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Trial & Error May Be NBC's Next Great Comedy

The verdict is in

Liz Raftery

Is NBC on its way to becoming a comedy powerhouse again?

Between The Good Place, which concluded its freshman run earlier this year, and Trial & Error, which premieres Tuesday, the network is making a solid effort to return to its comedy glory days.

Told in the same "mockumentary" style as NBC classics including The Officeand Parks and Recreation(and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, who won a directing Emmy for The Office), Trial & Error follows Josh Simon (Nicholas D'Agosto), a young New York lawyer who's sent to the Southern small town of East Peck to defend poetry professor Larry Henderson (John Lithgow), who's accused of murdering his wife. There, Josh assembles a makeshift legal team of (mostly inept) supporting players including Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd), an office worker who suffers from a number of rare ailments, including the inability to recognize faces; and Dwayne Reade (Steven Boyer), a dim-witted local law enforcement officer.

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Lithgow, going back to comedy after his award-winning turn as Winston Churchill in Netflix's The Crown, expertly re-treads familiar territory as Larry, a pleasantly earnest gentleman who's oblivious to how others perceive him. According to D'Agosto, even his legendary co-star wasn't impervious to some of the more ridiculous lines of dialogue.

"His character is so aloof that ... he would get into absolute giggle fits," D'Agosto says. "But he also had the most extraordinarily strange things to have to say."

Tyler Golden/NBC

Viewers may be familiar with D'Agosto from his dramatic work on Gotham and Masters of Sex (though he notes that he's also got eight failed comedy pilots under his belt), but here he plays the Michael Bluth-esque Josh -- the straight man trying to maintain focus amid all the absurd goings-on around him.

"He's the character that's in a drama when everybody else is in a comedy," D'Agosto notes about the character. "His greatest personality trait is that, in the midst of overwhelming opposition and inevitable defeats -- which he suffers every single episode -- he continues to believe that truth will win out, that he will be vindicated. ... That's what's so immensely fun about playing Josh, is that they write the most absurd moments and the most absurd defeats for this poor character, and yet I have to kind of grimace or smile through it, and then immediately pick myself up by the bootstraps again and get going. ... So much of the show is my reactions, and just the wonderful, myriad ways that Josh gets to respond to all of these insane situations."

Yet even more so than Arrested Development's most exasperated Bluth, D'Agosto drew upon another NBC comedy character for inspiration: Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), taking a cue from her cheerful ambition.

"I actually feel like [Josh] has a lot of Leslie Knope in him," D'Agosto says. "It's the optimism. What's a little different about Arrested Development, one of the reasons I didn't stay in that world so long is that, the other characters... you don't trust any of them, because they're out for their own good. In our show, you don't trust them because they're inept. But their heart is in the right place. So, that's more Parks and Rec, that vibe of, 'Well, I don't necessarily believe these characters are going to achieve what they had planned to, but I know that they're trying."

However, what sets Trial & Error apart from its comedic predecessors is that the show also establishes a great mystery that it unpacks over the course of the season: Who killed Larry's wife? The audience is as much in the dark as Josh and his colleagues (a term used loosely).

Trial & Error includes a number of references to The Staircase, the 2004 French true-crime docuseries about a crime novelist who is arrested for the murder of his wife, and as the evidence comes to light, a few episodes feature Homeland-esque "twist endings" in the final shot... if Homeland were a show whose purpose was, in part, to make fun of action shows.

It may take awhile for the characters of Trial & Error to worm their way into viewers' hearts the same way that Michael Scott, Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope have in recent years -- but if the first few episodes are any indication, the series is well on its way to feeling right at home alongside those comedy titans.

Trial & Error premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on NBC.