Hidden away on a strange subscription streaming service that you don’t actually have to subscribe to is a strange reality TV show that isn’t actually a reality show. Rather, it’s a show that’s been meticulously scripted, cast, and produced to emulate reality for one—and only one—of its cast members. The show is Jury Duty, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since it concluded its Season 1 run a few weeks ago, around the same time that clips of its absurdly funny courtroom scenes unexpectedly blew up on TikTok and made a celebrity of its unwitting star, Ronald Gladden, who is now the main character of a series of fan edits all about the fact that he’s simultaneously nice and 6-foot-6.
In the Amazon Freevee hit, a fake court case is tried by fake lawyers in front of a fake jury made up of 11 actors and one nonactor. There is a courtroom full of people who know that the case is fake, the proceedings are scripted, and the judge is Ike Barinholtz’s dad. The twist, of course, is that there’s one juror who thinks it’s all real: Ronald, a deeply normal man from San Francisco who responded to a Craigslist ad asking for people interested in participating in a “documentary” while serving on a civil jury. Because of a paparazzi incident involving A-list sweetie James Marsden (playing a fictional bag-of-dicks version of James Marsden), the entire jury is forced to be sequestered for the duration of the two-week trial. It’s a genius concept teetering on an ethical tightrope, with precisely one human maintaining the balance.
Luckily, the series cast Ronald as its axis. He’s a man with a well of empathy, grace, and patience so deep that not even the universally mundane experience of jury duty, as written by former writers on The Office Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, can drain it. It’s all in the name of tricking a man into thinking he’s participating in the most ludicrous trial of all time and—oops!—making a little found family of freaks, geeks, and Marsdens along the way. It’s weird, and it’s lovely, and sometimes you feel a little weird about thinking that a prank is lovely at all, but thus is the power of a great protagonist. Thus is the power of Ronald.
Prank shows have existed as far back as the mid-20th century, when Candid Camera ran practical jokes on unexpecting civilians, and they remained a pop culture mainstay in the early aughts when Ashton Kutcher donned a Von Dutch hat to torment Justin Timberlake on Punk’d. But there’s nothing practical about an entire courtroom of actors staying in character for 16 days straight, and Ronald isn’t the butt of the joke here. He’s the hero of a story that’s being written based on the decisions that he makes, each one somehow more kind and generous than the one before.
Jury Duty also isn’t reality TV, not exactly. But it is what reality TV has long been accused of being: scripted stories crafted by producers and enacted by an all too willing cast. That kind of reality TV as we know it—The Real Housewives, The Bachelor, The Hills—typically runs on villains. Lisa Rinna says Yolanda Hadid has Munchausen syndrome (well, she repeats that Yolanda Hadid may have Munchausen syndrome), and that’s enough fodder to propel an entire season of television because the reactions to that bomb, whether it was planted by a producer or not, are very real. Gary King pathologically hits on every stewardess who steps foot on a Below Deck Sailing Yacht boat, and we’ve got a season-long love triangle on our hands, no script necessary. Reality TV is all about casting the right antagonists because the best reality TV is all about watching people perform at the wildest peaks of human behavior. And, typically, the bad peaks are the most interesting. Jury Duty, though, posits that if you make the surroundings absurd enough, and if you cast characters so specific that you really believe their whole deal is being “the owner of two gumball machines and one sticker machine” or the inventor of bespoke chair pants (#chants), and if you make the only real asshole in the room an A-list actor showing off his under-explored comedic chops, then a person exhibiting the absolute best of human behavior might be just as interesting as people behaving badly. And way funnier.
There’s a moment in Episode 3 when you know that Jury Duty is something beyond just a marathon prank show. A character named Todd (played with unbelievable specificity by David Brown, who currently has just a handful of acting credits to his name, and who I think might be a genius) has clearly been cast to frustrate Ronald—the Dwight to Ronald’s Jim. He’s an oddball inventor obsessed with hacking the human body’s potential, and he’s staying in the room adjoining Ronald’s. Todd immediately comes up with a secret code of knocks they should use to communicate that he puts on a note and slips under the door into Ronald’s room in the middle of the night. But Ronald doesn’t ignore Todd; he doesn’t tease him for wanting to be his friend or try to make him act more normal. He shows him A Bug’s Life, the 1998 Pixar film, which, per Ronald, “is about this bug making these inventions. … He’s trying to introduce technology into their lives, and that’s exactly what Todd is wanting to do.” Ronald thinks it’s really cool that Todd is passionate about his inventions, including but not limited to a Bluetooth headphone shaped like a human ear and a removable extra row of teeth to help him eat faster, like a shark. Ronald wants to let Todd know that he might feel misunderstood, like the bug from the 1998 Pixar film A Bug’s Life, but Ronald gets it: “All [Todd’s] trying to do is just help in his own way.”
