You are currently viewing Hilarious in the First Degree: “Jury Duty” reviewed

Hilarious in the First Degree: “Jury Duty” reviewed

Who would have guessed that The Joe Schmo Show, a series that aired three seasons on the since-renamed Spike network scattered between 2003 and 2013, would be TV’s most influential format of 2022 and 2023?

That series, in which an ordinary civilian — a “Joe Schmo,” if you will — is pranked/hoaxed/conned/scammed into believing he was part of a reality show when he was actually surrounded by a crew of actors, has its potent DNA in Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, one of my favorite shows of last year, and Peacock’s Paul T. Goldman, a provocatively noxious offering from earlier this winter. Now it’s back again in Freevee’s Jury Duty.

Jury Duty, which spreads its prank across eight episodes, ultimately has two things going for it: The first, is that it’s condescending but not contemptuous as relates to its Joe Schmo hero, avoiding the downward-punching humiliation that has plagued so many similar shows in this space. The second is that, especially in its closing episodes, Jury Duty takes pains to illustrate how complicated it is to make a show of this type, a helpful reminder that even failures are rarely from lack of effort. Jury Duty proves that sometimes good (in a moral sense) is the enemy of good (in a qualitative sense).

Created by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, the shape of the series absolutely could have been season four of The Joe Schmo Show. Producers recruited an ordinary guy named Ronald to participate in what he’s told is a reality series about the inner workings of the legal system and the jury process. Ronald is curious about doing his civic duty, but the thing he doesn’t know is that every aspect of the trial that he’s been brought into is fake, from the case to the attorneys to the judge to the other members of his jury.

Ronald is surrounded by instigating characters including an old woman who keeps falling asleep during testimony, a religiously sheltered nerd and the flirt trying to deflower him, a gambling addict with an interest in a game that doesn’t actually exist, and James Marsden playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Sex Drive star James Marsden.

So the series revolves around Ronald’s experiences starting with voir dire through jury selection through the trial and deliberations and a verdict, as the producers and actors attempt to throw him with a series of variable absurdities.

To what end? Well, that’s unclear. In The Joe Schmo Show, the purpose was to see if the ordinary person would be able to figure out what was happening. That was how somebody would win. In The Rehearsal, there was no requirement of winning, but the show became structured more and more around Fielder’s exploration of himself and his insecurities and loneliness in a post-COVID world. In Paul T. Goldman, the series became more and more about using public humiliation as a vehicle for a weird, but thoroughly powerless, dude to learn to stop being a nudnik.

The show’s opening title card reads, “The following series explores the American judicial process as seen through the eyes of a jury,” which is obviously a joke, though it actually would have been a worthwhile goal. For maybe one episode, the one focused on deliberations, there’s a brief and earnest attempt to resolve a case — a civil trial involving a possibly inebriated employee maybe ruining a boss’ fashion business through public befouling — that isn’t real or interesting and makes no tangible legal sense as it’s been edited here. It’s neither celebratory of the system nor introspective. I don’t think there’s anything Ronald could have done to steer the show in the direction of substance.

It’s easier to see how Ronald could have made the show funny. He could have embraced the show’s staged zaniness — behind-the-scenes jury hookups, various things tied to Marsden’s celebrity status, bumbling legal hijinks — and been an eager participant either knowingly or unknowingly. I don’t know what that would have proven, but it would have escalated the comedy. Or he could have recognized the show’s artificiality and pushed against it, imposing a “Will he or won’t he?” comic tension as we awaited his inevitable discovery.

Instead, Ronald does the absolute worst thing possible for a show like this: He proves to be inoffensively decent. He isn’t righteous and courageous and principled, nor is he wrong-headed in any way that would give the show the opportunity for Paul T. Goldman-style shaming. He’s just… fine. He’s friendly and nice to people, understanding of their scripted eccentricities and generally curious to participate in the process. He’s agreeable, but to mis-paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, if you can mostly just smile and nod your head while those about you are losing theirs, then you’ll be a mighty boring television character, my son.

