Considering how well the courtroom comedy “Jury Duty” did on Emmy nomination morning — sneaking into major categories such as Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, and Outstanding Supporting Actor (James Marsden) in a Comedy Series — could the show pull off a surprise win come next year’s award ceremony? Competition is stiff from “The Bear” (with 13 nominations for its first season) and the Emmy-winning “Abbott Elementary” (with eight nominations for its second season). “Jury Duty” shines as a fresh, unconventional new entry into the conversation, outperforming more heavily predicted shows in comparison (such as “Shrinking“) to garner four nominations. Among the nominations, one, in particular, stands out as the show’s safest bet for a potential win. When it comes to a category that best defines the success of “Jury Duty” at its core, Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series takes the cake. As the final round of Emmy voting comes to a close, the heartfelt enthusiasm surrounding this show (and its brilliant cast) could turn it into the passion pick of the season.
The show’s premise follows Ronald Gladden, an unsuspecting documentary subject serving on a sequestered jury for a civil trial in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to him, the court case is entirely fake. Everyone around him involved in the process — from his fellow jurors to the judge, bailiff, defendant, plaintiff, and lawyers — are actors. The documentary-style film Ronald believes he is participating in (following a ‘day in the life’ of a juror) is actually the footage that makes up “Jury Duty.” Created by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky under the helm of showrunner and executive producer Cody Heller, the premise tackles an unpredictable concept with careful planning and a dry sense of humor. The sheer level of detail involved for “Jury Duty” to feel real at all times, without the gig being up, makes the spontaneous feeling of each episode all the more impressive. Regardless of how prepared the cast and crew may be in scripting and rehearsing various possible scenarios and directions, Ronald’s presence is a wildcard that pushes them to pivot.
“Jury Duty” works as a hybrid of scripted and reality television, a combination that must have needed more than a traditional casting call to get the ball rolling. Emmy-nominated casting director Susie Farris, known for her extensive works across television (“Physical”; “Mr. Robot”) and film (“Wet Hot American Summer”; “Elf”), had the exciting task of finding relatively unknown actors who could creatively think on the spot, plus bringing their unique and experienced selves to characters that were not yet fully formed on the page. For instance, Alan Barinholtz, who plays the stern Judge Alan Rosen, is a real-life former attorney who channeled various moody judges for his performance. Cassandra Blair, who plays juror Vanessa Jenkins, mentions in episode eight (“The Verdict”) that 90% of what Ronald saw is a part of who the actors really are. Beyond individual talent, the actors’ overall chemistry with one another is just as vital to the casting. The show’s narrative would not have worked without the strengths of its ensemble to sell the experience of a real-life jury and courtroom proceedings, not to mention the characters’ interior lives. Having the right group dynamics in place not only creates a sense of normalcy around Ronald but also showcases the incredible comedic performances that are simultaneously happening. The cast is filled to the brim with exciting new discoveries. In addition to the selected jury, great talent can be found everywhere, from a prospective juror (Bunny Levine) who pulls a charming line to get out of duty (“It’s just not my thing”) to a case witness Genevieve Telford-Warren (Lisa Gilroy) who takes the stand and captures the show’s mockumentary spirit.
Farris’s casting of unrecognizable and distinctive talent plays a pivotal role in the show’s success. The ensemble balances out a wide range of personalities, from adventurous (Edy Modica as Jeannie Abruzzo) and dozy (Susan Berger as Barbara Goldstein) to quirky (David Brown as Todd Gregory) and timid (Ron Song as Ken Hyun). Each actor has a hand in creating interactions that feel natural and relatable. The pressure is on to keep up the tightrope act, whether it’s the ability to consistently recall details of a character’s life or inject a scripted prompt into the conversation to place Ronald into an intended scenario. One move in the wrong direction compromises believability, and the strategic house of cards built around Ronald would tumble. The show relies on the actors going with the flow and exercising remarkable improvisational skills, as they could never fully anticipate how Ronald would react at any moment. Additionally, to make it more interesting, the actors don’t necessarily play it safe. Bold character choices (Todd bringing his “chair pants” invention into the courtroom) and true tests of composure (the actors being shown amateur reenactment videos for the first time on camera) pay off.Carefully placed into the mix of unfamiliar faces is James Marsden, who earned his first Emmy nomination for playing an exaggerated version of himself. Upon first encounters in episode one (“Voir Dire”), Ronald immediately senses familiarity. It takes a moment before he realizes where he recognizes Marsden from: “X-Men.” The two begin conversing, and within minutes, it becomes clear that Marsden’s presence on the show is the perfect fit. He was instantly lovable, charming, and up for poking fun at himself. He creates a comfortability among his fellow actors as well as Ronald. However, Marsden’s star power never interrupts the flow. It serves as a wonderfully ironic parallel to his claim that being a recognizable public figure makes him an unwelcome distraction from court proceedings (a proposed reason to get out of jury duty that the judge does not buy). Watching a heightened version of Marsden also unveils an exciting improvisational side to his talent. As he states in the show’s final episode, “Jury Duty” was as much a journey for the actors as it was for Ronald; everyone flies without a safety net (and sticks the landing).
The unwitting subject at the center of the show’s elaborate prank is integral to bringing such a variable premise together. Wherever this subject goes, the entire cast and crew follow to ensure no stone is left unturned. To say the producers lucked out in finding Ronald Gladden is a vast understatement. Being the only non-actor of the group, his easygoing personality makes for an engaging environment that welcomes a world of possibility. Part of the show’s humor is watching his reactions to the increasingly eccentric antics of the jurors. Also, Ronald’s eagerness and observational skills bring awareness to the case. He graciously accepts a foreperson job assigned by the judge and legitimately leads the jury to arrive at a verdict while addressing evidence and facing ethical dilemmas. With the help of his consistent interest in the case, the show sees its fake narrative all the way through. Going into this show with the public knowledge that everyone but Ronald is an actor (as the opening title cards explain) doesn’t take away from the magic trick “Jury Duty” pulls off. Because the trick is not to judge whether or not Ronald can ascertain that everything is an act. Instead, it is a sweet judge of character that celebrates innate kindness and humanity. Ronald is referred to as the Hero in the writers’ scripts, representing the idea of someone becoming the hero of their own story and, to a literal extent, the main character in their own television show.
Throughout eight episodes, which strike a remarkable balance between outrageous and mundane, “Jury Duty” shines in its good-natured focus on shared interactions between people. The final episode, in particular, takes you behind the curtain to reveal the show’s inner workings, a dynamic deep-dive into the logistics involved that captured lightning in a bottle. From the prompts given through earpieces to the strategically filled waiting room seats that push Ronald toward a desired location, the show has a carefully engineered vision down to every last detail. And when it comes to the success of casting, the results are up on the screen. The actors walk a thrilling tightrope to blend reality television with scripted outlines and improvisation. They bring the entire “Jury Duty” experience to life without losing their subject or their own characters in the process.