NEW YORK — So many people want to get out of jury duty these days because they think it’s boring or a waste of time. A new TV series shows it can be fun. Bonkers even.
“Jury Duty” from Amazon Freevee is an elaborate ruse of a show that builds an entire judicial system around one unsuspecting regular Joe. The judge is fake, the defense team and prosecutors are fake and his fellow 11 jurors are fake — all superb improv comedians.
“It was the wildest experience I’ve ever done as an actor and kind of one of the most rewarding experiences,” says James Marsden, who plays a horribly conceited version of himself as a juror.
“In this business where it really feels like there’s not a lot of original work out there or original ideas, this felt like something that we’ve never seen before.”
It’s got elements of “The Office,” “Big Brother,” “The Truman Show” and “Punk’d.” It feels utterly unique by finding Ronald Gladden, a solar contractor from San Diego, and putting him inside Huntington Park Superior Court in Los Angeles County for what could be described as a televised social experiment.
Gladden is told there’s a documentary film crew capturing a property trial for public television, but he doesn’t know that he’s surrounded by actors, who are often being odd. Over three and a half weeks of filming, viewers see Gladden keep the jury together and come to a decision.
“We never wanted to do a show where we were punching down and that Ronald was the butt of the joke,” says co-creator and executive producer Lee Eisenberg. “I think that the show has a warmth and an optimism and feels winning, while still being hilarious and weird and surprising.”
In each of the eight episodes, the improv actors stay in character as they interact with Gladden, ordering lunch, going out for drinks and even poking around the crime scene. Gladden later tells us his candid thoughts during confessional camera sit-downs, like on “The Office.”
Two jurors hook up with his help and one needs him to wake her up constantly. He helps Marsden run lines for a fictional film and sees the defense counsel implode. “Maybe this is common,” Gladden says in one confession. “I don’t know. But I feel like this can’t be that common because just crazy stuff keeps happening.”
Marsden, whose Hollywood credits include “27 Dresses” and the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movies, turned into what he calls a “very entitled, self-involved version of James Marsden” — a vain actor, eager for attention.
Marsden also insisted that “Jury Duty” not become a prank show and helped create a hero’s journey for Gladden. “We lay out a path in front of him to become the leader of this ragtag group of weirdos and unify us all by the end of it,” he says.
“We’re kind of playing God a little bit in this. I needed to make sure it was more than just getting a laugh out of it,” Marsden adds. “It had to have more heart than that. And I think it does.”
Participants described an unusual filming process in which there was no set daily dialogue, only possible scenarios and ideas to explore with Gladden as improv actors tapped in or out.
“You had to be very nimble. But I think that was the exciting part of it. I wasn’t seeing script pages in my head. I didn’t have a director talking in my ear. It was like you’re on the fly and you’ve got to flow with it. And that was really, really rewarding and fun,” Masden says.
There was one time when Marsden left the sequestered jury room, saying he needed to visit the bathroom, and instead snuck into the production control room to discuss funny ways to keep a scenario going.
The cast had to make sure they didn’t push the comedy too much to prevent Gladden from becoming suspicious. One day after it got too bizarre, the actors said nothing funny and court proceedings droned on to keep Gladden off their scent. After the reveal, Gladden and the cast have remained friendly and have hung out.
Eisenberg says the series has positive things to say about jury duty, which often brings together a cross-section of a city or a county.
“You have to come together. You have to listen. You have to think. You have to have compassion. You have to drop your biases, and you have to come to a decision,” he says. “When you put people together in a closed environment, I think you discover that we have more in common than you realize.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits