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‘Trial & Error’ review: Poor attempt at crime ‘mockumentary’

John Lithgow stars in the new NBC series, "Trial & Error," a parody of true-crime documentaries. (Credit: NBC)

THE SERIES “Trial & Error”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC/4

GRADE C+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Larry Henderson (John Lithgow) is a professor of poetry in a small town in Virginia, also accused of murdering his wife. After his brother-in-law Jeremiah (Bob Gunton) withdraws his support, Henderson is on his own — and the local prosecutor Carol Keane (Jayma Mays) is out for blood. In his corner, Henderson has an idealistic New York lawyer, Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) and helpers — investigator Dwayne (Steven Boyer) and assistant Anne (Sherri Shepherd). This is in the style of a mockumentary (think “The Office”) and follows Segal et al.’s efforts to prove Henderson’s innocence.

MY SAY If that word “mockumentary” doesn’t present a red flag, then “Trial & Error” may be just for you. If the phrase “almost terminally endearing sense of humor” doesn’t either, then proceed. But after that, you’re on your own — and don’t say the flags weren’t raised.

In fact, the show wants to spoof an entire genre without establishing exactly what that genre is, or what part of it needs to be spoofed, or even why it needs to be spoofed in the first place. As a well-traveled form, the “true crime documentary” comes in all shapes and sizes, from the sublime (“The Jinx”) to the less so (“Snapped: Killer Couples”). It has yielded some classics over the years, like “The Thin Blue Line,” and some sensations (like “Making a Murderer”) and plenty of serious investigations along the way, too (“Capturing the Friedmans”).

In TV comedy, the mostly great “Reno 911” had a specific target (“Cops”). What’s being mocked here? Maybe the mockumentary itself — although even that seems a little too meta for this featherweight entertainment.

“Trial & Error” does have something, but just not quite enough of that something. There’s a prevailing morbid sense of humor that doesn’t quite compensate for that almost terminally cute one. There are a handful of funny sight gags, a few funny lines and a couple of clever twists, but if we’re talking quantity here, “handful,” “few” and “couple” aren’t exactly wholehearted endorsements.

The cast is at least good. It’s a funky, ragtag collection of legends, like Gunton and Lithgow, some solid journeymen and women (including Patricia Belcher, who plays a hanging judge), a former talk show host (Shepherd), and some talented veteran TV stars, such as Mays (“Glee”) and D’Agosto, who appeared in “Review” with the always-funny Andrew Daly, who makes a cameo here. Boyer (a Tony nominee for “Hand to God”) is best of all.

They look like they’re having a good time trying to find the real killer. With better material, some viewers might actually have one, too.

BOTTOM LINE A featherweight entertainment with a good cast, some charm, and not nearly enough laughs.

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