It only takes a minute of watching Jury Duty to arrive at the question: “How the hell did they pull this stunt off?”
The answer is short—it wasn’t easy—which is to say the answer is actually quite long and complicated. The Freevee series sees everyman Ronald Gladden dropped into an outrageous comedy: He’s summoned for jury duty, but everyone else around him is an actor and the case is fake. James Marsden appears as himself, a stuck-up Hollywood actor with better places (like an audition for a splashy new western) to be. The mockumentary is in the vein of Borat or The Rehearsal, but with a nicer twist: Ronald is never being pranked, he’s simply reacting to foolish behavior.
This has paid off for Jury Duty, which has seen an influx of fans on TikTok sharing adorable videos of Ronald showing his jury mate A Bug’s Life or throwing one of them a birthday party. Executive producers David Bernad (The White Lotus) and Lee Eisenberg (The Office), who also created the show with Gene Stupnitsky, orchestrated heartwarming sitcom conventions (like a will-they-won’t-they, or the “tired employee”) throughout the production to see if Ronald would move the story along.
“We wanted to see how Ronald would react when presented with really trope-y situational comedy,” Bernad tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed over Zoom. “I don’t know if it’s just my own theory, but it’s like we’ve been programmed, watching movies and TV shows for so long. He got himself involved in a storyline that you’d see on The Office.”
In the final episode of Jury Duty, the team finally pulls back the curtain and explains how they pulled everything off. Below, Bernad and Eisenberg explain why they always planned to reveal the magic trick, how they feel about the show’s poor critical reception, and where they’ll take Jury Duty in Season 2—and it may be out of the courthouse.
In the finale, you really show all your cards in how you pulled off Jury Duty. Was that always the plan?
Bernad: Yeah. As someone who watched Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) and then fell in love with Nathan Fielder (The Rehearsal) and the things that Jeff Tremaine (Jackass) is doing—to me, it’s always been a magic trick. So much of it is about: “How did you do that? Is it real?” When we plotted out the season, we always knew where we were going to end it, which was at this 12 Angry Men episode. We always had the “behind the scenes” as the final episode, to show our hand and show the magic of making the show. I think a lot of people will watch it and go, “Is this real? How did they do this?” So [revealing] a little bit of that will hopefully draw more intrigue and lead to more questions and people wanting to rewatch it, now that they know how we made it.
Eisenberg: Also, the thing I would add to that is Ronald himself. The audience is so on board with him from the beginning. Seeing [the production] through his eyes, in a weird way, he becomes the audience’s surrogate for the finale. You’re able to live viscerally through him, but hopefully, you feel good for him about the experience.
Did you have a fall-out plan in place if Ronald didn’t react as favorably about the reveal in the finale?
Eisenberg: Everyone really fell in love with him. The whole ethos of the show, from the beginning, was never to do a show where: “Oh, look! A Hollywood show took an unsuspecting person who volunteered to be part of jury duty, and now [they’re] going to make his life miserable and it’s going to be uncomfortable.” That type of cringe comedy and punching down was not something we were ever interested in. Had it not gone the way it did, it probably would’ve been cut in a very different way.
Bernad: If you notice, he’s never the brunt of the joke. No one’s ever trying to embarrass him. He’s always reacting to people. The idea of it is that it’s “Help me!” pranks. People are in peril. You’re placing him in situations where he’s viewing comedy and he’s reacting to dipshits or morons doing funny things.
The spirit of the show that we sold was about a hero’s journey. [We knew] we wanted to take someone who was more apathetic and not engaged in civic duties and ask, “Can they become the hero of the story? Will they step up and save this innocent person?” We wanted to give him wins and make it a really positive experience. Ronald, his joy and love of the show and the experience—it’s changed his life in this weird, unexpected way. That’s been really rewarding.
We see a bit of the script in the finale—what was that script like? Was it longer than a normal comedy script would be?
Eisenberg: Shorter. The original pilot script was a little bit longer because we were trying to establish more and get everyone acclimated to this new genre that was created here. After that initial script, there were more outlines in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm. There were certain story points that one of the cast members had to hit, or a situation that we were trying to get Ronald into that he would hit. It’s basically a decision tree. You know that you need to get to the next moment, so regardless of what decision Ronald makes, you will make the next beat that you need to reach.
For instance, if a character says to him, “I don’t know what to do, my girlfriend is mad at me! Should I text her?” If Ronald says, “Yes, text her” and we need the girlfriend to break up, the next thing that will happen is the guy will say, “She was annoyed that I was coming on too strong, she wants to break up with me.” If Ronald goes, “Hey, take it easy, give her a second,” he’ll say, “She said she’s really mad that I’m not texting, we’ve broken up.” Then, you’ve reached the next plot point. It’s a little bit like when you were a kid, those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
Bernad: It’s the Hero’s Journey, but it’s also sitcom storytelling in real life. How would he help turn the story if we knew where we wanted the story to go? Another good example is the racist bit, where in Episode 1, Noah says to him, “How do I get out of jury duty?” We always were going to do the racist bit. That was always going to be a thing. It’s in the script. Ronald wasn’t supposed to say that, Noah was going to say that, “Maybe I’ll say I’m racist.” But Ronald just went right there.
