Trial & Error, Tuesday, March 14 at 10 p.m., CTV & NBC
All up-and-coming youngsters dream of an opportunity to prove themselves professionally, and bright-eyed New York City lawyer Josh Simon (Gotham and Masters of Sex alum Nicholas D’Agosto) is no different. The question is whether or not Simon has bitten off more than he can chew. His first-ever murder trial is defending eccentric Southern poet Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), whose innocence is just a little hard to swallow. The murder of Henderson’s wife is a bizarre one, and the suspect’s reaction even more so. Naturally, there couldn’t be a juicier subject for a documentary.
In the same mockumentary vein as The Office, Trial & Error lets viewers peer behind the closed doors of a Jinx and Making a Murderer-like trial where... hilarity ensues. Co-creator Jeff Astrof recalls being inspired by a different documentary series: The Staircase, which followed an author as he was arraigned for the murder of his wife, whose body was discovered on the stairway of their home. “I pitched it to Warner Bros. and said, ‘I want to do a show about a guy who is accused of murdering his wife. It’s a documentary,’” Astrof recalls. “They said, ‘You have to do a comedy.’ I said, ‘It’s going to be a comedy.’”
The pitch didn’t land until years later when, after persisting, the studio paired him up with Chuck producer Matthew Miller. Five years after the idea first came to Astrof, the quirky comedy suddenly made perfect sense. “It was fantastic,” Astrof says. “At the time we handed in our script, everybody was watching The Jinx and [listening to] Serial, and that’s when Making a Murderer came out. We were just like, ‘If we don’t do this now, someone else is going to do it.’ ”
New York lawyer Josh Simon (Nicholas D'Agosto) visits with Larry and his daughter Summer (Krysta Rodriguez).
A show that hinges on making an accused murderer a man that the viewers will want to root for could only dream of having a leading actor like Lithgow, who has made a career of playing larger-than-life characters. Luckily, the five-time Emmy Award-winner was fascinated by the project. “I loved the challenge of playing a part who, at any given moment, could completely plausibly have committed or not committed this crime,” says Lithgow. “This seemed to me a wonderful kind of magic trick to pull off, and I love challenges like that. He has no sense of priority or proportion. The tiniest things have absolutely as much importance to him as the crime of murder, and you see it in the very first moment of the series.”
The creators could not believe their fortune when he joined the show. “People asked us when they saw this, ‘Did you write this for John Lithgow? You must have.’ And the truth is we wrote this for Larry Henderson, and John just embodied him in such a wonderful way,” says Astrof. “The key to this whole show is how real [the actors] play it. Especially when Nick and Jayma [Mays] go out, it looks like an episode of Law & Order that’s just turned 15 degrees.”
After becoming known to audiences as gentle guidance counsellor Emma Pillsbury on Glee, Jayma Mays now switches gears to portray cold and ambitious small-town prosecutor Carol Anne Keane, who very much believes she is destined for greatness. “One of my favourite parts of the show was watching Jayma deliver just an awful Carol Anne Keane line and turn purple at the table [read],” recalls Astrof. “Carol Anne Keane is a very, very aggressive woman in a lot of perverse ways,” adds Mays. “She’s really good at her job, and her main goal in this: She wants to be DA of this small Southern town in East Peck, and she’s going to do whatever she can to get Larry Henderson to fry by the end of this show.”
Like other criminal docu-series, the season will be self-contained, starting with the arrest of Larry Henderson, and the final episode revealing the verdict, followed by a “Where are they now?” portion. To make it seem even more real, there was only one actor who knew the outcome. “This is the second time this has happened to me,” says Lithgow. “When they hired me for the Trinity Killer [on Dexter], they pitched it by telling me the whole story of that entire season. I was the only actor who knew, and I had to keep it to myself.”
As for the future of the show, should there be more seasons, the creators intend to focus on another trial and a new suspect. “The idea here was to get an amazing actor, the likes of John Lithgow, and every year have a different crime,” Astrof explains. “A lot of people have killed a lot of people. So there’s a lot of choices.”