The True Crime of Trial and Error Was Cancelling It Too Early

Those of you who have been with me for a while know I have a bit of a different definition for “classic tv.” My view of “classic” is a show that was a great show and is no longer on the air. Typically, I am writing and researching shows from 40-70 years ago, but every once in a while, I sneak in a more recent series.

Photo: imdb.com

That’s the case today. In 2017 a very different type of show aired called Trial & Error. For those of you who didn’t watch it, it was a spoof of documentaries and reality legal shows. Its humor is hard to describe. Created by Jeff Astrof (he was producer for a variety of shows including The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veronica’s Closet) and Matt Miller (supervising producer for Las Vegas) for NBC, the show was produced by Warner Brothers Television.

Astrof discussed how he got the idea for Trial & Error. He was watching The Staircase, a show documenting the trial of Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife. He thought he could turn it into a comedy/mockumentary. Peterson is a novelist who lives in North Carolina and was accused of pushing both his wife and a family friend down staircases.

Photo: imdb.com

I know that doesn’t sound like an idea for a funny show, but that’s what happened. I’m not one for the Dumb and Dumber type movies, so this is not that. It was based on character and the little town where the action takes place.

Trial & Error followed New York attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) when his firm sends him to the small town of East Peck in South Carolina to represent Larry Henderson (John Lithgow) who is accused of murdering his wife. Henderson is a poet who lives in South Carolina and was accused of pushing both his wives through windows.

Photo: imdb.com

The first season introduced us to Josh’s “legal” team of Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd) and Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer).

Reed is a fumbling former police officer and the lead investigator. Flatch is the researcher and assistant. She is very smart and often solves many mysteries, but she is plagued with dozens of syndromes which affect her health, sometimes at the worst times for trials. Some of her disorders include prosoapamnesia, dyslexia, involuntary emotional expression disorder, Stendhal syndrome (this causes her to faint when witnessing great beauty), foreign accent syndrome, nocturnal lagophthalmos, backwards cheerleader syndrome, and a strange condition where her left hand operates independently of her wishes. She also suffers from face blindness and she can’t see who the person is talking to her and when she is upset, she laughs hysterically.

Photo: imdb.com

The eccentric poetry professor Henderson is portrayed by the amazing John Lithgow and his daughter Summer by Krysta Rodriguez. Josh and Assistant District Attorney Carol Ann Keane (Jayma Mays) butt heads and eventually succumb to the attraction that surrounds them when they get together.

Photo: imdb.com

No matter had hard Josh works, Larry always does or says something to make himself look guilty. Every time Josh figures out one mystery, it leads to another problem for his client. There is also a lot of subtle humor such as when Larry walks out of a room, we realize he is wearing an OJ Simpson jersey.

Photo: commonsensemedia.com

Not only does Josh have a pair of eccentric coworkers, but his office is part of the local taxidermy shop.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t watched the show and plan to, ignore this paragraph. Both the original Peterson case and the fictional Henderson case involved birds as a defense to murder. In Peterson’s case, his legal team was not willing to put their client’s life on the line with that defense. In Henderson’s case, Josh tells Dwayne and Anne to say the first thing that pops into their heads, and Dwayne says, “Bird. Birds fly into windows all the time.” The finale reveals that Margaret was killed by an owl.

Photo: wikipedia.com

Season two finds Josh let go by his firm and living in East Peck. He is hired by Lavinia Peck-Foster (Kristin Chenoweth) when she is also accused of murder. Lavinia, one of the town’s most beloved citizens, finds her husband’s body stuffed into a suitcase in her car. If you haven’t seen the series, the following description might give you a better indication of Lavinia; Chenoweth says she based the character on Lisa Vanderpump, Carol Burnett, Madeline Kahn, Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, and Hannibal Lecter.

TRIAL & ERROR — “A Wrench in the Case” Episode 102 — Pictured: (l-r) Jayma Mays as Carol Anne, Nicholas D’Agosto as Josh — (Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward/NBC)

In season two, we see Carol Ann obviously pregnant. We assume Josh is the father, but you can’t assume anything in East Peck, because just when you think you have things figured out, a new twist appears. We also are introduced to Nina Rudolph (Amanda Payton) in season 2. She is a podcast host who also relocates from New York to East Peck to follow Lavinia’s trial. She ends up in a romantic triangle with Josh and Carol, with Josh is uncertain where his heart is being pulled.

