Funny ‘Jury Duty’ pranks a regular guy with respect, not contempt

Everyone on the Freevee series — judge, litigants, fellow jurors — is a convincing comedic actor fooling the unwitting star in a fake trial.

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Ronald Gladden (right) doesn’t know the other jurors deliberating with him are actors, including (from left) Mekki Leeper, Susan Berger and Ross Kimball.

Ronald Gladden (right) doesn’t know the other jurors deliberating with him are actors, including (from left) Mekki Leeper, Susan Berger and Ross Kimball.

Freevee

Kudos to the creators of the reality series “Jury Duty” for taking the biggest of swings and connecting for at least a moderate base hit — because if one thing went wrong during the course of the show’s elaborately constructed, delicately executed, essentially one-joke prank, the whole Jenga collapses, and you’ve got no show.

Here’s the setup for the eight-part series on Amazon’s Freevee service (formerly IMDb TV): Executive producers including David Bernad (“The White Lotus,” “Bad Trip”) and Lee Eisenberg (“WeCrashed,” “The Office”) have put together together a documentary-style prank show that plays like “Punk’d” meets “The Truman Show,” in which we follow a high-stakes civil trial at the Huntington Park Superior Courthouse in Los Angeles County from jury selection to closing arguments to jury deliberations to verdict.

It looks and sounds like a real trial. But it’s all phony. Everyone on the series — the jurors, the judge, the attorneys, the plaintiff, the bailiff, the bit players in the background — is an actor, save for one Ronald Gladden.

The easygoing, affable, slightly goofy 29-year-old solar-panel contractor has been led to believe he’s a juror in a real trial and that the cameras are there to record a real documentary series about the American justice system.

It’s almost like one of those interactive theater deals in which the actors mingle with the audience, and the story becomes ever more complicated and outlandish.

Only poor Ronald has no idea he’s the star of the show.

‘Jury Duty’

Untitled

A series that premiered with four episodes Friday on Freevee, continuing with two new episodes April 14 and then April 21.

That’s quite the long con to pull on a single mark. But “Jury Duty” succeeds because the comedic actors do a great job of inhabiting their characters, the producers never turn Ronald into an object of derision — and they found exactly the right star in Ronald, who is a smart enough guy but also a trusting soul who never seems to doubt that all of this is real and who truly believes in the legal process and also is willing to take a hit for a couple of his new friends and cover for their minor indiscretions.

The trial itself is ridiculous. The perfectly cast Alan Barinholtz — father of Ike Barinholtz and a longtime real-life Chicago attorney — plays the avuncular Judge Alan Rosen, who is presiding over the final case of his 38-year career. It’s a civil trial with trend-conscious, self-important business owner Jacquiline Hilgrove (Whitney Rice) suing former employee Trevor Morris (Ben Seward) for showing up intoxicated at work and supposedly urinating and defecating on a huge batch of high-end, custom T-shirts, effectively ruining Hilgrove’s reputation and destroying her business. Sure, why not.

Our unsuspecting friend Ronald shows up for jury selection and meets a colorful array of characters who eventually will join him in the jury box (and in sequestration, we won’t tell you why) and become his friend over the course of the trial.

Adding to the fun is the casting of James Marsden as James Marsden, continuing in the long tradition of actors playing exaggerated versions of themselves, like Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes,” Wil Wheaton in “The Big Bang Theory,” Neil Patrick Harris in “Harold & Kumar,” Bill Murray in “Zombieland,” etc. It takes Ronald a moment to recognize Marsden, who chafes when people call him “the other guy from ‘The Notebook’ ” or mention “X-Men” because everyone thinks of Hugh Jackman when they hear “X-Men.” But they soon become friends, with Ronald even helping Marsden rehearse for an audition for an upcoming movie from a big-name director.

“The Notebook” actor James Marsden (left, with Ishmel Sahid) plays a version of himself on “Jury Duty,” summoned to serve on the show’s phony jury.

“The Notebook” actor James Marsden (left, with Ishmel Sahid) plays a version of himself on “Jury Duty,” summoned to serve on the show’s phony jury.

Freevee

As jury foreman, Ronald has to cope with an elderly juror who keeps falling asleep, a socially awkward techno-geek who sometimes wears chair-pants, aka “chants,” which are basically crutches attached to pants, a possible romance between two jurors, a group field trip to a theme restaurant that turns controversial and some startling developments in the case.

He and his fellow jurors often test the patience of the no-nonsense but caring bailiff Nikki, played by Rashida “Sheedz” Olayiwola, and it’s lucky for the series Ronald didn’t recognize Olayiwola from “South Side.” Nor did he ever identify Kirk Fox, who plays a fellow juror and was “Sewage Joe” on “Parks & Recreation” and has appeared in other series including “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Community” and “Reservation Dogs.”

In the wrong hands, “Jury Duty” could have come across as meanspirited and condescending. But the tone is almost whimsical and turns into a toast to a regular guy who faces one dilemma after another and almost always does the right thing.

We’ll not say how it all turns out, but it’s a most satisfying and just verdict.

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