Ronald isn’t a black hole at the center of a show that’s supposed to be about his reactions to stuff, but he’s very much a beige hole. It’s a relief that the jokes here aren’t at Ronald’s expense. But I truly wonder how prepared the producers were to target him if he’d exhibited any traits that justified mockery and why they didn’t have a better target to turn to instead. There are jokes to be made about the jury process that go beyond, “Isn’t it hard to do daily lunch orders?” or “Sometimes reenactment animations are silly,” but Jury Duty does not know what those jokes are.

This leaves the various actors rather frantically staging a sitcom around a guy who’s just content to be there, even after 17 days of sequestration, and it’s a desperation that causes the format to make very little sense. The actors do their talking-head segments in character, rather than as actors, and they’re continuing to do comic bits even when Ronald isn’t present or necessarily paying attention, to such an extent that Ronald finally adds almost nothing at all to the show. It becomes a less amusing version of NBC’s mockumentary Trial & Error, only with a main character for whom nobody bothered to write material.

To be clear, a few of the bits being executed by the capable cast absolutely are funny, mostly as they relate to Marsden, who has always been an exceptional comic actor and happily spoofs his level of stardom and entitlement. But if you didn’t know better you’d think he was the star of Jury Duty, which he absolutely isn’t and shouldn’t be.

Otherwise, the balance of the show shifts toward the actors who are pushing hardest for laughs, because they’re the ones pushing hardest to get reactions from Ronald. That, in turn, makes it harder to fully understand why Ronald is so inexplicably and uncinematically chill. Still, I got chuckles from Mekhi Leeper, David Brown and Edy Modica.

The wishy-washy, unfocused nature of the comedy in Jury Duty leaves it without purpose, without target and, most unfortunately, without direction. The series builds to an eighth episode that feels the responsibility to be “conclusive” but it’s one moment after another of, “Yeah, that’s not a resolution that the show was building to, it’s just an end.” It’s hard to blame the producers of Jury Duty for not being able to salvage the show from their too-nice leading man and even harder to want to blame Ronald for being too nice.

The comedy stems almost entirely from Gladden’s natural reactions as the trial and tasks throughout the sequester become increasingly outlandish. Gladden puts himself out there within the three-week trial process, befriending his fellow jurors no matter their idiosyncrasies. The larger the responsibilities Gladden has as the trial furthers, the more he gets to know the jurors around him, befriending them and aiding them in various tasks out of the kindness of his heart. He helps James Marsden run lines for an audition, bonds with an introverted gadget fan and helps him break out of his shell, and acts as a wingman to a virgin with girlfriend problems wanting to hook up with a fellow juror who has a thing for him.

Every plot point during the trial, including physical comedy beats, propped-up paparazzi, video evidence mishaps, and awry field trips, is meticulously planned. As a camera control team helmed by director Jake Szymanski (“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”) hides in a room nearby, the crew finds a nice balance between throwing Gladden off his game and never positioning him as the butt of the joke. No mean-spirited malice is ever directed towards him by anyone, as he often laughs at the mild silliness thrown in his direction. The further the trial strings along, the less the style embodies the constructs of a prank show, and the more it becomes like an NBC workplace sitcom about eccentric jurors. Gladden might as well be the John Krasinski or Adam Scott type, the straight-man point of reference who tries to do the best in every silly situation he finds himself in.

Gladden’s genuine reactions are funny, expressing his silly side in the process. The best moments occur whenever he interacts with James Marsden and his showboating Primadonna persona. Marsden, being the only notable face, has Gladden a bit starstruck at first. The two list all the movies Marsden starred in, but Ron admits he didn’t see “Sonic the Hedgehog” because he heard “it sucked.” The laughs hit even harder as Gladden reveals a certain late 2000s raunchy comedy as his favorite Marsden movie, making it a running gag that always calls for a laugh whenever mentioned. Marsden is the show’s MVP, and he takes the comedy higher with his consistently obnoxious behavior and comic timing. He doesn’t share the same improv experience as his co-stars so it’s impressive how he always keeps it professional and commits to his diva demeanor with comical results.