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Jury Duty Is a Hilarious Real-Life Truman Show

James Marsden leads the cast of this must-watch hoax.
  • James Marsden and Ishmel Sahid in Jury Duty (Photo: Amazon Freevee)
    James Marsden and Ishmel Sahid in Jury Duty (Photo: Amazon Freevee)

    Even if it were boring, Jury Duty would be astonishing. The Amazon Freevee comedy turns The Truman Show into a real-life series, following an everyday guy who doesn’t realize he’s on the jury for a fake trial. It sounds so daunting — “make a show whose star doesn’t know what’s happening” — that the sheer moxie can be applauded if nothing else. But the high-concept premise is even more impressive because it serves such a funny, surprising series.

    This approach is not unprecedented, of course. Candid Camera started hoaxing innocent bystanders way back in 1948. That laid the groundwork for series like Punk’d and Crank Yankers, not to mention Sacha Baron Cohen’s various fakeout movies and shows. But all those projects were sketch-oriented, duping their unwitting subjects for a few hours at most. In a gambit that's akin to the early-aughts hoax reality series The Joe Schmo ShowJury Duty pulls a fast one on Ronald Gladden for weeks. A 29-year-old solar panel contractor, he thinks he’s participating in a documentary about jury service, so when he goes through voir dire, gets empaneled, and is eventually sequestered without access to his phone or the internet, he assumes it’s part of the legal process, not the start of an immersive narrative experience.

    Over the show’s eight episodes, Ronald not only goes to court, but also attends outings to restaurants, parks, and supposed crime scenes. He has late-night gaming sessions in the jurors’ hotel and low-key lunches in a courthouse holding room. Almost everyone he encounters is an actor, improvising from scripted scenarios. During a scene at the chain restaurant Margaritaville, for instance, the cast knows a group of guests will complain about the jurors’ table, and they wait for Ronald’s reaction to see how the action develops from there. There’s a constant thrill in watching these situations unfold, because even when it’s obvious how a scenario has been set up, it’s never clear how Ronald himself will react.

    Ronald’s fake world is overseen by series creators Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, who spent years creating cringey workplace comedy for The Office. They revive that spirit here, filling the show with oddballs. Most notably, James Marsden plays an egregiously arrogant version of himself, leveraging his fame to get special treatment from the court. When Ronald half-recognizes him, then cheerfully reports he heard Marsden’s movie Sonic The Hedgehog was terrible, it’s like seeing the real version of a conversation at Dunder-Mifflin. Watching Marsden react to the insult is delicious, and so is watching him puff up with pride a few episodes later, when Ronald gushes over his performance in the raunchy comedy Sex Drive.

    Other standout jurors include Edy Modica as a grungy, loudmouthed “anarchist of sorts”; David Brown as a socially inept science nerd who brings his inventions to court; and Mekki Leeper (also a series writer) as a nervous virgin who pretends to be racist in a failed attempt to get sent home. Shrewdly, these actors never break character, even when they’re not talking to Ronald. Instead, they develop elaborate relationships with one another, which lets the audience enjoy some traditional comic storytelling along with the meta-humor of watching Ronald’s behavior. Even viewers who know they’re fake may get invested in subplots about struggling marriages, budding romances, and Marsden’s upcoming audition.

    The trial is treated with just as much care. (It would have to be, or else Ronald might get suspicious.) It’s also just as funny. The premise of the case — about a fashion entrepreneur suing a factory worker for urinating on a batch of high-end t-shirts — is juicy enough, but it’s the lawyers’ ineptitude that really makes the legal wrangling sing. When both sides show animation that recreates what supposedly happened that day in the warehouse, the little cartoons are so badly made that audiences may want to watch them more than once. When the world-weary bailiff (Rashida Olayiwola) tries to comprehend how these lawyers could be such fools, it’s easy to imagine her with her own show.

    As for Ronald, Eisenberg and Stupinsky couldn’t have asked for a better leading man: For one thing, he’s sweet and thoughtful, even with his most eccentric fellow jurors. Ironically enough, this is partly what made The Truman Show so effective — that the guy being filmed was decent, even when he didn’t know anyone was watching — and seeing this dynamic play out in real life can be quite moving. Ronald’s unfailing kindness also makes him an ideal scene partner for an actor like Marsden, who gamely plays up his arrogance and cluelessness to heighten his contrast with the lead. Late in the season, when Marsden convinces Ronald to take the blame for an outrageously embarrassing social gaffe, the moment works because it plays off Ronald’s bone-deep geniality.

    Just as importantly, Ronald seems stoked by every aspect of the trial process. By the end of the series, he passionately argues about the outcome of a case he believes is real, and his conviction makes him an example of unwavering ethics. By the time the jurors cast their final votes, Jury Duty feels like an inspirational drama as much as a boundary-pushing comedy. By bending itself around Ronald’s decency, it shows us something real about how good people can stay good, even in the most outlandish situations.

    Jury Duty premieres April 7 on Amazon Freevee. New episodes stream Fridays through April 21. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Jury Duty, Amazon Freevee, Edy Modica, Gene Stupnitsky, James Marsden, Lee Eisenberg, Mekki Leeper, Rashida Olayiwola, Ronald Gladden