A variety of other characters show up in seasons one and two who live in East Peck and have definite opinions on the guilt or innocence of the accused. In Larry’s case, it’s revealed the newspaper thinks Henderson is the fourth leading cause of death in East Peck; the third is cannonballs which are fired off at 5 am and 5 pm daily. The town itself has a lot of funny traditions and laws. For example, waterskiing with a cat is only a misdemeanor. Sometimes the coroner lists the cause of death as “just because.” Astrof described East Peck as a town of 600 residents where 400 of them are not quite right. One of the things that hit me as funny and should not be is that the town has a law that any woman driver must be preceded by a man on foot waving flags, yelling “Woman driver!”

Photo: youtube.com

Spoiler Alert 2: Unlike Larry, Josh realizes that Lavinia is actually the killer. However, we have an understanding of her and realize she is a victim too. She was molded into the golden debutante of East Peck and brought up to do whatever she wanted, and it was always fixed and okay. She is a sympathetic murderer.  Her last speech is “At the end of the day, life is just a journey. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to take that journey alone. If you’re one of the blessed few, you take that journey with someone you love and you hold them forever. And we can take comfort in knowing all our journeys end in the same place: a hold in the ground.” It’s not the speech or series ending you anticipate, and much of the show is not what you anticipate. We also learn in the last episode that Josh is not the father of Carol’s baby but he still is with her when she is giving birth because he’s Josh.

Although the show received a lot of praise from critics, NBC declined to renew it for a third season, and there were no other networks willing to take it on. Rotten Tomatoes gave the first season an 86% rating based on 35 reviews. The second season jumped to 91% with 11 reviews.

TRIAL & ERROR — “A Hostile Jury” Episode 110 — Pictured: (l-r) Jayma Mays as Carol Anne, Nicholas D’Agosto as Josh, John Lithgow as Larry — (Photo by: Greg Gayne/NBC)

I was on the fence when I heard that this show was on the fall schedule, but it was truly funny. It was created with great attention to detail and consistency. Like I mentioned last week about Night Court, you have to have the perfect cast for a show like this. It could so easily be over the top and stereotypical. Even Anne with all her syndromes is believable and likable. That’s one of the great things about the show. Josh is able to put aside his New York judgments of the people and the town. Their craziness becomes normal for him, and you can tell he truly likes his coworkers and his clients.

TRIAL & ERROR — “Secrets & Lies” Episode 106 — Pictured: (l-r) Steven Boyer as Dwayne, John Lithgow as Larry, Sherri Shepherd as Anne, Nicholas D’Agosto as Josh — (Photo by: Trae Patton/Warner Bros/NBC)

Astrof was interviewed for undertheradarmag.com by Steve King on January 29, 2019. In that article, Astrof discussed the actors in the cast.  Astrof said “Nick was the glue that holds the show together.” He said Nick was able to project a goofiness without putting his legal ability in jeopardy. He continued saying, “Without him, everything would fall apart, because you need someone who can not only do the slow burn, but generate comedy and likeability and sexiness but in a goofy way. I have nothing but positive things to say about Nick.”

Astrof revealed his appreciation of the entire cast: “I’m so blessed to work with this group. You’ve never seen anything like it. You’ve never seen a nicer cast.” Of Lithgow, he said, “Nobody could have played Larry with the same pathos that John has, and the comedy.” He said of Boyer, “Well Steven is just a genius and when he auditioned, we had never even heard of him.” About Shepherd, “We just fell in love with her. Anne was written to be a bit of a hangdog, and when Sherri came in, we were like, ‘You can give this character any affliction and she’s going to be upbeat.’”

Photo: tvguide.com

There are so many rapid-fire puns and great lines that it’s hard to catch them all. While most viewers found season two their favorite, there is something charming about Lithgow’s performance as Larry that makes season one my favorite, but not by a huge margin.  This show was so unlike anything else on television. Its writing was so great, and its characters so likable and quirky. It made my brain think differently while watching. 

