Lithgow the Loon is back

The 71-year-old John Lithgow returns to comedy with an absurd little gem, ‘Trial & Error’

A file photo of actor John Lithgow. Photo: AFP
A file photo of actor John Lithgow. Photo: AFP

Millennials may not be aware just how sidesplittingly funny John Lithgow is. The actor, most recently earning raves for The Crown his belief-beggaring work as Winston Churchill in The Crown, was last prominently noticed in Dexter, where he played a murdering sociopath to chilling effect, and in the wonderful indie romance Love Is Strange, where he played a sensitive, artistic lover to Alfred Molina. Even in this age of revivals, the Lithgow work most likely to be held up and applauded is that of the airline passenger who sees something strange outside his window in an unforgettable episode of The Twilight Zone.

Yet, the Lithgow we most need to celebrate is the rubber-limbed master of frantic farce who won a bunch of Emmys for his work on 3rd Rock From The Sun. 3RFTS was an exuberant, manic and often dazzling sitcom about a quartet of aliens who come to Earth on a field trip. Equal parts Douglas Adams and Fawlty Towers, this riotous comedy starred Lithgow as the ridiculous (and childish) team leader Dick Solomon, a professor who would struggle with vanity, romance, his monstrous ego and even find himself terrorised by a pop-up book. In a crazy scene where a child attaches himself to one of Dick’s long legs, he requests that the child be removed or that another be attached to his other leg. For balance.

At long last, Lithgow the Loon is back. And not a minute too soon. The true-crime series, while fascinating and irresistibly compelling, is being mined a tad too deeply for drama and darkness. Made with the sole purpose of taking the mickey out of highly addictive shows like Making A Murderer and The Jinx comes Lithgow’s latest, Trial & Error.

Available in India on Amazon Prime, Trial & Error tells us — over 13 episodes — about ”The People Vs Larry Henderson”, a trial where Henderson is the prime suspect in his wife’s murder. Lithgow plays Henderson, a professor of poetry, with sublime obliviousness, constantly -- and enviably -- unaware of how he is and can be perceived. At one point, his well-meaning New York lawyer asks him to go wear a t-shirt to make himself more relatable to the jury. The old football jersey he picks out is then immediately rejected, since it bears the number 32 and the name “Simpson”.

Set in the tiny town of East Peck, South Carolina, the show unfolds in a mad little world where cannonballs are one of the most common causes of death and where the death sentence, should Larry receive it, involves being eaten alive by a bear. It all sounds a bit like Pawnee from Parks & Recreation, and the parallels can’t be denied: Young and driven New York attorney Josh Segal is here to stand for justice and, armed with a nutty team of halfwits, to change the way East Peck works — and to (ideally) keep the bear at bay.

This isn’t an easy task, thanks largely to two scene-stealing women. Nicholas D’Agosto makes for a fine, naive leading man, but he’s outdone in every way by the public prosecutor, Carol Anne Keane, played with venomous glee by Jayma Mays, with a bite that would do Wendy Malick proud. She’s a ruthless viper with an insatiable sexual appetite, and the way she nails the lines — forever adding an extra ounce of sharpness to the words — is a thing of beauty. The other woman is on Josh’s team, but may as well not be: it’s the always-amusing Sherri Shepherd playing Anne Fletch, sufferer of strange (but true) maladies. She laughs hysterically when she’s saddest, walks backwards, faints at the sight of great art and — most importantly — doesn’t recognise faces.

I know these gags sound like the kind of things better suited to a Saturday Night Live sketch or, less charitably, the nineties. Trial & Error, however, pulls them off with flair. The cast is razor-sharp enough to make the gradually unfolding murder-mystery work well, and the show — by giving these daft characters enough room to play — creates something so absurd it’d be better suited to British TV and not to NBC, where it airs. There is, therefore, a chance that the show might die after this silly and satisfying first season. Which is why we need to watch it, talk about it, and make it work. We must do all we can to ensure we haven’t seen the last of the spectacularly named Judge Horsedich — and of the once-mentioned but never questioned Harry Henderson, Larry’s twin brother.

Trial & Error is many things: it’s an upended My Cousin Vinny (if Vinny were the victim and Marisa Tomei were the prosecutor); it’s a self-contained story with a tightly wound (albeit preposterous) plot; it’s a comedy made up of people with homonymous names like Dwayne Reed (like the drugstore) and Carol Anne Keane (like the Nancy Drew writer)… But to anyone who dug 3rd Rock From The Sun, all you need to know is that this is the show that gets Dick and Harry back together for a few fantastic minutes. (If we do get another season, Tom better show up.)

Watch it for Lithgow. To see broad slapstick performed with lyrical grace. To see that lanky 71-year-old genius embrace his physicality and fly off on the wings of nuttiness. Watch it for his long-haired flashbacks and his love for rollercizing and for his casually incriminating revelations. For the way he makes befuddlement appear poetic and poetry appear befuddled. It’s a comedic masterclass — and I’ll say that under oath.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on and fortnightly in print.

More From Livemint