Barry Saunders

My verdict on ‘Trial & Error?’ It’s a guilty pleasure – Saunders

You know that guilty, slightly befouled feeling you have after doing something you know you shouldn’t have done, like eating an entire family-size package of Oreos by yourself, reading “People” magazine instead of “U.S. News & World Report” while waiting at the dentist’s office or actually rooting for Duke to win a basketball game because you dislike Syracuse’s coach even more than Duke’s coach and you don’t feel a team that far away should be in the ACC – even though you once vowed that if Satan himself fielded a team you’d have to flip a coin as to whom to root for between the real devils and Blue Devils?

That’s the feeling you’ll have after watching “Trial & Error,” the television sitcom series that spoofs the murder trial of Durham resident and writer Michael Peterson.

After watching four episodes in a row, I had those feelings and one more: Like Urkel on the TV show “Family Matters,” I went “Did I do that?”

Yes – and couldn’t wait for the chance to watch four more.

The show is only tangentially about the 2003 Durham trial that, for worse or worst, focused the nation’s attention on the city. Its producer, Jeff Astrof, acknowledged in published interviews that he got the idea for a comedy about murder five years ago after watching the very unfunny documentary “The Staircase” about the Peterson trial, in which Peterson was convicted of killing his wife, Kathleen.

There are enough distinctions in “Trial & Error” to presumably keep litigious lawyers (superfluous?) at bay: The husband accused of uxoricide is named Henderson, not Peterson, and the wife’s death was caused by being thrown or falling through a plate glass window, not falling down a steep staircase. (As my N&O colleague, TV writer Brooke Cain, noted in her review of the show, though, the window is at the bottom of a staircase.)

On the who-do-they-think-they’re-fooling side, though, the husband/suspect is also a writer; he is accused of hooking up with men – a motive put forth by Peterson’s prosecutors; the suspect had discovered another female acquaintance dead after she “fell” through a window, and an owl is proposed as a suspect.

Spoofing something as tragic as a murder trial – not a murder, mind you: a fine distinction – must be performed like a proctologist’s exam: very carefully.

Either that or hilariously.

“Trial & Error” is hilarious. (What’s unintentionally hilarious about it is the discontinuity in its editing process: The lead defense attorney’s hairstyle changes from one scene to the next.)

If comedy, as W.C. Fields is quoted as saying, “is tragedy that happens to someone else,” that may explain why so many people find a TV show about a personal family tragedy something that can be mined for laughs. Again, though, the distinction between the at times surrealistic trial – an owl, yo? – and the murder itself is a fine one, but one that needs to be made.

Joe Gilbert, a Raleigh, counselor who helps people deal with, among other things, grief never-ending, said he thinks people have the capacity to laugh at such shows more “as a coping mechanism rather than a lack of empathy. Most of us have the seeds of empathy in us, but differ in how we water them.

“My point of view (is) as a Buddhist counselor, which might differ from that of a clinical psychologist... There is a saying in Buddhism that ‘the way out (of suffering) is through it.’ If we deal with our own pain and suffering in a skillful, healthy way, then we cannot help but gain wisdom into the universal nature of our collective suffering and hence feel compassion for others.

“That being said,” he said, “humor can be skillful at times, especially if it softens our heart and leaves us a bit more open to truth.”

That’s exactly what I was going to say.

Here’s the question, though: “Has enough time passed to make a trial that almost rivaled O.J.’s as a cottage industry – spawning books, documentaries and TV specials – something we can laugh at?

Not for two people involved in it, it hasn’t. Nor, one suspects, will it ever.

I asked David Rudolf, Peterson’s “Northeastern” – wink, wink – attorney, if he’d seen the show or planned to watch it.

His written response was pointed and understandable. “Have not watched. No interest. Nothing funny about it.”

His real-life courtroom counterpart was prosecutor Freda Black, who is represented on the show by a randy prosecutor who emphasizes the alleged gay angle every chance she gets by seemingly taking 20 minutes to enunciate the word ho-mo-sex-ual - just in case prospective jurors miss the innuendo.

“I’ve never heard of it,” Black told me when I asked if she’d seen “Trial & Error,” nor does she plan to watch it.

I spoke to her Friday, a couple of hours before NBC Dateline aired a two-hour episode on the murder and trial, featuring an interview with Peterson.

Was she planning to watch that? I asked.

“If I can stay awake,” she said. “I’ve been working since 4:30 this morning. I doubt if I’ll learn anything new” from watching.

Did anyone?

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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