TV: Jury Duty

There certainly wasn’t anything in Jury Dutys elevator pitch to fill me with the desire to see it. If anything, it was the opposite: a cringe-comedy mockumentary-slash-reality show that is also an elaborate prank on its main character? I would have noped out, but word of mouth was so shockingly positive that I decided to give it a go, and it’s as delightful as the buzz suggested—not to mention wholly unique and surprisingly uplifting.

The poor fellow navigating Jury Duty’s ludicrous, meta maze is Ronald Gladden, a solar contractor from southern California who signs up to participate in a documentary about the judicial process. He arrives at jury selection thinking he’s one of many participants, but in fact he is the only actual applicant, hand-picked to participate at the center of an elaborately filmed Big Store con, surrounded by actors. His fellow jurors, the judge, the bailiff, the defendant, the lawyers—everyone is in on the joke except him, improvising through the scripted twists and turns of the case. Because it’s SoCal, nobody bats an eye when James Marsden (playing himself) shows up in court, gets picked as an alternate juror, and he ends up getting the entire jury sequestered. As the case unfolds in increasingly absurd fashion, Gladden participates in interview segments for the “documentary,” taking the case seriously even as outrageous interactions with his fellow jurors subject him to awkward moments and ethical dilemmas.

If reality TV is fake, what do we call Jury Duty, which is in fact fake reality TV, which makes it…what, real TV? Stunningly, yes, sorta! Jury Duty mixes mockumentary sitcom techniques with reality TV rhythms, amusingly recombining scripted interstitials with hilarious, improvised scenes that challenge the actors to respond to Gladden’s very real reactions and responses. The actors are a joy. Marsden hams it up brilliantly to come off like an unselfaware Hollywood narcissist, taking the spotlight off the others, who manage to imbue their sitcommy characters with enough realism to sell the ruse. Rashida Olayiwola deserves a specific call-out, for so convincingly shepherding the jury as the bailiff that it almost single-handedly sells the whole ruse. But the special sauce is Gladden, who turns out to be just a really good dude, who endears himself to everyone and refuses to sell anyone out, even when scripted events practically encourage him to do so. He’s just such an earnest, regular guy doing his best in a ridiculous situation, and he comes off admirably throughout, even being an incredibly good sport when the rug is pulled out from under him. This, combined with its unique hybrid approach to semi-improvisational storytelling, turns a prank into a feel-good story. With the wrong mark, Jury Duty might have been a trainwreck, but it turns out to be an unexpected celebration of fast friendship and basic human decency.

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