I am normally opposed to “prank” shows. Not morally per se. But the cringe factor is often just too high for my delicate soul. Watching people put in a situations where they are the only one not in on the joke is just generally a no-go for me. Enter Jury Duty, a show that at its heart is kinda-sorta in this lane, but is ultimately something different. Because our dupe, Ronald — while not aware everyone around him is an actor in a fake trial — is not a target of derision. Or even the butt of the joke. And this may be a matter of kind editing or manipulation, but the dude is made out to be a hero. Or, at the very least, a really nice, sincere guy who couldn’t have been a better subject for what turns out to be the feel-good show of the season. In a world where I didn’t think such a thing still existed.
The setup is simple. Creators Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky — both alumns of The Office — create a fake trial. Everyone other than this dude, Ronald, is an actor in on the joke. In order to make up for the fact everything is clearly being filmed, they tear a page from The Office and Parks & Rec and tell Donald that the crew filming him and his fellow jurors are making a documentary about the American court system. In order to keep the jury all together, they invent a fake situation where they need to be sequestered. Which makes absolutely no sense in the context of this very low-stakes trial, but Ronald buys it and that’s all that matters. So the film crew has access to the jury in the courtroom, in their hotels where they are gathered, as well as in these mind-of, to-camera confessional videos that you’ve seen on every reality show ever. Of course, the only real confessions going on are Ronald’s. Because the rest of the other people are just pretending for comedic effect.
One curveball to the usual plan is throwing in an actual recognizable celebrity in the jury, James Marsden. Though he’s playing James Marsden. A jerky, self-absorbed insecure version of James Marsden. Which certainly adds to the comedy. Because even though he’s an obvious asshole, Ronald is still the one guy who seems to understand it’s just a matter of his fragile ego, and that perhaps there’s more to his braggadocio and off-putting behavior than meets the eye. A reaction that the producers probably had no idea this act would elicit. Because in Ronald they literally found the nicest dude in the US. Supportive, non-judgmental, curious and enthusiastic. Even when the players surrounding him act in bizarre ways and stupid shit happens, he maintains his great attitude and just kind of shrugs and smiles when inexplicable things befall the jury. He just seems to be having a great time hanging out with these weirdos, where as most folks would be searching the two-way mirrors for the Punk’d crew and/or begging out of his duty. He just rolls with it. Or so the edit tells us.
The producers clearly set up a bunch of scenarios, gave the actors some lines and generally scripted whatever they could. They couldn’t, however, gauge exactly how Ronald would respond to things. There’s some behond-the-scenes footage at the end of the series showing exactly how they had to scramble when Ronald zagged. When they set something up that would normally create confusion or a flight response in a normal person, but Ronald’s good nature just defied logic and they had to change tack mid-scene. Even they couldn’t believe how nice and understanding this dude was. And, yes, a mostly ad-libbed, unscripted show makes for a lot of fun and laughs, but there are also some lulls where the connective tissues between activities just isn’t as fun or funny as the more obvious setups. Because sitting around in a courthouse jury room can’t alway be exciting. But the slower times are bolstered by a cast of relatable goofballs and real-ish seeming jurists, bailiffs and lawyers. I am surprised they had Kirk Fox on the jury, as he’s a reasonably recognizable actor, but Ronald had no clue, so I guess it was fine.
It turns out my resistance to this show was unfounded. It wasn’t cringey at all. It wasn’t mean-spirited. Or dark. Or cynical. It was the opposite of all that. It made us happy for humanity. It shone a bright light on a good person. Or a person who certainly came across as good on screen. A person we wish we could be more like. A unifier. A loyal friend. A person who manages to somehow not talk shit about people who are almost asking you to talk shit about them. Even when that person is named James Marsden.