Nicholas D'Agosto, left, as defense attorney Josh, and John Lithgow as Larry Henderson in NBC’s “Trial & Error.” NBC Michael Yarish/NBC
Nicholas D'Agosto, left, as defense attorney Josh, and John Lithgow as Larry Henderson in NBC’s “Trial & Error.” NBC Michael Yarish/NBC

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How ‘Trial & Error,’ a sitcom inspired by the Michael Peterson murder trial, came to be

April 14, 2017 10:00 AM

UPDATED April 15, 2017 12:48 PM

The new NBC sitcom “Trial & Error” is many things: a hilarious comedy in the style of “Parks and Recreation”; a good example of the traditional sitcom style turned on its head; yet another chance to showcase the range and brilliance of John Lithgow; and more evidence that interest in the Michael Peterson murder trial will never end.

The sitcom, which airs its season finale episodes at 10 p.m. Tuesday on NBC, was in fact inspired by the Peterson case, which played out in Durham beginning in December 2001, when Kathleen Peterson’s body was discovered by her husband Michael Peterson at the bottom of a back staircase in the mansion the two shared. (In February, Peterson took an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter, was sentenced to time served and set free.)

Jeff Astrof, the co-creator/executive producer/showrunner of “Trial & Error,” learned about the case watching “The Staircase,” the 2004 award-winning French documentary that followed Peterson’s trial.

Astrof, who was a writer on “Friends” and a producer on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” admits he became a little obsessed with the case.

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“My sister and I watched it, and I even had a file on my computer called ‘Peterson Case,’ ” Astrof said in a phone interview. “We even talked about going down to Raleigh to try to figure it out. Nobody in my house ate a warm meal over the days it took to watch ‘The Staircase.’ 

Michael Peterson pleads guilty to manslaughter, victim's family reacts

Michael Peterson entered a plea Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 resolving a murder charge that has lingered for 15 years. Through an Alford plea in which the Durham novelist refused to admit guilt, Peterson pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge for killing his wife Kathleen Peterson. Lori Campbell and Candace Zamperini, Kathleen Peterson's sisters made emotional statements following the plea.

Video by Travis Long, Photo by Chuck LIddy newsobserver.com

How the show happened

The mystery behind Kathleen Peterson’s death was only one hook; Astrof was also fascinated by Peterson and some of the more peripheral characters in the case.

“I was watching with my wife one night and said, ‘If Mike Peterson was played by Steve Carrell, this would be the funniest show ever.’ You have Freda Black and all these characters that are so specific.”

Astrof even exchanged emails with Peterson’s defense attorney, David Rudolf. He has not talked to Rudolf or heard from him since “Trial & Error” has been on the air.

But the show wasn’t an easy sell. Astrof says he pitched it to Warner Brothers four years ago: “They kicked me out of the office . . . they said they were not doing a comedy about a guy killing his wife.”

He continued to pitch it every year. Then two years ago, during a time when the true crime podcast “Serial” and HBO’s documentary “The Jinx” were extremely popular, he convinced Warner Brothers to give it a shot.

“I said, ‘Let’s try something different.’ Then ‘Making a Murderer’ came out just as we were reading scripts.”

Astrof says NBC loves the show, but hasn’t committed to a second season yet – he’s pitching it next week. He likely won’t hear anything until May. The show is well liked by critics, but most ratings experts put it “on the bubble” for renewal.

“NBC has been very supportive,” says Astrof. “But because of the way TV economics work, we just don’t know.”

Michael Peterson reacts after pleading guilty to manslaughter

Michael Peterson reacted after entering a guilty plea Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 resolving a murder charge that has lingered for 15 years. Through an Alford plea in which the Durham novelist refused to admit guilt, Peterson pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge for killing his wife Kathleen Peterson.

Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

The cast

John Lithgow, who plays Larry Henderson, got the script while he was filming his Golden Globe Award-winning part as Winston Churchill for the Netflix series “The Crown,” and couldn’t put it down. Lithgow is wonderful as Henderson, though Astrof says he had a little troubling finding the character.

