If you just stumbled upon Jury Duty on Amazon’s Freevee, and did not read its description or the text on its image, it would at first appear to be a straightforward documentary series about a trial. The cinematography and editing, and even the muted colors, resemble serious nonfiction.
“The following series explores the American judicial process as seen through the eyes of a jury,” somber on-screen text says. Cameras are filming this because “we were given unprecedented access.”
Then the text reveals why that is possible: “because this is not a normal trial. It’s fake.”
That confession is not necessary, because what happens on Jury Duty rapidly shifts from feasible to farce.
Yes, Jury Duty is another Joe Schmo Show: a scripted environment with an unscripted star who has no idea that what’s happening around him is entirely being created to see how he reacts to it.
Like on any sit-com, the silliness sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. In the best sitcoms, the lack of plausibility fades to the background if the jokes and character work is strong enough.
The work the actors are doing certainly is impressive and the best part of Jury Duty: whether they’re improvising or delivering scripted lines, they’re immediately believable, lived-in characters.
Alan Barinholtz, playing the judge, is particularly outstanding, and if you told me he was a real judge who had no idea this was a jury of actors, I’d believe you.
Some of the cast are veteran character actors who have long resumes, if no breakout roles, while others are newer to the industry.
A few in the jury pool may be recognizable, though one is absolutely a celebrity: James Marsden, playing a heightened version of himself. This is a courtroom in southern California, so of course celebrities sometimes get called for jury duty.
In an Amazon Studios press release, Marsden said this:
“What interested me was the challenge of creating a hero’s journey for someone who has no idea the world around him was completely manufactured, and whether or not this high wire act could lead him to unite this family of wonderful weirdos and in the process become an inspiring leader for us all under the process of serving Jury Duty.”
Those exact words could also be used to describe The Joe Schmo Show, which premiered 20 years ago this fall on Spike.
Created by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, who went on to write the three Deadpool films, Joe Schmo crafted a world around Matt Kennedy Gould, an affable 28-year-old white guy.
The Office producers and writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky created Jury Duty, and they’ve effectively created the same show: a fictional world populated by actors around an affable 30-year-old white guy, Ronald Gladden.
Alas, while it’s frequently very funny, it’s a context and set-up that does not pay off like The Joe Schmo Show did.
Their cameras are a crew documenting the jury process, which is far less plausible than an actual reality TV show set. The cast is eventually sequestered in a hotel, where they have common spaces and are filmed while in their rooms. It screams reality TV.
Ronald applied to be on a jury that would be filmed, which explains why he buys the premise and the cameras. He’s well-cast as someone who’s accepting of what’s happening, and is always very kind to the people around him.
Ronald actually doesn’t recognize James Marsden at first, and then tells James Marsden he didn’t see Sonic The Hedgehog because “I heard that was not a good movie.”
Because he’s a nice guy, though, he goes home and watches it on Hulu—and then raves about Ben Schwartz’s voice work as Sonic to James Marsden. Marsden handles all this well, including expressing his annoyance that Ronald streamed the movie instead of buying it.
Alas, Ronald ultimately does little more than smile at what’s happening, and the actors around him take more of the spotlight.
The production tries to get him more involved, making him the jury foreperson, for example, and having the judge hold him accountable for other jurors’ actions. But he’s the least-interesting part of the show.
There’s a witness in the third episode, Genevieve Telford-Warren, who’s asked to describe what she does for a living, and this is what she says:
I am a social media brand ambassador for myself, for my own account, and for a third party account as well, which belongs to my dog, who’s a pet, who I do also brand negotiation deals for him as well.
And I do DJing also for party and events and corporate and personal and public.
And I do also certified, I’m a lash tech also, but I haven’t really done that in a while. I’m a lash tech also, but I haven’t really done that in a while, but I can I’m still certified to do it.
And I also just do negotiating brand deals for my own account as well and commercial acting as well as well as modeling and some acting as well.
I could not stop laughing at that, and I have no idea how anyone in the room was able to keep a straight face. With moments like these, Jury Duty is basically an eight-episode improvised mockumentary sitcom like The Office.
Jury Duty’s half-hour episodes (Amazon Freevee, Fridays) don’t, however, offer much of a story. There are a few minor arcs, but even with the artifice of a court case, there’s not real progression, just a series of jokes.
Some, like Genevieve Telford-Warren’s testimony, are so great I’ll watch again and again. Others are bad attempts to wedge in cringe comedy, like a character trying to get off jury duty by declaring he’s a racist, and the camera catching the reactions of the Black actors.
When the jokes or physical comedy really strain credulity, Ronald occasionally notices. “What the fuck is going on?” he says after a set piece unfolds in front of him. Later he says, “I’m going to make a movie out of the movie’s that’s being made—so many crazy things.”
But those things don’t seem to really affect him. The characters have side plots and do OTF interviews that sometimes unfold without Ronald around to see them, which makes him basically an extra.
That’s better than being the butt of a four-hour televised joke, of course, and the show never makes fun of him. But in its first half, it doesn’t make him the star, either.
As a context for gathering ridiculous characters, it works, and the cast delivers some great moments.
Beyond that, though, Jury Duty has very little. It’s not reflecting upon the jury system in America. Nor is it built around a strong enough case that’s entertaining on its own, like the ramped-up ripped-from-the-headlines cases in NBC’s delightful Trial & Error.
The Joe Schmo Show offered commentary on the increasing ridiculousness—in 2003!—of reality TV’s premises, and how people accepted what was happening around them. It also made the point that authenticity was the core of reality TV and what really mattered, even in artificial contexts.
Jury Duty has the same setup but definitely not the same outcome. As a reality TV show, it’s a decent sitcom, thanks entirely to its talented character actors and their improvisation.
Jury Duty is a much better improvised sitcom than it is a reality TV show. C+
What works for me:
- The actors’ improvising as their characters
- The comedy, often
What could be better:
- A different context or better case
- Some kind of overarching idea