Watching these two grown men watch a Pixar film together—one in character, and one so earnest it hurts—is enough to make you weep. Because just as shocking as, say, Erika Jayne’s outsized response to being called a liar on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is Ronald’s outsized acceptance of his strange and often high-maintenance fellow jurors.
And like most reality shows, Jury Duty invites its audience to reflect on what we might do if thrust into these same situations … and I’ll tell ya: What’s reflected back to me is not pretty! I am no Ronald. First of all, I cannot imagine looking at a stack of DVDs in a sequestration room and deciding to revisit A Bug’s Life. But also, I can pinpoint about 30 times through the course of Jury Duty’s eight episodes when I would have called shenanigans out of sheer frustration and impatience. A list of things that, on any given day, could annoy me enough to make me assume I’ve been cast in some elaborate prank because there’s no way this could really be happening to me might include someone walking too slowly in front of me on the sidewalk; someone passing me on the sidewalk; anyone not walking the exact same speed that I have decided to walk that day, from the exact distance that I deem appropriate.
But nothing annoys Ronald—he is positively overrun with empathy and grace for the people he has been placed in a jury box with. The meanest thing he ever does is accidentally tell James Marsden that he heard Sonic wasn’t a very good movie before realizing that Marsden is in Sonic. But then he watches Sonic that night and tells Marsden the next morning that it’s hilarious to make up for it. (Marsden asks whether he streamed it or bought it because if he bought it, Marsden would get a dollar. It is my greatest hope that Marsden improvised that line.) There’s plenty to marvel over when it comes to how on earth the Jury Duty team pulled this incredible feat of scripted reality TV off, but there were also quite a few times the jig absolutely would’ve, could’ve, and by all means should’ve been up if not for its hero’s winning enthusiasm (and occasional yet pleasant pop culture naivete). Here are Jury Duty’s breaking points, ranked from least to most egregious.
Casting Sewage Joe
Something is going to happen when you first try to get other people to watch Jury Duty. They’ll watch the trailer, look at the poster, or listen to only half of your thoughtful and persuasive argument, and then they’ll say: “OK, this dude would immediately recognize James Marsden and know that these are actors.” At which point you’ll explain (again) that he’s supposed to recognize Marsden, who has put aside all actorly ego to play an outlandish narcissist version of himself, throwing Ronald even further off the scent that this situation might be fake …
Instead, the actual casting hiccup comes when Kirk Fox shows up in the jury box, at which point I think almost any human with a television would be like, “Wait, is that Sewage Joe?” Most of these other perfect, amazing, genius comedic actors aren’t (excuse me, weren’t) household faces, but Sewage Joe from Parks and Recreation? The guy who’s constantly telling Leslie Knope she’s got a bangin’ dumpster? I’m sorry, but Ronald, who later fanboys to Marsden about fellow Parks and Rec standout Ben Schwartz, didn’t recognize Sewage Joe, a “that guy” if ever there was one? I guess we’ll just chalk this one up to facial blindness.
Noah’s Family Guy Offense
One of the most delicious behind-the-scenes reveals in the final episode is that the writers had plotted for Noah (Mekki Leeper, also a writer on the show) to lure Ronald into repeating a Family Guy plot wherein Peter claims to be racist to get out of jury duty, but they ultimately scrapped it because it was too outlandish—only for Ronald to get there totally on his own. The look of delight on Leeper’s face when Ronald offers the Family Guy plot up as a way to get out of jury duty (but insists it’s not a suggestion!) is topped only by Ronald’s look of pure horror when Noah looks over at him and then rattles off, “Uh, I’m a racist” when asked why he can’t serve on the jury. The fact that Noah never publicly seems to blame this on Ronald is, I can assume, the only reason Ronald did not go running for the hills.
Tim’s Origami Cranes
Hands down, the first funniest thing to happen in this show full of the funniest things is when one of the jurors, Tim (Brandon Loeser, an actual stuntperson), falls off a bookshelf and has to be removed from the case. Sitting with the rest of the jury, talking to the “documentary” producers, Ronald slowly realizes that every single one of the other jurors has made a meaningful connection with Tim over the course of a few days—a connection so meaningful that Tim gifted an origami crane to each of the other jurors except Ronald. Ronald tells the group that he’s mostly exchanged simple pleasantries with Tim, but we know that they have had one deeper exchange: the one when Tim passed by Ronald and told him that he was gonna go “rub one out” in the bathroom. Ronald uncomfortably chirped back, “Yep, do it while you have the time!” Even in the face of courthouse masturbation, Ronald is unerringly supportive.
