‘Jury Duty’ Edited by Diana Fishman: A Chaotic, Hilarious, Heartwarming Take on Civic Engagement
May 21, 2024

Stories That Matter, Peabody Awards

Jury Duty is like nothing else you’ve seen on television. Those of us in the business of describing shows to people might reach for Candid Camera or Prank’d as a starting comparison, or reality TV or improv, or the entire Nathan Fielder oeuvre (see more on that below) … but, you know, also kind-of like The Office or Parks and Rec? All that, together, plus an extra dose of heartwarming humanity.

At a point in television history when it didn’t seem possible to reinvent the sitcom or the reality show, Jury Duty appeared on the scene to do both, co-starring actor James Marsden as the worst version of himself, as well as an unsuspecting regular guy named Ronald Gladden who thinks he’s serving his civic duty—but is in fact surrounded by a cast of expert improvisers testing his patience and generosity to the extreme. Spoiler: Ronald turns out to be the most empathetic person on the planet, and Jury Duty turns out to be something even more shocking than a hoax-com. It is reality TV that celebrates the best in people, and for that, it became a surprise hit for Amazon’s fledgling Freevee streaming service as well as a newly minted Peabody winner.

The series begins with Ronald summoned for jury duty and told the entire process is being filmed for a documentary. What he doesn’t realize is that his fellow jurors are all being played by actors. So are the plaintiff and defendant, the lawyers, and the judge. Soon the jurors are sequestered and forced to spend all of their time together; Ronald is faced with requests from fellow jurors to help them with their sex lives, claim responsibility for their bathroom accidents, and run lines with a hilariously narcissistic Marsden. No matter the test, Ronald passes, displaying genuine caring for the quirkiest of his fellow jurors, earning everyone’s admiration along the way.

Thus Jury Duty serves as a corrective to a quarter-century of mean-spirited reality programming, as well as an innovative contribution to the wave of recent feel-good comedies like Schitt’s Creek, The Good Place, and Ted Lasso. It is also, it must be said, an extraordinary feat of production logistics and a stunning display of true improvisation from all of its actors, who could only plan so much before they had to react in real time to Ronald—with no extra takes, no room for breaking character.

Whether it’s the future of TV comedy or a trick that only works once remains to be seen. But in the mean time, Jury Duty itself is definitely worth seeing.

The Funniest Moments from ‘Jury Duty’

Dive Deeper

Starred Review: Charming Comedy Jury Duty Makes Case for a Different Verdict

RogerEbert.com says of Ronald: “No mean-spirited malice is ever directed towards him by anyone, as he often laughs at the mild silliness thrown in his direction. The further the trial strings along, the less the style embodies the constructs of a prank show, and the more it becomes like an NBC workplace sitcom about eccentric jurors. Gladden might as well be the John Krasinski or Adam Scott type, the straight-man point of reference who tries to do the best in every silly situation he finds himself in.”

Where to Read: RogerEbert.com

How It HappenedThis fake ‘Jury Duty’ really put James Marsden’s improv chops on trial

Marsden told NPR: “It’s a tightrope walk. And the closer we get to the finish line, the more is at stake. We can’t go two weeks into it, and someone screws up and calls somebody by their real name and not their character name. And all of a sudden, Amazon has two weeks of footage that they can’t use.”

Where to Read: NPR

Further ListeningJury Duty: Inside the Series

The TV Campfire goes in depth with Jury Duty‘s unwitting star, Ronald Gladden, and the show’s creative team in this interview, recorded as part of last year’s ATX TV Festival.

Where to Listen: Apple Podcasts

Editor: Diana Fishman​

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