‘Trial & Error’ (mostly) leaves behind ‘The Staircase’ for a cleverly jinxed second season

Kristin Chenoweth, left, as Lavinia Peck-Foster, talks to her attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D'Agosto) from her jail cell in NBC's "Trial & Error: Lady, Killer."
Kristin Chenoweth, left, as Lavinia Peck-Foster, talks to her attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D'Agosto) from her jail cell in NBC's "Trial & Error: Lady, Killer." Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

“Trial & Error” opens its second season on Thursday with an episode called “The Suitcase,” a fitting homage given the NBC sitcom’s preoccupation with the Michael Peterson documentary “The Staircase.”

The grievously underappreciated comedy, created by Jeff Astrof and Matt Miller, was actually inspired by “The Staircase,” a 13-part French documentary (now on Netflix) that follows Durham’s most infamous trial. (For what it’s worth, we even asked Michael Peterson if he has watched “Trial & Error” and the answer was yes.) Episodes of the first season were littered with dozens of references to the Peterson trial, from the circumstances of the victim’s death and Peterson’s personal life, to a sassy southern female DA and, yes, owls. The gifted John Lithgow played Peterson stand-in Larry Henderson, a poet on trial for the murder of his wife.

It was brilliant. (And given the recent massive popularity of “The Staircase,” it is mind-boggling that NBC has been too dense to market reruns of Season 1 tied to the documentary, but then what do I know. If you want to watch Season 1, here’s how.)

Watch a trailer from the Investigation Discovery show "An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase" about the Michael and Kathleen Peterson case in Durham, NC.

Season 2, called “Trial & Error: Lady, Killer” (the comma is important), leaves the Henderson murder trial behind, but the focus of the season is just as hilarious. Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth plays Lavinia Peck-Foster, the first lady of the small South Carolina town of East Peck, who is found with her husband’s dead body in the trunk of her car.

Chenoweth has never been more over-the-top hilarious (and she even gets to sing).

Lavinia, whose rum-running ancestors founded the town, is beloved by East Peckers but nonetheless charged with murder, and hires Henderson’s crack legal team to defend her: New York lawyer Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto), who has permanently relocated to East Peck and fully embraced all of its oddities; assistant Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd), still a wide-eyed tangle of obscure afflictions and disorders (my favorite is Random Dog-Level Hearing); and investigator Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer), the dopey deputy/investigator who can’t be accurately described in one sentence. Jayma Mays returns as the heavily accented DA Carol Anne Keane. Judge Horsedich has been replaced on the bench this season, but we’ll let you enjoy the reveal of her replacement unspoiled.

(L-R): Nicholas D'Agosto as Josh Segal, Sherri Shepherd as Anne Flatch, Steven Boyer as Dwayne Reed and Kristin Chenoweth as Lavinia Peck-Foster in NBC's "Trial & Error: Lady, Killer." Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

‘Staircase’ nods here and there

True-crime fans won’t have to search hard for this season’s muses: references to the amazing HBO documentary series “The Jinx” (about real estate heir and murderer Robert Durst) and to a slightly lesser extent the popular podcast “S-Town” (about a reclusive antique clock restorer in rural Alabama) abound, from Lavinia’s shoplifting of a sandwich from a grocery store to the presence at her trial of a reporter for the murder-centric podcast “M-Town.”

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But even though “The Staircase” isn’t the focus of this season, creator Astrof can’t help but throw in references to the Peterson story here and there.

In addition to the first episode being called “The Suitcase,” Josh gives us a brief update on Henderson early on, noting that despite the fact that he was freed from prison, folks in town still consider Larry a murderer. “We had a video of an owl killing Larry’s wife and yet 80 percent of people in East Peck think he was guilty,” Josh says. “In fairness, he didn’t help his cause.” Cut to a shot of Larry’s memoir, titled “If I Did It: Confessions of the Owl Killer.”

The cover of Larry Henderson's memoir, "If I Did It: Confessions of the Owl Killer," from NBC's "Trial & Error." NBC screenshot

There’s also a reference to “most of the statues (in town) being torn down” (Durham’s Confederate statue was torn down by a mob last summer) and the town’s heritage being built on rum runners (Durham was built on tobacco). Maybe that last one is a stretch. But naming the “M-Town” podcast host Rudolph (after Peterson’s defense attorney David Rudolf) can’t be, right?

And Astrof tells us that at some point during the season, he’ll have DA Keane utter the phrase “Pure-T Filth,” in honor of Durham’s assistant DA Freda Black’s most memorable moment from the Peterson trial.

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Watch ‘Trial & Error: Lady, Killer’

But whether you’re a hardcore fan of “The Staircase” (or “The Jinx”) or not, there’s enough goofy fun in “Trial & Error” to keep you giggling, and enough site gags to warrant multiple viewings.

“Trial & Error: Lady, Killer” premieres with two new episodes at 8 p.m. Thursday (July 19) on NBC. To catch up on Season 1 before you dive in, your best bet is to stream on the NBC site (if you have a cable account) or purchase from iTunes or Amazon. We have all the details on watching Season 1 of “Trial & Error” here.

Watch a trailer for "An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase" featuring Michael Peterson's 911 call on the night of his wife Kathleen Peterson's death.

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You've seen 'The Staircase' on Netflix, now hear from the reporters who covered Michael Peterson's murder trial in Durham.