Episode 5 of Jury Duty is one of the most chaotic episodes of television I’ve ever seen, and I’m currently watching the Roy children compete to be Daddy’s biggest little idiot each week on Succession. It ends at Margaritaville, where the jurors run up a check that Marsden then agrees to pay in exchange for Ronald arm wrestling him. But it starts with a moment in the warehouse that causes the always calm and collected Ronald to exclaim, “What the fuck is going on?!”
Throughout the eight episodes, Ronald is unexpectedly very into the nearly incomprehensible court proceedings, and fellow juror Lonnie (Ishmel Sahid) matches him beat for beat on their amateur investigator shit. When they’re let loose in the warehouse to explore the scene of the alleged accident, they wander up to a storage room that is filled with strange chemical smells, discarded T-shirts that the prosecution said were lost, a slew of creepy mannequins … and Todd, hidden in the dark among the mannequins, “seeing what facts about them [he] could discern.” Lonnie seems legitimately mad at Todd for creeping around in the dark, causing Todd to panic and leading Ronald to stop hysterically laughing long enough to reassure Todd that it’s fine, there’s nothing to worry about. Truly, the only thing keeping this man from noticing that he’s living inside an SNL skit is his pathological desire to make others feel better. What is his deal?!
I admit that the ranking of this one could be subjective. But as a work-from-home little weirdo myself, my truest hell is rallying a group of strangers to make a Panera Bread order in a timely manner. Doing it every day for 16 days might not be enough to make me realize I’m in a Truman Show–style human experiment, but it would be enough for me to jimmy open a bathroom window and take whatever fine comes with being in contempt of court. (The fact that the judge made Ronald foreperson because he thought he made the final lunch order? I’m absolutely seething.)
The Inept Defense
Not all breaking points on Jury Duty are about questioning your own reality or battling your own ethics—some are just about wondering how the hell Ronald didn’t laugh. A defining feature of the fake trial is that the defense is a disaster. The defendant’s lawyer (Evan Williams, also a writer on the show, also a real attorney) spends what feels like days hyping up an animated reenactment video that will rival the one the prosecution showed in their opening statement. But then he has the jury watch a video on his iPad that looks like a game of Minecraft got stuck in the Upside Down, before he mutters, “I’m gonna have to have a talk with my nephew.”
It’s later revealed that the actors hadn’t seen the video before filming with Ronald, which is why they’re all on the verge of breaking into laughter. But not Ronald—no, he’s just disappointed that the defense wasn’t able to come up with better arguments.
Genevieve Telford Warren
The first time I ever caught wind of Jury Duty, it was from a TikTok of Genevieve Telford Warren (Lisa Gilroy, my god) explaining her occupation as a social media brand ambassador who does brand negotiations for her dog and is also a corporate, personal, and public DJ, as well as a dormant certified lash tech and an occasional actor and model.
this scene gave major office vibes #juryduty #jurydutyonfreevee #tvshow #funny #theoffice #comedy♬ original sound - kesha
Everything Gilroy does in her few moments on the stand is so perfectly calibrated and hilarious. She uses the word “also” like an artist uses a paintbrush, and it’s bonkers that she’s doing it in one take for the sake of one guy who doesn’t know she’s acting. It is simply incredible that Ronald doesn’t laugh during any of her testimony or immediately ask, “Say, is this witness actually a skilled front-facing-camera comedian, and am I being elaborately Punk’d right now?” Gilroy deserves an Emmy just for the way that she explains three alternating skull emojis as “bones with more bones, and then just the bones, and then bones with other bones.”
Lisa Gilroy rules! Thanks for watching!— ross kimball (@therosskimball) April 30, 2023
Marsden’s Audition Tape
Almost all the top moments that would have caused me to personally hit fake jury duty with a real “smell ya later” involve fake James Marsden. He’s the cast’s only true antagonist, and even Ronald gets frustrated with him at times—but he almost always gives Marsden a second chance. During one of their days off, Ronald even agrees to help him with an audition tape for the alleged Quentin Tarantino Western he won’t shut up about. And I genuinely think that whatever immunity Ronald has to secondhand embarrassment should be studied and reproduced en masse. For me personally, taking a little of whatever he’s got would certainly make watching The Bachelor a lot easier.
