‘Jury Duty’ Is Nice Nathan Fielder
As far as 29-year-old solar contractor Ronald Gladden is concerned, Jury Duty — premiering April 7th on Freevee — is a documentary about the process of serving on an ordinary jury trial in Southern California. People from all walks of life are summoned to report, wait in run-down rooms in shabby civic buildings and generally hope not to get called. What Ronald doesn’t know is that there was never a chance that he wouldn’t get called, because the “documentary” is actually a semi-scripted comedy in which every person involved in the case except Ronald is an actor.
Critics and commentators have drawn comparisons to The Truman Show, The Joe Schmo Show and the oeuvres of Sacha Baron Cohen and Nathan Fielder. But all I could think, throughout the eight-episode season, is whether the high-concept meta-comedy needs to lie fallow for a decade or so. Day-to-day life is challenging enough for most regular people. Must we also trick them into entertaining us?
To be clear: This is a very diverse genre, and I have enjoyed a lot of its permutations. You will struggle to find a more devoted Jackass fan than I, including when the show’s cast is just goofing around with regular people.
And the various Cunk On series have distinguished themselves by making British academics play along with the eponymous host’s dumbest questions.
But even Diane Morgan, who’s played Philomena Cunk on various British shows since the mid-2010s, admitted in a recent appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers that the profs “Philomena” interviews have by and large figured out that she’s an actor. The Jackass boys, meanwhile, never prank anyone as savagely as they prank each other, and have earned praise in the 2020s for their positive and welcoming vision of masculinity.
More recently, though, comedies that blur the line between comedy and reality have been notably sour in tone. Last summer, HBO premiered Fielder’s latest project, The Rehearsal, which he created and in which he stars. Craigslist users who responded to Fielder’s ad — “TV opportunity: Is there something you’re avoiding?” — subjected themselves to his process. Fielder created extremely detailed replicas of his participants’ most familiar environments, and helped them prepare for hard conversations or major life changes by practicing them, opposite actors playing real people they know, over and over again. As in Fielder’s earlier Comedy Central show, Nathan for You, the humor derives from the normie participants’ awkwardness or inexperience or willingness to play the parts they think Fielder wants them to — unlike Nathan for You, the object is not business success but emotional connection.
“Arrogant, cruel, and, above all, indifferent,” wrote Richard Brody of Fielder in The New Yorker. In The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg’s mostly positive review also noted that it “provokes a consistent desire to curl up in a corner, rocking back and forth at the alienation of humanity circa 2022.” Some might report experiencing a contact anxiety attack from an uncomfortably long shot of the first-episode participant, Kor Skeete, visibly avoiding blurting a confession to someone he’s been friends with for decades, and when I say “some,” I mean me — and I might never get over it.
Peacock’s Paul T. Goldman, which premiered January 1st, is even harder to describe than The Rehearsal. After a terrible divorce from a woman he feels deceived him, the titular Paul (whose real surname is Finkelman) writes and self-publishes a book about his ordeal. Eventually he adapts it as a screenplay, and starts cold-@-ing filmmakers on Twitter. Years after Paul’s initial contact, we are told, comedy director Jason Woliner (who also worked on Nathan for You) reached out, and the two collaborated on an eight-episode series, during the course of which Woliner starts to interrogate how much of Paul’s story conforms with the facts, and how much of Paul’s writing is a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a life in which he is not a victim. Paul T. Goldman starts out as a hilarious look at a strange man who willingly volunteered to tell his story, but by the end, you may feel queasy about having spent so many hours laughing at, not with, a person whose grasp on reality is an open question.
Jury Duty seems, at first, as though it could be another mean-spirited outing, with Ronald the butt of the joke. Less than a minute into the series premiere, the premise has been gravely spelled out in a series of text screens, and outlandish events from future episodes — a juror being wheeled out by EMTs, an elderly juror applauding a witness in court — have been montaged. In a solo interview, Ronald comments that “crazy stuff keeps happening!” Crazy stuff, in fact, starts immediately: A prospective juror says she shoplifted candy from a nearby gift shop; another is so intense about his hydration that he causes his neighbor to change seats; the actor James Marsden, as himself, reports to answer a summons. But based on this edit, no one is out to make Ronald look foolish. Most of the people around him — from the Mormon who doesn’t want to serve because he’ll miss his first vacation with his girlfriend that their parents aren’t also taking, to the high school teacher who tries to claim his students as children who’d suffer if he were seated, to James Marsden trying to act like a big shot in his label-less incognito baseball cap — are far bigger fools.
In terms of the show premise, I wanted to buy in. I like to laugh! I like James Marsden! But I remain dubious about it. I don’t believe that one of the first things Ronald would say to Marsden after recognizing him is that any of his movies are bad — not even Sonic the Hedgehog. I don’t believe Ronald would fail to recognize his fellow juror “Pat McCurdy” — actually the character actor Kirk Fox — from any of Fox’s 74 credits, including 10 episodes of Parks & Recreation. I don’t believe that so much footage of the actors in character needed to be shot when Ronald wasn’t around. And I definitely don’t believe that, if an actor as famous as James Marsden were as obnoxious as Jury Duty’s “James Marsden,” the non-celebrities who observed it would talk about anything else whenever he left the room.
But as hard as it is for me to believe, I guess everything we see is real, and I don’t see any benefit to becoming a rabid Jury Duty truther. If such a community were to arise, though, I took notes and I can share them.
As bad as The Rehearsal made me feel — and I truly cannot overstate how awful it made me feel — it does, as Kathryn VanArendonk notes in her review at Vulture, have ambitions, and a point to make: “Everything Fielder does is an unadorned version of how all reality TV works. We’re uncomfortable because we can see the mechanics of it, but nothing is actually different. People consent to play along with a production, often built as a ‘social experiment’ for their possible gain.” Through this lens, how “nice” is Jury Duty, really? Ronald’s getting a more generous edit than anyone on The Rehearsal, but — based on the series premise as presented at the top of every episode — he also hasn’t quite consented to the project he’s in.
The original concept for the The Joe Schmo Show was that, in the phony, Big Brother-esque reality show Lap of Luxury, all the kooky characters — who, as in Jury Duty, were actually actors — were going to torture the unwitting Schmo, Matt Kennedy Gould. However, after Gould broke down emotionally after the elimination of a fellow contestant he’d come to view as a friend, the show changed on the fly: Challenges were rigged so Gould would win and the focus overall shifted to showcase Gould’s likable personality. No ending could be happier than when he lost the fake show but won $100,000. (Series creators Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese went on to take their hard-edged comedy as far as they wanted in their screenplays for the first two Deadpool movies.)
Unlike Schmo, Jury Duty doesn’t seem to have had to course-correct. Its executive producers — Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (The Office) and Evan Williams (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon) just cast a normal guy, and trusted him to be nice to the weirdos “fate” had thrown him in with. It’s a pleasant enough viewing experience as it goes. But at the end of the season, you might still feel like it wasn’t worth the ethical compromises. There are plenty of unemployed actors who would love the chance to headline shows. Could we just make TV stars out of some of them instead?