“Lithgow asked if he should watch ‘The Staircase’ and the director told him no, because he didn’t want him doing an impression of Mike Peterson,” says Astrof. “He wanted him to just find the character.”

Astrof says Lithgow eventually found his inspiration in the style and mannerisms of French comic actor Jacque Tati. “He had the hem of his pants maybe an inch or two higher than normal and he just locked in.”

Rounding out the cast are Nicholas D’Agosto as Larry’s attorney, Jayma Mays as the prosecutor, and Steven Boyer and Sherri Shepherd as members of the defense team. (Boyer and Shepherd steal nearly every scene they’re in.)

Similarities to the Peterson case

Astrof borrowed heavily from “The Staircase” but he didn’t want a shot-by-shot recreation. “We didn’t want this to be ‘Airplane’ because we wanted you to also care about the characters,” he says.

Still, there are similarities to the Peterson case, most prominently in the first couple of episodes: A local writer, Larry Henderson, finds his wife Margaret dead, her body splayed through the frame of a large plate glass window (which happens to be at the bottom of a staircase); Larry was outside (rollercising) when his wife died and didn’t hear her screams; Margaret’s autopsy shows she died from trauma to the back of her head; it’s discovered that Larry had been having an affair with his trainer, who is a man, but insists his wife knew about his bisexuality and didn’t care; it’s also discovered that Larry’s first wife also died after having fallen through (or being thrown into) a plate glass window (her body is exhumed, but … well, that’s a long story).

Other odes to the Peterson case are sprinkled throughout the series: A theory that “a bird” may have killed Margaret is floated in the first episode, and there are owls in several episodes (though not as suspects); an upcoming episode will feature the actor French Stewart as a theater teacher who coaches Larry on how to testify at trial, similar to a scene from “The Staircase”; and of course, there’s Freda Black. Astrof confirms that Jayma Mayes’ Carol Anne Keane character is based on the former Durham prosecutor (“Jayma is from Appalachia, so that’s her real accent,” he says).

Additionally, a recent episode featuring the testimony of Larry’s gay lover was hilariously bleeped for several seconds, a nod to the testimony by “Brad from Raleigh,” the escort who communicated with Peterson and whose testimony at times went a little beyond PG-13.

“We wanted to do a Brad from Raleigh scene, about how he had to talk about stuff you couldn’t say on television,” says Astrof. “That’s how we came up with the trainer testimony scene.”

Astrof didn’t get everything he wanted, though. “I wanted want to put the picture of the cat at the bottom of the staircase,” he says, referring to the Le Chat Noir poster famously captured in crime scene photos. “But people said that was too much.”

However, he promises more “clear references” to “The Staircase” in the season finale.

If there’s a Season 2

Astrof has big plans for a second season — and seasons beyond that — if NBC will give him the chance.

Season 2 would still be set in East Peck, S.C., and it would mostly have the same cast: the same defense team and the same prosecutor, but it would involve a different murder case and different suspect.

“We will borrow from other documentaries next year,” says Astrof. “We will add a documentarian, a la ‘The Jinx.’ So it’s a little of ‘The Jinx’ as far as having a documentarian with an agenda. And we’ll have a female suspect. So it’s not exactly like ‘The Jinx’ because ‘The Jinx’ is too well known. I’d say we’re doing an homage to ‘The Jinx’ but also doing re-creations, a la ‘Thin Blue Line.’  

Tuesday’s finale

Tuesday night’s two-episode finale should satisfy viewers who want closure on the Henderson murder.

“The case is completely resolved and you know for sure if Larry did it or not,” says Astrof.

He also reveals that we’ll finally see Margaret’s face in the finale, courtesy of a bit of stunt casting.

Anything else?

“There’s a bear in the final episode,” he says. “And a blowpoke.”