Hiding in Plain Sight: Jury Duty Can’t Escape Its Prank Show Origins Even as It Wants to “Restore Your Humanity”

Comedy Features Jury Duty
Hiding in Plain Sight: Jury Duty Can’t Escape Its Prank Show Origins Even as It Wants to “Restore Your Humanity”

Eleven minutes into the first episode of Jury Duty, it becomes clear that Ronald Gladden is a good man. In conversation with alternate juror James Marsden (James Marsden), Ronald apologizes for calling Sonic: The Hedgehog a “shitty movie” and possibly hurting the feelings of this millionaire actor. Leaving aside what this tells us about his taste in film, you can’t deny that he’s a great guy. A golden retriever. A heartthrob. Sweet and wholesome. Two minutes later, it becomes clear that the show he’s on is good, or even great, when Noah (Mekki Leeper) stands up to proudly proclaim himself a racist in an effort to escape the titular civic service, based on advice Ronald gave him about a Family Guy plot line. You can see how this would all be engrossing. 

But the question of whether Ronald is on a “good” show, as Jury Duty’s creators would like you to believe, is a thornier matter. In interviews, executive producers David Bernad and Todd Schulman have spoken about how they wished to approach the show “with (the) same good-heartedness as Ronald”, while co-creator Lee Eisenberg noted in a Vulture piece that “we wanted a show that never felt like it was punching down”. While that is a noble idea, it is not remotely consistent with the tone of the show’s later episodes, nor with a docu-comedy format that necessarily centers its star subject alone, not aware of the laughter that’s going on all around him. What they have made is a masterpiece of casting that they wish to conceive of as a public service.

Jury Duty is exactly what it says it is: a show about a juror. The main subject, Ronald Gladden, is the only person in the court case not played by an actor—and he doesn’t realize it until the very end. From the moment we are introduced to him, Ronald is a delight, the kind of person everyone wishes they could get to know, or at least get overpriced drinks at Margaritaville with. The first few episodes of the series live in that pastel worldview, with Ronald’s genuine joy at being part of the judicial process contrasted with the kooky behavior of fellow jurors like Noah, Jeannie (Edy Modica), and Todd (David Brown), all of whom do wonderful work at playing absolute freaks. It’s here that you can see traces of Eisenberg and fellow co-creator Gene Stupnitsky’s work on The Office, with a quirky family being formed out of the community of individuals who happen to have been placed in this one location together. 

Later episodes, however, are more akin to a prank YouTube video or a “check out my boyfriend’s reaction” TikTok trend. Episodes 5 and 6 involve fake plastic turds (great Radiohead B-side) being blamed on Ronald, appeals to have Ronald help with the sex act of “soaking,” and birthday cakes being ruined. The thumbnail of Ronald’s shocked face with the caption “THIS GUY found A MASSIVE TURD in his BATHROOM!!! CHECK HIS SHOCKED REACTION!” is easy to imagine. These episodes are just Nathan for You without the creators also being the butt of the joke, Jackass without communal suffering, Candid Camera that goes on for literal weeks. The fact that Ronald is so warm and kind during these misadventures is a testament to his character, not to the character of the show.

Perhaps this is where Jury Duty falls flat in its desire to be a fanfare for the common man. The fact that Eisenberg and Stupnitsky have the ability to document every minute of a man’s life, and the fact they found a wonderful test subject in Ronald whose specific personality enabled them to put together an engaging show, seems to have convinced them that they have the moral high ground, that they could and should have made the show. They’re the scientists in Jurassic Park, high-fiving about how well the dinosaurs’ docility reflects on them. And in a world where every aspect of our lives is considered to be available for public consumption, and the boundaries between public and private spaces are getting more elided, it’s almost understandable that they would think that. But it is hard to escape the feeling that this is a show that goes from documenting things happening around Ronald, to documenting things happening to him, all of which were caused by the producers. He’s not a part of the in-crowd. He’s just the only person who doesn’t know what he signed up for.

The final episode of the series is clearly meant to serve as the culmination of the show’s “good-heartedness,” with Ronald being awarded $100,000 as a reward for his time on the show. This, of course, is no different to how any other reality show works. Contestants from Love Island to Survivor are accustomed to receiving cash in exchange for enduring something. The only difference is that the audience of Jury Duty is expected to think of the money as a generous donation. In fact, the prize is a pay-off, a “sorry for doing this to you.” That’s what reality TV is. And we never think of reality TV as moral. 

Throughout the final episode, we repeatedly cut to shots of the producers’ control room, with directors and producers setting up cameras, prompting lines. We see the creative team organize and finetune every aspect of the reveal sequence. We see them ask for mics to be moved closer. The clear inspiration is The Truman Show, which portrayed TV producers as scheming villains who ruin a man’s life in service of ratings. If Jury Duty’s producers are aware of the irony, it certainly isn’t evident in the series. 

As we build towards the reveal of the facade in the final episode, further shots of the control room show the whole creative team on the edge of their seats, with director Jake Szymanski noting “They’re [the actors] all so nervous.” Producers laugh uproariously at Ronald when the truth is finally revealed, loving how sweet and genuine his reaction is. Ronald isn’t part of the laughter. How could he be? He’s just a man living what he thought were the past three weeks of his life. Even in the supposedly uplifting finale, the show cannot extricate itself from its own manipulations. Laughter is happening to someone, behind someone, separated from someone by a fake courtroom wall. Jury Duty’s creative team wants you to believe in the fantasy that this is a celebration of a man “placed in the position to be a hero”, something that “restores your hope and humanity”. But, as the text crawl at the start of every episode says, “This is all fake.” So why should we believe?

Dylan Fugel is a sketch comedy writer living in New York, NY. Check out his work with Young Douglas, Story Pirates, or DM him Knicks tickets on Twitter @dylanfugel.

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