Written by Natalie Jarvey, Vanity Fair
David Bernad was living the good life, enjoying some sun and satire while executive producing the second season of The White Lotus in Sicily. But he found himself immersed in drama unfolding thousands of miles away, on the set of another of his shows.
From his phone, Bernad could watch the live feed of Jury Duty, the Amazon Freevee comedy about an unsuspecting everyman who gets asked to serve on a jury where everyone is an actor—except him. Since Jury Duty premiered last month, it’s become a meme-worthy breakout for Freevee. But back in Italy, Bernad was looking for a sign that the wildly ambitious gambit was working. He got it while breaking bread with the White Lotus cast, when he’d be watching the footage roll in as normie Ronald Gladden got selected for the jury and then asked to sequester for at least a week thanks to a paparazzi stunt pulled by James Marsden, playing a self-centered version of himself. “I’d be at dinners with the cast or whomever, and I’d be watching while eating,” he says. “It was funny because people at the dinner would be watching like, What the fuck is this? People were so engaged in it. I was like, Oh, there might be an audience for this show.”
Created as a Truman Show for the TikTok era, Jury Duty employs docuseries-style camerawork to tell the story of a civil court case that gets a little out of hand. Gladden found his way onto the show after responding to a Craigslist ad for a project about the judicial process. What the solar contractor didn’t know was that the other jurors, the judge, the lawyers, and even the diners at the local Margaritaville were all in on the joke.
In the first episode, Gladden watches as Marsden tries to weasel his way out of serving. During voir dire, the Enchanted star is asked if he’s ever served on a jury. “Uh, yes, ma’am…. Cannes,” he deadpans. The clip has been screenshotted and memed too many times to count, contributing to the more than 270 million views that the #jurydutyonfreevee hashtag has amassed on TikTok since the show’s April 7 debut. Jury Duty has also turned Gladden—steadfastly kind and empathetic in the face of mounting insanity—into an internet hero of sorts. Questlove, John Mayer, and Demi Lovato are fans. Darren Aronofsky posted to Instagram after binging the show: “Laughed, inspired, and moved.”
Bernad and the rest of the creative team behind Jury Duty—including cocreators (and Office alums) Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg—pitched the show around Hollywood in early 2020. Back then, Freevee was still a relatively new ad-supported offering known as IMDb TV, and it wasn’t on their radar; instead, they pitched to Amazon’s Prime Video team. But it was Lauren Anderson, who leads ad-supported originals for Amazon, who saw the potential for Jury Duty at Freevee. “She bought it to series based on a five-minute phone call,” Bernad says.
Jury Duty is the kind of show that could have gone wildly off the rails. Pick the wrong everyman, or cast a group of actors who aren’t able to adapt as the story requires, and the whole thing implodes. But Anderson trusted her gut. “I heard the pitch, and I just immediately said, ‘It’s gonna be great,’” she says with a laugh. “What I heard was something that was ambitious and funny and special, but also coming from producers who are just incredibly responsible—knowing that they would make a show that was heartwarming and fun and lovely and playful and unexpected, but responsible.”
The goal was always to create a hero’s journey for the unsuspecting person thrown into the chaotic world of Jury Duty. But doing so depended on finding the right unsuspecting person. Bernad credits producer Alexis Sampietro with sorting through some 8,000 applications to find Gladden. “Alexis really went to bat for Ronald,” he says. Sampietro, a veteran of Sacha Baron Cohen projects like Who Is America?, was looking for someone who would be the good guy in everyday life. “It’s not mean-spirited; Ronald is never a target,” Bernad adds. “He’s always being put in positions to be heroic.”
What they couldn’t know when casting Gladden was just how perfect for the part he’d be. In the first episode, for instance, it was scripted that Mekki Leeper’s Noah—a dorky innocent worried about his relationship with his girlfriend—would pretend he was racist to get out of serving on the jury. But long before the start of jury selection, after being asked what people usually do to get dismissed, Gladden himself suggests to Noah that he take inspiration from an episode of Family Guy and use racism to get sent home. In another scene, Gladden tries to bond with David Brown’s Todd—an outsider who shows up to jury duty wearing “chair pants” that allow him to sit down anywhere—by showing him the animated movie A Bug’s Life. He sees some of Todd in the character of Flik, an ant whose inventions aren’t always taken seriously by those around him, and wants him to know, he earnestly tells the cameras, “that those people tend to be misunderstood in society.” Bernad remembers watching footage come through and thinking, “Holy shit, this is working in a way that maybe we didn’t anticipate.”
The joy of watching Jury Duty is waiting to see how Gladden will react when, say, a cabinet appears to fall on one of the jurors, or when he has to beat Marsden at arm wrestling so that the actor will pay the jury’s absurdly expensive Margaritaville bill. He handles these moments with grace and (spoiler alert) manages to wrangle the jurors into delivering a fair and balanced verdict in the end. It’s all the more nerve-racking, then, when you reach the final episode and realize that Gladden is in for a big shock. But here, Jury Duty employs a smart shift in narrative. As the episode opens, you find yourself not in the courtroom but looking at the courtroom through TV monitors in the control room hidden next door.
After the judge—revealed to be Alan Barinholtz, an actor and retired attorney who is also the father of comedian Ike Barinholtz—tells Gladden that he was actually starring in a TV comedy, he gets toured through the set, bringing viewers along on a behind-the-scenes look at how the whole show came together. Though it’s tense waiting to see how Gladden will respond, he stays true to character—only getting a little angry when he realizes he could still actually get called for jury duty. The finale serves as a fascinating window into Jury Duty’s production, and Anderson teases that Freevee might have more coming for devoted fans of the show.
Amazon rarely discloses viewership for its shows—including those that stream for free on Freevee—but the level of social engagement around Jury Duty suggests that it’s found an audience. It’s certainly the first Freevee original not based on existing IP to break out. (Other shows on the streamer have included Bosch spin-off Legacy and Judy Justice, starring Judith Sheindlin of Judge Judy fame.) Amazon’s Anderson says Jury Duty has benefited from being distributed on both Freevee and Prime Video, where it streams alongside ad-free programming like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Boys. “We’re seeing so many Prime members coming in front of the paywall to watch this show that they’re hearing about, and then we have so many people who maybe aren’t Prime members but who are really excited about the show,” she says, adding that it’s helping define Freevee as a place for quality comedy. “What I hope it does—both for shows we’ve already released and for shows that are coming—is that it puts Freevee on the map in a very specific way.”
Editor, Diana Fishman