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Courts, chaos and Rahman

Iconic composer A.R. Rahman travels across India to meet four diverse and incredible musicians, while we look at a sitcom that needs a saviour

‘Trial & Error’ parodies the true-crime documentary format.
‘Trial & Error’ parodies the true-crime documentary format.

We need Trial & Error.

Created by Jeff Astrof, the absurd sitcom (available in India on Amazon Prime) is about a makeshift legal team fighting from within a taxidermist’s office, where secretaries suffer from rare-but-real maladies like not recognizing faces, set in a fictional South Carolina town with all kinds of antiquated laws. Women driving cars, for example, need men accompanying their vehicles waving flags to signal that “lady drivers" are around, and homeowners are advised to get cannonball insurance.

This, not incorrectly, seems like a lot. Yet Astrof’s show has more to offer. I had loved the first season featuring John Lithgow as a featherbrained murder suspect—as a delightful spoof of the true-crime documentary format—but its genius only became apparent after I watched The Staircase on Netflix this year, and realized how closely and cleverly Trial & Error had followed a bizarre true-life trial. The jokes are great and elaborately nested (sometimes several levels deep, reminiscent of Arrested Development), and the show holds up a mirror to the most prominent murder cases. A funhouse mirror.

The ongoing second season stars Kristin Chenoweth as the most popular woman in town, a fabulously wealthy heiress on trial for the alleged murder of her husband. Chenoweth is deliriously loopy as the scarf-distributing town diva, but true-crime fans will recognize this season as a direct take on The Jinx (available on Netflix), and the trials involving a distinctive murder suspect, real estate heir Robert Durst. There is also much skewering of the murder that was shadowed by radio documentary series S-Town, here referred to as M-Towne.

It’s a sparkling cast, led by Nicholas D’Agosto as Josh, a fresh-faced and increasingly out-of-his-depth defence lawyer, and Jayma Mays as the scene-stealing district attorney. Ruthless, sexually forward and artfully wily, her character is named Carol Anne Keane, pronounced like the writer of the Nancy Drew stories. Other character names include Judge Alexander Kamiltow, and, in a nod to last season’s hero, a goat named John Lithgoat.

As with last season, the quirky ensemble remarkably backs off to spotlight the actor playing the main suspect. Chenoweth is tremendous as Lavinia Peck-Foster, a woman who calls her lawyer “Lawyer", wears a swimsuit from the 1950s, throws a tabled lunch out of the window, and feels betrayed by actresses as far removed as Angela Lansbury and Jennifer Grey. I would say more, but as Josh weakly says during a part of the trial, unwilling to hear more, “objection... spoilers." Suffice it to say that a woman this fabulous could be allowed a few murders.

This show, likewise, should be allowed more seasons. I can’t wait to see what Astrof and gang parody next (I suggest Megan Mullally as a version of Ma Sheela Anand in a take on Wild Wild Country). Currently, the show is under threat of cancellation at NBC, where it originally aired. Please watch, and tweet #savetrialanderror to convince other networks to pick it up, because the disappearance of this show would be a grave injustice. As Lavinia demonstrates by falling theatrically to the courtroom floor, this is not something we should stand for.

A.R. Rahman returns to his roots

In Harmony With A.R. Rahman, a refreshingly serene Amazon Prime Video series which launched on 15 August, India’s most revered movie composer travels across the country to talk and jam with four tremendous and diverse musicians, each keeping alive a distinct musical legacy. There are five episodes, and after spending an episode with each musician, Rahman unites them for a performance. It sounds straightforward, but the show is lyrically shot by cinematographer Viraj Singh Gohil, and many pleasures are to be found in the unhurried, intrigued way Rahman interacts with music and musicians.

Visually, the show resembles those Bharat Bala videos about the incredibility of India, but crucially, the makers really hero the musicians, showcasing them with attention and style. The second episode, for instance, focuses on the rudra veena, and opens with the hands of Ustad Mohi Baha’un-din Dagar, not on a veena but on a scooter cutting through Navi Mumbai traffic, wearing gloves as he rides. In the conversation he has with Rahman, the scholarly Dagar describes the rudra veena as “not an instrument, but a compass of measure", and says that musicians can’t be religious. Later, when Rahman speaks of a melody incorporated in his Tu Hi Re, Dagar remembers that Bombay song just like we would. The footprint of film music is too large in India, dwarfing and even smothering other kinds of music, but some of the impact is well deserved: Rahman is 51, and that song came out when he was 28.

The musicians showcased are Kalamandalam Sajith Vijayan in Kerala, Ustad Mohi Baha’uddin Dagar in Navi Mumbai, Lourembam Bedabati Devi in Manipur, and Mickma Tshering Lepcha in Sikkim. Rahman approaches these greats with curiosity and reverence. You must unlearn in order to learn, he says at the start of one episode, and the questions he asks the musicians are sometimes elegantly basic and sometimes far too complicated.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what we understand. I was sent screeners without subtitles, which made it hard to understand what was said right from the first episode, as Vijayan speaks only in Malayalam. Yet the mood and striking visuals—from Vijayan’s bike ride through the woods with Rahman, to the ritual where the wet calf skin is tied across the mouth of the instrument with the intensity of a thread-ceremony—felt overwhelming. I may not know what was said by the musician, but the instruments don’t need translation. Music, like India, can’t be put into words.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @RajaSen

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