That Amazon Freevee’s Jury Duty was nominated for best comedy series Emmy alongside The Bear, Abbott Elementary, Only Murders in the Building, Barry, and Ted Lasso.
Those truly are among the best television shows today, and all but ensured Jury Duty would lose at the prime-time Emmys.
Likewise, Jury Duty star James Marsden probably had no real chance at receiving the Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series Emmy alongside Abbott Elementary’s Tyler James Williams, The Bear‘s Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Barry’s Anthony Carrigan and Henry Winkler, and Ted Lasso’s Phil Dunster and Brett Goldstein.
Ditto for the Outstanding Writing For A Comedy Series category, in which it was nominated alongside The Bear, Barry, Only Murders in the Building, The Other Two, and Ted Lasso.
Even though it lost in all four categories it was nominated in, to be in the company of those actors and shows is a considerable achievement for Jury Duty.
It’s also weird, because Jury Duty was a reality TV show.
To be fair, Amazon Studios has always called Jury Duty a “docu-style comedy series,” which is the kind of label I’d use to describe The Office or Abbott Elementary, which are decidedly fiction.
And as much as I love The Bear, calling that intense FX show a comedy is the funniest thing about it.
Category confusion in awards is not something unique to Jury Duty. Perhaps our television shows have evolved beyond staid categories. Maybe “comedy series” should encompass unscripted shows, too.
Still: I was perpetually confounded by Jury Duty being referred to as a scripted comedy—a sitcom, not reality TV.
Its cast won an Independent Spirit Award for “Best Ensemble Cast in a New Scripted Series”; James Marsden won a Hollywood Critics Association award for best supporting actor in a comedy.
The only nomination it received as a reality TV show was from the TCA Awards, which, as a voting member of the Television Critics Association, I am quite proud of.
Jury Duty was created by the writing and producing team of Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, best known for their work on The Office.
The entire cast except one person were actors, all of whom were playing fictional characters—even James Marsden, who played an obnoxious version of himself—and reciting scripted lines.
Those actors also improvised moments, not unlike scripted shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Reno 911. There were scenes in which Ronald Gladden—the mark, and the whole reason the show existed—was not even present.
This really does seem like a scripted comedy, huh. Is this just a sitcom with one unscripted character?
I don’t think so. But it does occupy the extreme end of the reality TV spectrum.
All reality TV shows take place within an artificial context crafted by producers, in which real people interact and react to what’s happening.
Survivor and other competition shows create a game and let the players loose inside its boundaries.
The first modern reality TV show, The Real World, cast people and put them in a rent-free loft, but then let them live their lives while being filmed.
The roommates, their accommodations, the cameras: all artificial. What happened next: all genuine. Even if they’re changing their behavior because cameras are around, that’s a real person reacting to the situation.
Jury Duty’s artificial context was the opposite: so all-encompassing, so compressed, so controlled that it left room for just one person to basically grin at what was happening around him.
It’s a meta reality TV show in that it shows us how reality TV constructs its walls. Jury Duty even does that literally: The final of the eight episodes is effectively a behind-the-scenes documentary about how the previous seven episodes were made, showing us everything from the set design to the control room.
While most reality TV formats are designed to create tension, drama, and stakes, Jury Duty’s producers didn’t want that. They didn’t even make room for Ronald to go astray.
James Marsden told NPR’s Fresh Air that the show was “hopefully carving out a path for him to become the leader at the end, and have his 12 Angry Men moment, where he inspires us all and unites us and then we pull the curtain back and celebrate him as a human being.”
Ronald Gladden wasn’t even a rat in a maze, just a mouse moving down a one-way corridor.
But lest we think he was happy once he got to the cheese, his $100,000 reward, Ronald told People that for “months and months down the road after this” he was unsure of what reality was. “I was still getting hit with things like, Oh wow, was that staged, was that fake, was that an actor? It took months for me to come to the realization that this actually happened and to accept it.”
Sitcoms don’t leave their star with actual Truman Show delusion.
Maybe it’s easier to accept Jury Duty’s ethical transgression if we think of it as a mere sitcom. Everything was written, everything will work out in the end, it’s all just for laughs, relax, you dour reality TV critic!
But this was not filmed like a sitcom, repositioning cameras after every scene, writers pitching new jokes on set. It was filmed continuously, with most of the apparatus hidden.
That’s what happens on reality TV shows, too. Players in competition shows don’t see most of the crew; The Real Housewives cast doesn’t interact with the post-production team that shapes their experiences into episodes and storylines.
Jury Duty was just the latest version of a much-better reality TV show: Spike’s 2001 The Joe Schmo Show, which introduced us to the actors Kristen Wiig and Natasha Leggero.
The Joe Schmo Show was also created by writers: Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, who went on to write films including Deadpool and Zombieland. But before they did that, Wernick was a producer on Big Brother 2, which inspired the creation of their own reality show.
The Joe Schmo Show was better because it gave its marks more room to interact and react, more agency even within the world.
It’s not ethically pure, but The Joe Schmo Show has far higher moral ground to stand on, because its participants knew they were applying to a reality TV show. They could walk away at any moment.
Ronald Gladden wasn’t given a choice; jury duty is compulsory in the United States, though of course people still avoid it.
Except: Ronald applied to the show by answering an ad on Craigslist. That he applied to be on a jury and in a documentary about first-time jurors is enough to make me reconsider the whole thing.
That is not how juries work! Could he really be that naive? Or was just in on it the entire time, and I’m the one who’s a naive oaf for thinking this guy was genuine?
If Ronald Gladden was acting, but pretending not to—well, that would help me understand why he signed to a two-year deal with Amazon Studios “to produce, develop, and star in a variety of content.”
Did anyone at Amazon actually watch the show? How is being nice to weirdos—as good as that is for humanity and society—worthy of a talent deal? Amazon MGM Studios executive Lauren Anderson said in a press release:
“At the heart of Jury Duty was a story about the power of human kindness, selflessness, and empathy. Ronald exemplified this in his ability to genuinely connect with everyone around him, no matter their background, celebrity, or idiosyncrasies.”
Actors in a sitcom may “genuinely connect” with one another as human beings, but on screen, they are acting, faking their connections with each other.
Reality TV works, and is so immensely popular, because despite all the producing and television apparatus, it’s designed to allow real moments—of laughter and despair, frustration and anger, even love and genuine connection, such as Ronald Gladden being kind to other jurors.
Jury Duty may not be the best reality TV show of 2023, but it was the best at illustrating how reality TV works.