Just so you don’t have to take my word on the show, I’ll end with a review from labman-40649 that was written on imdb March 26, 2017: The title was “Hilarious” and the review states: “This is the funniest television show I have seen in the last 25 years. My family and I laugh the entire length of the show until we are crying!!! Keep up the awesome work. You are the true Kings and Queens of Comedy!!!! The entire cast is beyond brilliant!!!! I truly hope this show will be on as long as Gunsmoke was.”

Unfortunately, in an era of so many shows that are underwhelming and unbearable with bad writing, this creative, unbelievably funny and well-written show couldn’t get the green light for a third season. Thankfully, the first two seasons are available on DVD, so you can check it out for yourself. They are definitely on my “must-buy to watch and re-watch” list.

The Case of the Long-Running Law Show—“Incompetent, Irrelevant, and Immaterial” Did Not Apply to Perry Mason

A blog series on Murder, Mystery and Mayhem just wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of Perry Mason. The show was based on the books by Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930s and aired nine seasons from 1957 to 1966, producing 271 episodes, along with numerous movies. Perry Mason was the first weekly one-hour series. Fun fact, Gardner was a big fan of Youth’s Companion magazine which was quite popular for a hundred years until it merged with another periodical in 1929; it happened to be published by a Boston company, Perry Mason & Co.

automotivemileposts.com

Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) is a criminal defense attorney. His right-hand is secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and they are both aided by

parasoldreams.blogspot.com

investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper).

The cast is rounded out by DA Hamilton Burger (William Talman) and Lt. Arthur Tragg (Ray Collins).

William Talman
Photo: directexpose.com

Due to an illness, Collins was only able to appear in a handful of episodes after 1960; however, his name was kept in the credits which allowed him to continue receiving medical benefits from the actors’ union. He passed away in 1965.

perrymasonandcontemporaryviolence.blogspot.com

While the main cast members were in a minimum of 225 episodes, little-known actor Don Anderson appeared in 128 episodes during the nine years. He is seen in minor roles and played a variety of characters including a courtroom spectator, a wedding guest, a rescue boat skipper, a bartender, a downhill snow skier, a bank employee, and a German border guard.

Mason’s practice in Los Angeles attracts clients who have been falsely accused. The first half of the show typically set up the situation, the investigation was conducted, and usually the DA decides to prosecute Mason’s innocent client. The second half of the show was conducted in the courthouse. Usually the action occurs in a preliminary appearance because casting realized quickly that appearing before a judge would save having to find twelve jury members for each show. Burger would often object with his declaration of “Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial!” Della often pursues leads while Perry is in court. Mason pays attention to every detail and is often able to trick the guilty person into admitting their crime.

e-discoveryteam.com

Gardner’s literary agent was Thomas Cornwell Jackson. In 1947 he married Gail Patrick, who had studied law before becoming an actress. She and her husband had discussed bringing Gardner’s Mason character to television. Gardner had also been an attorney before becoming a writer, so he wanted some creative control.  He had no desire to see Perry’s personal life or a love interest. He wanted the show to feature the law as its primary character. Gardner, Jackson, and Patrick formed a production company, Paisano, to film a pilot. CBS picked up the show for 1957.

Gail Patrick Jackson
pinterest.com

Patrick began auditions for the role of Mason. Richard Carlson, Mike Connors, Richard Egan, William Holden, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. were all frontrunners. CBS wanted Fred MacMurray and were in negotiations with him. Raymond Burr had been in to audition for the role of Hamilton Burger. When the production company realized they could not afford a big-name actor, Burr was offered the role of Mason. In another role switch, William Hopper, Hedda Hopper’s son, auditioned for Perry Mason but was offered the role of Paul Drake. Barbara Hale was asked to take the role of Della Street. Her children were little and she was not really interested in a series, but when she found out Burr would play the title character, she opted in since they had known each other since they both worked for RKO.

eccentricroadside.blogspot.com

The production staff also included people who were well versed in law. Ben Brady, producer, practiced law before entering show business and story editor Gene Wang went to law school in Florida. Luckily, they had 69 Gardner novels featuring Perry Mason at their disposal; all but three episodes in the first year were adapted from Gardner novels.

