Lithgow kills (or does he?) in true-crime parody 'Trial & Error'

NUP_172932_2153.JPG
Nicholas D'Agosto as Josh and John Lithgow as Larry in "Trial & Error."

Is there anything John Lithgow can't do? We're about to find out.

The five-time Emmy-winning actor, whose Twitter profile lists him as "serial killer, alien high commander, transgender football player, children's book writer" -- all but the last refer to characters he's played -- won praise even in the British press last fall for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Netflix's The Crown.

But can Lithgow, whose turn as the "Trinity Killer" in Dexter still gives me chills, make murder funny?

On Tuesday, he'll be back on NBC, where he starred as alien High Commander Dick Solomon in 3rd Rock from the Sun, and his new show, Trial & Error, faces a few hurdles:

  • It's premiering in back-to-back episodes immediately after the season finale of NBC's breakout hit This Is Us, the show it will replace starting next week, and which this Tuesday may leave viewers unable to focus through their tears. (Do I think this is the episode where we find out how Jack dies? No. But do I expect there to be something in my eye at least once or twice? Almost certainly.)
  • Lithgow is playing a poetry professor accused of killing his wife, and his character may well have done it.
  • Trial & Error is a comedy.

The true-crime parody follows Josh Segal (Nicholas D'Agosto, Gotham), an eager young New York lawyer, as he's dispatched to a small Southern town to work on the case of accused wife-killer Larry Henderson (Lithgow). You could say Trial & Error represents the next obvious step for the genre that gave us Netflix's Making a Murderer, FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson, HBO's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, and countless basic-cable shows about real-life women who've snapped, disappeared, or turned up dismembered.

Read more: Netflix's Murderer making a splash

Because TV genres morph all the time. And if we can't laugh at a man who's accused of throwing his wife through a plate glass window and then roller-skating through her blood, what can we laugh at?

On Trial & Error, the answer a little too often is to lean on the fish-out-of-water moments that Josh encounters in a town full of yokels so clichéd they might have come from a bottle in the writers' room marked Southern Stereotypes: Just Add Water.

Investigator Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer), whose name's resemblance to that of the New York drugstore chain Duane Reade might not register in much of the country, has a relative who is both his brother and his cousin.

Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd) suffers from a few maladies, including an inability to recognize faces, that make her a less-than-ideal assistant. Which is funny, maybe, the first few times.

Jayma Mays has more to work with in prosecutor Carol Anne Keane, whose ability to unsettle Josh is at least an asset in her job.

But it's Lithgow, as the hopelessly self-centered, sneakily endearing suspect, who steals every scene he's in. Larry may or may not have killed his wife, but he made the three episodes I've seen of Trial & Error much less of a trial than they could have been.