Borat changed everything. British comedian and provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen had first created the streetwise alter ego of Ali G—a self-proclaimed streetwise oaf borrowing heavily and obliviously from elements of black culture—but television had never been short on fools, or even foolish interviewers. It was with Borat Sagdiyev that Cohen found a truly universal character—a fictitious and ridiculously regressive Kazakhstani journalist—that allowed his satire to take aim at a society and not idiotic individuals. As Borat (in the 2006 film Borat) came to America fuelled by love for Baywatch actor Pamela Anderson, Cohen’s freakish character interacted (mostly) with real, unsuspecting Americans who had no idea the joke was on them.
The tables are reversed in Jury Duty (Amazon Prime Video), a series where the man at the centre of a trial is a real person, but everything and everyone around him—from the suspects to his fellow jurors to the trial itself—is fictitious. Imagine if The Truman Show was a legal sitcom.
It’s fascinating. Created by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky—both of whom worked on the US adaptation of The Office—the series gives us a detailed look into the minutiae of the jury system. We are seeing it all play out through the (often incredulous) eyes of Ronald Gladden, a young man thrust into a menagerie of actors, all playing characters, all engaged solemnly in a make-believe trial. At a time when reality TV often feels too scripted, a concept like this feels refreshingly clutter-breaking. Jury Duty is a comedy, sure, but it’s also a social experiment where an everyman finds himself the centre of attention in a fabricated courtroom drama.
Not only is Ronald — an affable and pleasant fellow with a seemingly infinite reservoir of patience— surrounded by outlandish characters and situations, but there’s a Hollywood star in the mix. James Marsden plays an exaggerated and pompous caricature of himself, and this “James Marsden” wants to be a bigger deal than he is. Even Ronald only vaguely recognises Marsden—who, while being in the X-Men movies, is not a superstar on the level of Hugh Jackman, who broke out with those films. Marsden, with a long filmography of interesting and offbeat roles, lives on the brink on recognisability. Far from being a household name, he has to remind people where they may have seen him.
“Ally McBeal season 5?” Marsden says, hopefully, wondering where a judge would know him from. The actor has a rollicking time, all hubris and swagger, with even a bit of role-play as he prepares to audition for a salt-of-the-earth character (while admitting he doesn’t even read his Amex receipts). The Marsden character works because none of the other characters pay him any heed or treat him as important, and while Ronald happily brings a Sex Drive DVD for the actor to sign, Marsden’s lack of significance is the joke. When asked in court if he has served on any juries before, Marsden replies, drily: “Cannes.”
The characters are mostly archetypes, but—seeing how the actors had to stay in character throughout filming, even as the “jurors” were sequestered together in hotels—the cast really deserves applause. Alan Barinholtz is great as the Judge, reminiscent of Fred Gwynne in the unforgettable 1992 legal comedy My Cousin Vinny. Edy Modica plays a Twix-stealing “anarchist” called Jeannie, who has her eyes desperately on Noah, played by Mekki Leeper, who, in turn, has ill-advisedly taken Ronald’s advice to get out of jury duty by way of something Ronald ‘learnt’ watching Family Guy: pretend to be racist. This, as can be imagined, doesn’t turn out well.
Ronald gamely takes on all the bizarreness thrown his way with a smile ,and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of patience. This is in stark contrast to Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, which delighted in creating absurdly elaborate worlds (à la Synecdoche, New York) purely in order to confound the people Fielder had coaxed into being on camera. Even in a prank show, the joke rests entirely on the victim’s cluelessness. Jury Duty, conversely, is all about niceness. Ronald is wonderful to his fellow jurors, patient and reasonable and eventually responsible, and while this may be a letdown comedically speaking—it is far more memorable to see the victim unravel in the face of scripted chaos—it’s good to see the everyman lionised.
Jury Duty is as an acquittal of the jury system—in as much as the system may need a comedy series to judge it—simply because it serves as a reminder that we are in good hands with people like Ronald Gladden at the till. Cynically speaking, it could of course be said that Ronald, performing in front of visible cameras for what he thought was a documentary about the jury system, had his best foot forward. He may be playing nicer than he is because the cameras are running. Then again, isn’t that how we should all be when under oath?
There has been no better film on the jury system than Sidney Lumet’s 1957 masterpiece 12 Angry Men. The film, available to rent on Amazon Video, is an exploration of the biases we all carry within, and about the almighty importance of ‘reasonable doubt.’
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.