Two decades ago, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese—aka the guys behind the Deadpool movies—created a series called The Joe Schmo Show where one real guy competed on a completely phony reality show where everyone but him was an actor. It was a lot of fun right up until the moment it became clear that it was also very mean. Joe Schmo hadn’t done anything to anyone, and while he did get the ultimate prize that he thought he was competing for, it still felt uncomfortably manipulative by the end.
That sort of thing has been attempted a few times since, most notably in Joe Schmo sequel shows with slightly different premises, and it has since been completely replaced by wholly fictional shows that present themselves like documentaries—poking fun at the reality concept without bullying anyone—but the reason that concept doesn’t work so well anymore might not be because it’s too mean. Based on Amazon Freevee’s new comedy series Jury Duty, it might actually be because today’s Joe Schmoes are too eager to accept the outrageous behavior of their fellow man. Bizarre as it may seem, we as a society may have simply become too nice.
The premise of Jury Duty is as elegant as it is weirdly complex: Under the impression that he’s participating in a documentary about the jury duty process, normal guy Ronald shows up to do his part in supporting the American justice system. Unbeknownst to him, everyone he interacts with from that point on—the bailiff, the judge, the other potential jurors he sees in the waiting room—are all actors. The show even cleverly lampshades this by making one of the potential jurors an actual actor: James Marsden, playing a more pretentious version of himself, as he repeatedly tries to get out of jury duty so he can get to a big audition.
An early scene when all of the jurors are mingling in a waiting room is the most dynamic one in the whole season, because it’s one of the few times where everything that happens is dependent on how Ronald reacts to the world that Jury Duty has created around him. James Marsden the character is mildly offended that Ronald doesn’t immediately recognize him, but Marsden the actor is clearly tickled by the fact that Ronald eventually puts it together that he was in Sex Drive—a movie that gets referenced more times in this series than ever before in history.
There’s also a nervous young man who wants to get out of jury duty because he has a big trip planned with his girlfriend, and when he asks Ronald for any ideas on how to get sent home, his only suggestion is to pretend to be racist like Peter did in an episode of Family Guy. And the guy tries it! And it goes poorly! But it’s notable that it’s not Ronald himself who does it, because he’s just happy to be there, happy to interact with the various interesting people (comedy characters) who surround him. He’s too easygoing to have any negative reaction to these people, even when they lie about medical conditions that prevent them from sitting or when they do weird stuff with chair-pants made out of repurposed crutches.
To the extent that it’s a problem, that’s the problem with Jury Duty. Ronald is a good guy who wants to be friendly with everyone around him—especially when they all have to be sequestered and live together in a hotel for a few weeks without any contact with the outside world—which means he doesn’t really drive any of the plot. When someone tells him something strange, or when the judge somewhat inexplicably names him the foreperson of the jury, he just accepts it with good humor and moves on. Because what else would someone do in that situation? You know you’re being filmed, even if you think it’s a documentary, and an authority figure says that he trusts you with an important responsibility. You’re not going to refuse, you’re just going to accept it and live your life.
Jury Duty is also largely built around the assumption that Ronald will accept anything they throw at him, because there is a surprising amount of plot and some of it happens when he’s not around or paying attention. If he’s not having a funny reaction to a wacky sex farce happening offscreen, it’s fine because someone else is ready to do it anyway.
It’s smart, since it keeps the show from ever feeling like it’s putting too much on Ronald’s shoulders—since he’s the one person who doesn’t really know why he’s there—but at the same time it sometimes makes Jury Duty feel like two shows: One about a good-natured guy trying to wrap his head around an increasingly silly court case, and one that’s an Office-style workplace comedy about the goofy characters sequestered together for jury duty. (Somewhat oddly, there is an alternate juror who hangs around for the whole season, seemingly implying that Ronald could just leave and everything would happen in the exact same way.)
Ultimately, that’s the thing that makes Jury Duty a little less exciting than it could’ve been, but also significantly less abusive toward Ronald. Yes, he’s being put into weird situations so the cameras can catch his reaction (like being asked to run the same two lines from a script with Marsden over and over and over again with imperceptible differences), but it’s always the people he’s interacting with who are the butt of the joke. Part of that is because Ronald is, again, just a nice easygoing guy who doesn’t seem like he would ever laugh at someone out of cruelty, but it’s also because the whole nature of Jury Duty is that they’re just putting on a show for him. They’re not faking any games or stunts, like they would on The Joe Schmo Show, they’re giving this guy a good time and then sort of sitting back in amazement when he just lets it happen and accepts everyone for who they are—or who they’re pretending to be, at least.
It’s interesting, then, that they don’t ever get into what Ronald is like in his real life. He doesn’t seem to have been chosen for this because he had some special story to share, or his friends put him up to it, or because he Deserves It for some reason. He’s an everyman in a way that you don’t normally see in reality TV, let alone complicated phony reality TV, and so it’s Good and Nice that the show ultimately reveals that it’s not really a prank on anyone. It’s just a bunch of people having a good time, and one of them eventually discovers that it was all done for his benefit. It’s like showing up at a birthday party, having a fun with new friends, and then realizing that everyone is singing for you and waiting for you to blow out the candles.