Each episode had a budget of $100,000. The Superior Oil Company building in Los Angeles was used for the exterior of Mason’s Brent Building location, a modern structure built in 1956. In 2003, it received a historical landmark designation and is now The Standard Downtown LA Hotel. Filming was primarily done in and around Culver City. The early seasons were shot at William Fox Studios. When it closed in the early 1960s, production moved to General Service studios and finally to the Chaplin Studios until the end of the series.

thefrogseyebrows.blogspot.com

Auto sponsorship for the first season see-sawed between GM and Ford who alternated episodes. In an odd set of circumstances, Mason would drive a Ford Skyliner one week, and the next week he would find himself behind the wheel of a Cadillac convertible. Drake and Tragg’s cars also staggered from week to week. In one episode, Mason can be seen using a car telephone. Back then it was considered a radio, and you had to phone the operator to make a call, but it was still a cool technology feature.

directexpose.com

Even people who never watched the show are familiar with the theme song composed by Fred Steiner. Steiner says he wanted to write a theme that portrayed sophistication and toughness. He called the song, “Park Avenue Beat,” a symphonic R&B piece.

The show featured an interesting substitution during the middle of its run. Burr was unable to film several episodes in 1963 while he was recuperating from dental surgery. Mason was temporarily replaced by attorneys played by Bette Davis, Walter Pidgeon, Hugh O’Brian, Michael Rennie, and Mike Connors.

Bette Davis fills in
pinterest.com

When Burr was making made-for-tv movies about Perry Mason, he was suffering from cancer. Hale, who was friends with Burr for the rest of his life, said “He was my hero. He was in such pain, such terrible pain. But that man had such strength and such willpower.” After his death, she described him as “a very, very strong, beautiful human. I shall miss him all my life.”

pinterest.com

Perry Mason got the slot of Saturday nights at 7:30 pm for its first five seasons where it was easily getting the most ratings, even against Bonanza. In 1961, Bonanza was moved to Sunday nights and Perry Mason to Thursdays at 8 pm where it also continued to win the ratings for the night. In 1963 it moved to Thursdays at 9 pm before being switched back to 8 pm for 1964. Before the 1965 season, Paley decided to move the lawyer to Sunday nights back against Bonanza, and when Bonanza received a higher rating that season, Perry Mason was cancelled, even though the show was receiving more mail than ever and the network had discussed a tenth season shot in color to be able to compete with the western.

cinemacats.com

The show was loved by both viewers and critics and did well at annual Emmy awards shows. In 1958 it was nominated for the best dramatic series; in 1961 it was nominated for film editing; and in 1962 it won for audio engineering. Raymond Burr received a best actor nomination in 1960 and won best actor in both 1959 and 1961. Barbara Hale was nominated for best supporting actress in 1961 and won the best supporting Emmy in 1959. William Hopper was nominated for best supporting actor in 1959 as well.

While the show was winning awards, Mason was winning cases. However, there were three clients who were found guilty. In season six, “The Case of the Witless Witness,” the client lost. In both season one and seven, the client was found guilty but they were both proved innocent later and avoided jail time.

In the final episode, “The Case of the Final Fade-Out,” Erle Stanley Gardner can be spied as judge.

Erle Stanley Gardner
thepulp.net

Although all but one episode was filmed in black and white, the show has been in syndication almost continually since its cancellation.

In her book, My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor commented on the series. She said she was influenced greatly by the show which ignited a passion to be a prosecutor. She wrote she enjoyed watching Mason, “but my sympathies were not entirely monopolized by Perry Mason. I was fond of Burger, the prosecutor, too. I liked that he was a good loser, that he was more committed to finding the truth than to winning his case. If the defendant was truly innocent, he once explained, and the case was dismissed, then he had done his job because justice had been served.”

I feel like this is becoming a cliché for almost every blog I write, but like so many shows from the past, a new Perry Mason series is in the works for HBO. Originally, Robert Downey Jr. was to portray the attorney, but his schedule precludes him from starring. However, his production company has cast Matthew Rhys as Perry. Tim Van Patten has signed on as director and Tatiana Maslany will fill the Della Street spot. John Lithgow joined the series in May, as an attorney who will mentor Mason.

pinterest.com

I find it impressive when any show, made more than fifty years ago continues to win viewers and create new generations of fans. However, I find it especially remarkable that a show first filmed almost 63 years ago in black and white continues to hold its own alongside so many current law-themed shows in production. Perry Mason can currently be seen on FETV, METV, and the Hallmark Channel.