June 9, 2023

Honing a premise for a comedy series into an engaging, cohesive, and ultimately funny show utilizing an existing style or format is a difficult task, though relatively common in today’s entertainment landscape. What is rarer to see is a series that trailblazes an entirely new comedic format in its premise. Amazon’s Jury Duty melds the mundane behaviors of The Office, the real-life social study of Nathan for You, and the basic concept of The Truman Show to create something special. The show follows the members of a jury trial that is entirely fake, a feat every actor in the show knows and upholds except one person: Ronald Gladden, who thinks everything happening is real. The gradually escalating moments of absurdity around Ronald allow for wickedly funny interactions and a compelling study of human nature.

‘Jury Duty’s Premise Is a Tricky One

Image via Freevee

Simply the act of creating something like Jury Duty is a logistical and artistic tour de force. Ronald enters this environment under the pretense that he has been summoned for jury duty alongside other normal citizens, all while a documentary crew follows their trial and process. This means that for the three-week shooting period of the trial, it was essential that the entire cast and crew maintain the facade of the show: a single slip could mean Ronald discovering what was really going on. Further complicating this concept is the fact that Ronald is, in many ways, an unpredictable variable in the trajectory of the show’s goals. The script for the show consisted of a series of bullet-point outlines for events that needed to transpire, meaning that no dialogue was written. The interactions rested on the improvisational skills of its supporting cast, one of whom is the recognizable face of James Marsden.

The cast and crew apparently underwent many rehearsals to prepare for any scenario Ronald might steer toward. The quick and collective responsiveness required from the creative team is staggering to imagine, as once the ball of the show starts rolling, there is no room for error. One unexpected conversation could mean the progression of events is shot, and one slip-up means the illusion is shattered.

The Cast Makes It Work

James Marsden in JURY DUTY
Image via Freevee

Aside from Ronald, the characters portrayed by each actor are crafted in relation to one another to achieve the most mileage possible. Like the cast of ‘The Office,’ these characters have echoes of comedic roots in commedia dell’arte, a form of Italian comedy from the 16th to 18th centuries that relied heavily on a stock set of character archetypes. Status, mischief, and love were as central of themes in these commedia troupes as they remain in Jury Duty, further signifying the importance of its innovative premise.

Adding to the excitement of the series is the potential for opportunities this show may offer to the actors in its supporting cast. The entire conceit hinges on a group of gifted yet unknown comedians who are now receiving the recognition they deserve. The comedic and improvisational talent required in undertaking a conceit of this scale cannot be overstated as the cast toes the line between plausibly believable and hilariously absurd for Ronald so perfectly, constantly nudging against any normal person’s social generosity.

‘A Hero’s Journey’

Ronald Gladden in Jury Duty.

Though Jury Duty has all the pieces of a prank show, the series is much more enjoyable to watch due to its framing. The joke is never on Ronald. The cast always pulls any potentially embarrassing or outlandish antics onto themselves, merely providing invitations for Ronald to help them through their troubles. And help he does, because above all else in this show: Ronald is a good guy. This element is key to the show’s success in the way it poises Ronald as a hero of human nature. There are several instances of character interaction that seem to be scripted with the purpose of razzing Ronald into understandable aggravation, but he never stoops to it. Bordering on monastic in his generous spirit, Ronald gives his fellow jury members the benefit of the doubt time and time again.

In a podcast interview discussing the show, James Marsden stated, “What we’re doing is creating a hero’s journey for this guy. We’re surrounding him with odd, weird circumstances… but I just want to make sure this won’t get cruel… I can’t do anything that’s going to humiliate him.” Instead of laughing at the guy who isn’t in on the joke, Jury Duty presents Ronald with a series of opportunities to show his nature and desire to help others. This goodwill offered to Ronald makes the show both hilarious and inspiring to watch, shining a light on the highest peaks of human decency.

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