When it was announced in summer 2021 that the Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder had a brand-new concept series in the works with HBO, the response was celebratory. In his acclaimed docu-reality comedy series Nathan For You Fielder – styling himself as a management consultant – gave surreally bad advice to struggling small businesses, such as recommending that funeral homes offer “extras” to attend the services of friendless people, or telling an estate agent to brand herself the “Ghost Realtor”, guaranteeing ghost-free homes. It was fresh, funny and quickly developed a cult following.
Fielder’s subsequent show, The Rehearsal, was – predictably – an even greater hit. Building on the structured reality concept, it offered people the opportunity to “rehearse” difficult conversations and moments in their lives, with Fielder recreating the conditions in which these interactions would take place and exploring every possible scenario that could arise. In the first episode, when a man wanted to admit that he had lied about his educational background to a long-time friend, producers built an exact replica of the bar in which he planned to confess, down to the specific tears in certain bar stools, even its broken lights. Another storyline involved Fielder stepping in to play the father in a woman’s rehearsal of motherhood, with a string of child actors swapped in to play her son over the course of six months.
The Rehearsal received near-unanimous critical acclaim. The consensus was that no one was doing this type of TV – pushing the boundaries of reality TV for a sophisticated audience. In Fielder’s wake other shows are hoping to achieve the same magic. The most prominent of these – and the closest to being Fielder-esque – is the Amazon series Jury Duty.
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Jury Duty is a docu-series centring around an ordinary man, Ronald, who is told that he has been selected for jury duty in Los Angeles, which he believes is being filmed for an informational documentary. The reality, however, is that the trial is fake: the judge, the bailiff, the lawyers, the plaintiff, the defendant and the other jurors (including the actor James Marsden, playing himself) are all actors. The jury is sequestered, leaving Ronald trapped with the cast without interference from the outside world, and he is put through a series of increasingly absurd scenarios and moral dilemmas, until, at the end of the trial, when the jury reaches a verdict, he is told it was all a ruse (and – spoiler – is awarded $100,000).
Despite an enticing pitch and some truly funny moments, Jury Duty falls flat – particularly compared to the Fielder shows it is clearly modelled on. It fails to understand what makes this format exciting: the dramatic irony of keeping this person fooled, and the effort being put in by the crew to create this false environment. Only in the final episode do we see any behind-the-scenes chaos: near misses, the highly choreographed moments in public for which, as in The Rehearsal, every possible reaction from Ronald is mapped out, and the panicked last-minute changes enacted to keep up the fiction, including faked Covid scares.
Jury Duty blends reality and mockumentary – a confusing choice. The actors stay in character even in solo moments to camera; there are faked sex scenes in private hotel rooms, even though we, the viewers, know that these people are only acting. Its primary conceit – that Ronald is unwittingly a part of a Hollywood production – is rarely foregrounded, often making entire episodes dull (few people would actually enjoy watching the average American trial, which is at times the experience of watching Jury Duty).
But the real reason Jury Duty fails to create the drama its premise promises – and what may leave viewers with an icky, conflicted feeling – is Ronald himself. Throughout, Ronald is kind and caring, constantly trying to do the right thing and going out of his way to help other jurors with emotional, personal and professional problems – reactions that surprised producers. Here, Jury Duty reveals a fundamental issue with this emerging genre. These shows present us with an ethical grey area: the deception of people unknowingly set up as a punchline. It’s not particularly fun to watch nice, unwitting people practice kindness towards others, while the people pulling the strings try to get the audience to laugh.
“One thing I like about people watching the show is that they can make their own assumptions regarding how it must come about,” Fielder said in an interview with Louis Theroux about the accusations of mean-spiritedness in his shows. “I don’t like talking too much about the process and all that, because I’ve always liked the experience, as a viewer, of being like, ‘Should I feel good? Should I feel bad about this? How should I feel?’ That’s the feeling that I feel a lot in my life in general, and I think that’s what the show is about.”
This is the irony of these shows, of course: that they obsess over ethics and morality. These issues are their emotional core. The trial in Jury Duty hinges on these questions; in The Rehearsal, Fielder wonders out loud whether what he’s doing to the people around him crosses a boundary. The shows target a “thinking audience”, which no doubt would sniff at the exploitation apparent in all other reality TV. A more sceptical analysis, however, is that they highlight their own moral ambiguity because doing so serves as a convenient mask – by admitting they are treading into a grey area, and noting their conflicting feelings about it, the shows’ makers absolve themselves of at least some of the responsibility for their subterfuge. One example is the reward Ronald gets at the end of Jury Duty. The prize appears almost as an apology; knowing that the subterfuge might make viewers uncomfortable, they offer a fat payment as recompense.
But the real appeal of these shows lies in watching unsuspecting, ordinary people reveal themselves to camera – veiling this intention with questions of ethics and morality won’t change that. In a rare negative review of The Rehearsal, describing Fielder’s “cruel and arrogant gaze”, the New Yorker critic Richard Brody said: “His cleverness masks the hollowness of his schemes… He looks the Look at the people he films, but doesn’t seem to see them.”
Despite these issues Jury Duty – like Fielder’s shows – has been popular with critics, and even more so with viewers. The commercial success and expansion of this genre makes it likely that there is about to be a glut of these shows. Even if they manage their delicate balancing act, or successfully drape themselves in a shroud of moral responsibility, they can’t spare themselves from the reality of what makes them entertaining. They are looking for a punchline. It has to come at someone’s expense.