorder, which causes her to faint whenever she encounters art. She also laughs at inappropriate times (meaning she might be one of the few who would find the show she is on hilarious).
Another Google search told me that Anne’s kind of paradoxical laughter can be caused by a number of serious conditions, including dementia. Call me a killjoy, but laughing at people with mental deficiencies is not my idea of a light romp.
The setting for Josh’s workplace tries to evoke humor. Josh’s temporary office is behind a taxidermy shop. The audience is supposed to find the literal juxtaposition of a legal office with a taxidermy business amusing, kind of like a lawyer who practices from the back room of his bowling alley. Wait, I’ve heard of that before. It was on a dramedy called “ED,” (2000-2004).
The plot of the first episode is called by USA Today’s Patrick Ryan, a “quirky mockumentary — which spoofs 2004 true-crime docuseries The Staircase, about the Michael Peterson murder trial …” While I’ve marveled at previous sitcoms like M*A*S*H that could make audiences laugh at something as sad and real as war, somehow spoofing a series about actual and fairly recent murders of women is not tickling my funny bone.
I wouldn’t laugh at the murders of two actual women any more than I’d laugh at the trial of a white supremacist who’d murdered two black men. How would that ever get on the air? Wouldn’t there be protests?
In the same March 10th article, Ryan says that by the end of Trial and Error‘s 13-week season, audiences will know of Larry’s guilt or innocence, clearing the path for Josh and his assistants to tackle the legal tribulations of the town’s other colorful characters.
Maybe I’m just out of it, but I can’t help but hope that the upcoming local residents will have less inflammatory legal issues than the murder of current and former spouses.
Not being a showrunner or network executive, the decision regarding this show’s ultimate fate rests not in my hands but in those of the TV audience, which of course is the ultimate jury in the traditional television paradigm.
Of course, in that paradigm, comedies are supposed to be funny from the get-go, and humor was in very short supply on Trial And Error’s opening night.
So much for TV justice.
Quetzalcoatl is the pseudonym of a most delightful and insightful goddess TVWriter™ knows.