The saga surrounding the Michael Peterson murder trial just isn’t going away.
NBC debuts a new sitcom next week, “Trial & Error,” that offers a comedic take on the true-crime documentary series “The Staircase,” which followed the trial of Durham novelist Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2001. (Background: Peterson was convicted in 2003 but was granted a new trial in 2011. Last month, Peterson took an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter, was sentenced to time served and set free.)
In this silly true-crime spoof, five-time Emmy award-winning actor John Lithgow plays the accused husband, Larry Henderson. And of course, the sitcom – it’s very funny – is presented as a documentary.
“Trial & Error” creator Jeff Astroff said during a television critic’s press tour in January that he was inspired after watching the 2004 French documentary by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (which went on to win a Peabody). “I said, ‘If this guy (Peterson) was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest thing ever.’”
Lithgow’s portrayal is pretty hilarious, too.
Astroff says he’d like the series to last at least seven seasons, adding that he’ll spoof a different crime documentary each time.
Based on the first three episodes I had access to, the heaviest Peterson moments are mostly concentrated in the pilot.
(Disclaimer: We realize there is nothing funny about real-life murder, and there was certainly nothing funny about the way Kathleen Peterson died. But you must admit, that trial was bonkers. And so is “Trial & Error.”)
Here’s a rundown of the similarities, with the usual warning about spoilers.
1. The crime is set in a medium-sized town “in the Carolinas.” They don’t say in the first three episodes which Carolina, although a brief shot of an airplane looks like it says “South Carolina” on the side. (In Real Life: The Peterson crime occurred in Durham, N.C.)
2. Lithgow’s character, Larry Henderson (Henderson, Peterson …), is a writer, having published one work of poetry. He’s also an avid rollercizer – it’s rollerskating but with more pizazz. (IRL: Peterson wrote war novels, and one of them was a hit. )
3. Henderson and his wife Margaret (who has the money in this relationship) have only been married for five years. Margaret’s family (they have “tobacco money”) initially supports Henderson, but as facts come to light, they turn on him. Margaret’s father agreed to pay for Henderson’s defense team, insisting that he get a “Northeastern” lawyer, always drawing an exaggerated outline over his nose as he says “Northeastern” – code for “Jewish Yankee.” (IRL: Michael and Kathleen Peterson had been married for four years. Kathleen’s daughter initially supported Peterson but later changed her mind. The reference to “tobacco money” is a nod to Durham. And finally, Peterson’s attorney, David Rudolf, started practicing in New York City, and yes, he’s Jewish.)
4. Larry and Margaret don’t have any children together, but Larry has one adopted daughter. We don’t know much about her or that situation through Episode 3. (IRL: Peterson had two adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha, who were the children of friends who had both passed away. More on that later. )
5. Margaret was found dead in a bloody heap in front of a large plate-glass window in the couple’s mansion. The window, incidentally, is right in front of a large staircase, so her body was essentially found at the bottom of a staircase. Through the third episode, the staircase is never mentioned outright. (IRL: Kathleen Peterson was found at the bottom of a staircase and it was a very bloody scene. She had multiple gashes on the back of her head.)
6. Larry says he was outside rollercizing while Margaret was being killed, wearing headphones and listening to music, so he didn’t hear her screams. (IRL: Michael Peterson says he was outside by the pool and didn’t hear his wife’s screams.)
7. As the defense team tries to come up with possible ways Margaret died, one person throws out the theory that a bird flew through the window and killed her. (IRL: After Peterson’s conviction, some of his friends came up with a theory that an owl attacked and clawed Kathleen Peterson to death. )
8. A breaking news alert on TV informs Henderson’s defense team that he had been having a homosexual affair with his personal trainer. Henderson insists it’s no big deal because Margaret knew about his sexual proclivities and didn’t care, because they were best friends and soulmates. (IRL: It was revealed during Peterson’s trial that he had tried to arrange meetings with a male prostitute – “Brad from Raleigh” – who testified at the trial. The two never actually hooked up, though. Michael said his wife knew he was bisexual and didn’t care; his adopted daughter also said in “The Staircase” that the family was aware of this.)
9. The female prosecutor zeroes in on Henderson’s gay affair as a motive in the murder, and has great fun saying “ho-mo-sexual” in her Southern drawl. (IRL: Prosecutor Freda Black’s heavily accented statements to the jury about Peterson’s “ho-mo-sexual” affair and her description of the gay porn on his computer as “Pure T. Filth” are legendary. There’s no mention of “Pure T. Filth” in “Trial & Error” through the third episode.)
10. The defense team recreates the night of Margaret’s murder, with a team member (Sherri Shepherd) screaming inside the house by the staircase – I mean, window – while Larry and his lawyer rollercize outside with headphones. (IRL: Peterson’s defense team does this during “The Staircase,” standing outside by the pool while someone screams at the bottom of the staircase inside the house.)
11. At the end of the pilot, another breaking news alert informs the world that Henderson’s first wife was killed in exactly the same way as Margaret. (IRL: During the Peterson trial it was revealed that family friend Elizabeth Ratliff, whose daughters Margaret and Martha were adopted by Peterson, had also been found dead at the bottom of the staircase at her home in Germany. Her body was also discovered by Peterson.)
12. In the second episode, the defense team exhumes Henderson’s first wife’s body in hopes of proving how she died. (IRL: The prosecution exhumes Elizabeth Ratliff’s body to get a new autopsy, which ruled she was murdered.)
“Trial & Error” gets a 1-hour debut at 10 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, on NBC. After that it will settle into a 9 p.m. Tuesday time slot.