Review: ‘The Office’ meets ‘The Joe Schmo Show’ as ‘Jury Duty’ renders verdict on Amazon Prime Video

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Jury Duty' on Amazon Prime Video

You’ve heard of “12 Angry Men,” but imagine 11 phony jurors duping one sucker like in “The Joe Schmo Show.”

That’s the premise of Freevee’s “Jury Duty,” which wraps on Amazon Prime Video after premiering the first four episodes on April 7, the fifth and sixth episodes on April 14 and now the final two episodes this weekend. I’ve seen the first six, so I’ll be watching the final two later today with the rest of you, as we all render a verdict.

Created by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, who wrote and produced the American version of “The Office,” this docu-style series follows one unsuspecting man, Ronald Gladden, who thinks he’s on jury duty, but really is surrounded by improv actors pretending to be jurors as they conduct a fake trial over 17 days near Los Angeles.

Unlike the forced laugh track of NBC’s “Night Court” reboot, “Jury Duty” benefits from the edgier, cinema-verite style of director Jake Szymanski (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). Fans of “The Office” will recognize the handheld cameras, voyeuristic shots through windows and cutaways to interviews for sly character reactions, further proof that Christopher Guest was way ahead of his time with “This is Spinal Tap,” “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show.”

Within this beloved genre framework, a number of cooky characters fill the jury box. Todd (David Brown) is a socially awkward inventor testing out his new contraptions like a feeding-tube backpack and a portable butt chair; Barbara (Susan Berger) is a loopy old lady who keeps falling asleep during trial; and Noah (Mekki Leeper) worries that his girlfriend is hooking up with another dude on a vacation that he had to miss due to jury duty.

Best of all, James Marsden (“X-Men,” “Enchanted,” “The Notebook”) plays a cockier version of himself, the lone celebrity randomly selected for jury duty, reading scripts, practicing his lines and begging bailiff Nikki Wilder (Rashida Olayiwola) not to confiscate his cellphone in case a hotshot director calls. He even stages a paparazzi incident in an attempt to be dismissed, but Judge Alan Rosen (Alan Barinholtz) shrugs off his star power.

While these characters are often hilarious, I wish the court case was spicier than a defendant (Ben Seaward) drunkenly peeing on a pile of factory T-shirts owned by the plaintiff (Whitney Rice). Why not raise the stakes with a theft, murder or Jerry Springer-style domestic dispute? Two angry people would add more antics instead of two relatively bland people. Oh well, at least it gives us the laugh-out-loud “JORF” gag at Margaritaville in Episode 4.

In the end, your enjoyment will probably depend on your ability to stomach laughs at someone else’s expense. I’m excited for the Episode 8 reveal to see Ronald’s look of surprise, but I’m also kind of dreading it in case he’s genuinely upset. There’s a fine line between surprising and bullying, like making an April Fool’s joke go on too long.

At one point, Ronald says, “This feels like reality TV,” so maybe he’s onto it. I just hope he’s a good sport about it.

Marsden, you better keep in touch!

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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