It’s not that Marsden is bad during the taping—he’s actually kind of incredible just rattling off lines from a heinous fake script. It’s that he keeps giving Ronald acting notes that Ronald then willingly applies to this little scene. A scene that includes lines like “It’s important to feel stuff, Caleb.” It is important to feel stuff, and I feel horrified by how long Ronald has to run lines with fake Marsden—especially because of the more horrifying things that are happening in between …
While James and Ronald are rehearsing his audition, they’re frequently interrupted by Noah, who by that point has drunkenly broken up with his girlfriend after seeing a photo of her with another man with an erection that was highly analyzed by the sharpest-eyed jury in this fake courthouse. The breakup finally gives Jeannie (Edy Modica, effortlessly hilarious) her chance to cash in on the crush on Noah she’s been harboring since she first spotted him in the waiting room and correctly assessed that he looks like Christopher Robin. It’s never directly said that Noah is a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, but between his short-sleeve dress shirts, tie pins, and knowledge of soaking, it’s more than implied. (Yes, that soaking!)
Noah first interrupts James and Ronald to ask Ronald to wingman for him while talking to Jeannie (this is when Ronald gives his now notorious full-door lean, and if this man had any sense of how wonderful he is, he’d know that no real person would ever want to ask for his help trying to get the girl). Unfortunately, he wingmans a little too close to the sun, and now Jeannie wants to get more comfortable with Noah. Soon, Noah is frantically explaining the infamous act of “soaking” to Ronald and Marsden, who interprets it as “parking the car in the garage” while someone else bounces on the bed. Ronald says he’s willing to support Noah in any way he can, “short of me jumping on the bed.” At which point, Marsden agrees to jump on the bed while Noah parks his car in Jeannie’s garage …
To which Ronald is just like, sure, this seems normal, and wraps up their self-tape, sending the star of The Notebook on his way to help two strangers have sex. (Ronald actually does say, “This seems like a reality TV show” a number of times throughout production, but never with enough force to make the producers come out of their little hidey-holes and say, “OK, you got us there!”)
Marsden’s Giant Shit
If you can believe it, there is a C-plot at play during the soaking and audition scenes. The first time Noah interrupts, James goes into the bathroom and doesn’t come out for a long time. When Ronald comes back to his hotel room, there’s an awful smell, and Marsden says he wasn’t able to take a leak because, unfortunately, the toilet was full of giant, unflushable turds. The smell forces them to relocate, and when a plumber later shows up to get Ronald’s room key, James Marsden blames the giant shit on Ronald. He goes on to explain that, yes, he did clog the toilet, but he can’t risk a tabloid running that story, so Ronald takes the blame for James Marsden’s giant shit. Ronald does not even like this guy! (Although he does respect him as an actor, and gets him to sign a copy of Sex Drive, perhaps the only James Marsden movie I’d never heard of, now available to stream on—you guessed it—Freevee.)
Todd’s Chair Pants
There is nothing funnier on Jury Duty—and maybe nothing funnier in the world—than Todd revealing, wrestling with, and then ultimately removing his chair pants … the chair built into his pants … his chants. Which is to say that if I ever saw something this funny happening in my real life, I might have to pause and wonder, “Am I being Jury Duty’d right now?”
But not Ronald. He doesn’t laugh at Todd as he painfully folds himself into the van (the only challenge of chair pants is interacting with other chairs); he doesn’t question his own reality as he calmly explains to the courthouse security guard that the crutches attached directly to Todd’s butt are “a chair for him.” He just shows Todd A Bug’s Life and gives him a mall makeover complete with a Members Only jacket to make him feel more confident. After Todd’s been forced to remove his DIY exoskeleton in a very public corner of the juror’s box, Ronald tells him that he shouldn’t be embarrassed: “You take some risks—not all of ’em pay off,” he simply and kindly puts it.
You can’t really know how you’ll handle a situation until you’re in it. That’s why most people watch reality TV—to get a taste of life’s many potential scenarios without actually having to risk surviving on rice for 30 days, or living in a house with six strangers, or working alongside Jax Taylor at a restaurant owned by Lisa Vanderpump. Would you triumph in those situations? Would you go full Lisa Rinna, wield a broken wine glass, and throw bacon turkey bravo sandwiches around the sequestration room until someone tells you if you’ve been put into a jury duty simulation costarring James Marsden? Would you support a new friend in his quest to never not be wearing a chair? Ronald Gladden can actually answer these questions now—and based on his stunningly compassionate reactions to all of the above, it’s safe to say that he availed himself better than maybe any other human could.