That also happened when he showed Todd A Bug’s Life to prove that being different is OK. The next day, Todd shows up with the chair pants, “chants,” inspired by Flick the inventor in that movie. Did A Bug’s Life influence your decision to introduce the “chants”?
Bernad: The chants were scripted. The Bug’s Life thing, that wasn’t. Even him taking Todd for a makeover later on in the season, none of that was scripted. Ronald is an incredible human. Everything you’re seeing is real. It sounds bullshit-y, but when we pitched the show, another idea was that every day we’re on trial and every day we’re presented with moral decisions.
Eisenberg: If people from different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels are forced to spend time together, what surprises you is how much you actually have in common. I served on a jury once, and I couldn’t believe how often it was like, “Okay guys, go sit in the hallway for the next 45 minutes.” So much of life is what happens in those 45 minutes sitting in the hallway. I always felt like jury duty was the great equalizer.
You’ve got folks like Mekki Leeper and Kirk Fox, who have already starred in TV shows like The Sex Lives of College Girls and Parks and Recreation, in the show. Were you ever afraid Ronald would realize that they were actors?
Bernad: We pre-screened [Ronald]. There was a long casting process. There are ways to ask questions without asking the questions to get a sense of people’s tastes. How much TV do they watch? What kind of TV do they watch? What kind of movies do they watch? Do they love comedy? Do they hate comedy? We were very precise in terms of trying to anticipate that exact issue.
Eisenberg: A lot of the early conversations we had were asking the same question that you are. What someone said to me that really resonated was: The notion that a Hollywood production would be built around you, and that for weeks and weeks there would be prep and rehearsals, and that all of these things would happen, all to bring you into this ruse? The narcissism you would have to have for that is wild.
The show has really blown up on TikTok, even though it’s not critically acclaimed. Were you expecting that reaction?
Bernad: [With] my experience with Bad Trip and producing The White Lotus, every scene is a trailer moment. There’s no fluff. There’s no in between. With White Lotus, it was an incredibly meme-able show, and that wasn’t intentional. The White Lotus also really blew up online. There was a hope that Jury Duty would fall into that same bucket. Obviously, you can’t predict or even hope for the buzz we got. But it’s overwhelming.
And it’s generated such hype on Freevee, of all places—it’s not like you’re getting this hype from a Netflix or HBO show.
Eisenberg: We took this around right before the pandemic. Almost [every] studio and network passed. The only place that stepped up was Freevee. There’s a little bit of pettiness coursing through my veins. There’s something very gratifying about everyone passing on something that then has turned into something so special.
Why were there hesitations from studios and networks?
Eisenberg: There had never been an ongoing prank like this where it’s going on for seven and a half episodes of TV. The question that they asked, from the beginning, was: “What if it doesn’t work?” You have to display a level of confidence, have a little bit of chutzpah, because there is a complete version of this where Ronald catches whiff of it. But then we’re like, “Well, we’ll have a really exciting thing because if Ronald finds out on camera, we’ll have him discovering the fact that we tried to do this show. That could be interesting as television too.”
Why do you think this show has resonated so much with a large audience, and yet, isn’t critically acclaimed?
Bernad: The thing about the critical reviews that’s frustrating is that there’s a lack of understanding of the intention—now I sound petty!
Eisenberg: Dave, I went petty! It’s fine.
Bernad: There’s a lack of appreciation for how intentional every beat of the show is. When you see it as a whole, you can track the small wins—like Ronald becoming the foreperson, Ronald helping with the lunch, Ronald beating Marsden at arm-wrestling. It’s all about building confidence and teasing out the trial. Those are for comedic effect, but it’s also intentional storytelling so you get to a 12 Angry Men moment.
Again, the idea was: Can an everyday person become the hero of the story? It’s amazing to see Ronald’s confidence. The show has had the impact we wanted, which was that now he’s become the hero of his life and it’s changed him in a great way. There were some reviews I read that were like, “What’s the point of this? There’s no point to this.” They’re completely missing the point.
Is there room for a second season? Do you think it’s possible?
Eisenberg: Yes! We do. We’re discussing, but we’re not ready to discuss our plans. We have something that’s really exciting that feels spiritually very much in the wheelhouse of Jury Duty. But locations might change.
Bernad: What’s cool is that there are so many other worlds to explore, but also cities—people are different everywhere. We’re very excited about what we’ve been talking about.