‘Jury Duty’: A trial by fire feat of comedy
Claire Lyons | Wednesday, April 26, 2023
Three weeks of Ronald Gladden’s life are fake. And before you ask, yes, Ronald is very real.
In February 2022, Gladden, an average 29-year-old solar panel contractor looking for adventure, responded to a Craigslist ad about an opportunity to be in a documentary film following “the American judicial process as seen through the eyes of a jury.” What he didn’t know, however, was that he was unwittingly volunteering to star in a real-life version of “The Truman Show.”
Everybody involved in the trial is an actor. Cameras are hidden everywhere. Somewhere in a court house backroom, a team of producers huddle around screens, feed lines to actors and control the next 17 days of Gladden’s life with a script that reads like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Gladden, sequestered in a Los Angeles hotel room with no internet, no phone and no access to the outside world, is none the wiser.
And although the court case itself isn’t real, “Jury Duty” is most certainly a trial.
Throughout the series, Gladden’s wits and kindness are constantly tested by the wild antics of the other “jurors.” He embraces his hotel roommate’s wacky and unsettling inventions with open arms, becomes a wingman for two flirtatious friends on the jury and does a little investigating of his own to ensure that justice is served. With every challenge, Gladden unexpectedly rises to the occasion and gracefully maneuvers some sticky situations. His good behavior has made him into America’s newest sweetheart and catapulted him into (relative) stardom.
In fact, the show is successful precisely because of Gladden’s kind-hearted demeanor. The key element is that Gladden is unaware of what might happen next, naturally playing the “straight man” stock character that deadpans in the face of the ridiculous and absurd. He’s like a real-life version of Jim from “The Office,” and just might be given that “Jury Duty” was the brainchild of “The Office” producers.
But therein lies the other trial: the success of the actors and producers.
To some extent, the series is scripted. The producers have written bits for each character, but the actors have to naturally work them in to conversation. Nobody could ever predict how exactly Gladden would react to a certain situation, which required the actors to think on their feet. Their performances are improv at its most complex.
The casting couldn’t be more perfect. James Marsden (“Enchanted”) plays a diva version of himself. Mekki Leeper (“The Sex Lives of College Girls”) and up-and-coming Edy Modica have a hilarious on-screen relationship that plays to the strengths of not only their fictional characters but their own personalities. Most of the cast with more experienced acting backgrounds manage to fly under the radar. The characters with more technical parts — the judge and the lawyers — are played by people with real life experience in law. Ron Song, who plays a slow-talking candy machine operator, was previously working as a senior director of strategic pipeline analytics at UC Irvine. The cast comes from all different walks of life, just like a jury should.
The production constantly had to toe the line of comedy, insisting on a degree of plausible deniability in order to prevent Gladden from figuring out the scheme. In a recent podcast about the show, Gladden describes the production’s strategy, “Anytime they would push the envelope too far, they would just pump the brakes for the next five or six hours or do nothing for the rest of the day.” At many points, the producers were on high-alert, wary about Gladden’s enthusiastic curiosity in the case or reactions to “planned” pandemonium.
Is “Jury Duty” ethical? I guess the jury’s out on that one. Gladden rolls with the punches and is exactly the kind of guy who is nice enough to not sue everybody. At least now he’s friends with James Marsden and $100,000 richer.
Title: “Jury Duty”
Starring: Ronald Gladden, James Marsden, Mekki Leeper
Favorite episodes: “Field Trip,” “The Verdict”
If you like: “The Office,” “Nathan For You,” “The Truman Show”
Where to watch: Amazon Freevee
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5