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This story contains spoilers including details of the final episode of Jury Duty.
In the closing shot of The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s 1998 film starring Jim Carrey as a man whose entire life has been a TV series shot without his consent – we see Truman about to walk through the clouds, which are just set dressing, and step into the real world.
Before he leaves, Truman takes a bow and farewells his loyal viewers, who promptly celebrate that he’s finally in on the joke. Deep down, the audience knows it’s not fair to be the star of a show you know nothing about.
Ronald Gladden and James Marsden in Jury Duty.Credit: Amazon Freevee
Fast forward to 2023, and this same ethical problem is at the heart of Amazon Prime’s latest hit, Jury Duty. The comedy-reality TV series follows one man, 30-year-old Ronald Gladden, who believes he has signed on to take part in a documentary about serving on a jury.
What Gladden doesn’t know is that everyone around him is an actor playing a part. All the other jurors are fake; the trial, the judge, and even the bailiff are fake.
The only real element of Jury Duty is Gladden’s reactions to the increasingly bizarre scenarios that seep into the trial. Over three weeks, he visits a tainted crime scene (for a crime that never happened), plays Cupid for two jurors pretending to be in love, and rehearses lines for a made-up movie starring James Marsden (yes, the real James Marsden playing an exaggerated version of himself), who happens to be on the jury.
For everything producers throw at him during the three-week trial, he is delightfully unflappable, and it’s this wholesomeness that has helped turn the show into a phenomenon.
The series has exploded on TikTok (#JuryDuty currently has 354 million views on the app, and #RonaldGladden has more than 28 million), thanks mainly to Gladden’s likeability.
But this same likeability makes the big reveal a complicated watch.
In the final episode, Gladden learns that every interaction he’s had over the past month was scripted and rehearsed. Producers have been pulling the strings. All the jurors he’s come to consider friends? They’re not who they said they were.
Gladden’s mind is blown, but he takes it well, laughing along while trying to process that he’s been the centre of The Gladden Show. It makes for gripping viewing, but there’s an element of discomfort. Why doesn’t this feel good if this is supposed to be feel-good TV?
Perhaps the only person fit to answer is Gladden himself. Part of his newfound fame includes press commitments, and the 30-year-old is diplomatic when I ask about the ethics behind the show’s concept.
“I can see how people would say that ethically it’s questionable because, you know, I essentially was held against my will,” he says.
“But the vetting process was very thorough to ensure that they didn’t select somebody who this could cause some serious damage to.”
Undoubtedly, the producers lucked out with Gladden, who landed the gig after answering a Craigslist advertisement for people willing to appear in a paid documentary.
False testimony? Despite believing he was appearing in a documentary about jury duty, Ronald Gladden was unknowingly starring in a reality show all about him.Credit: Amazon
“I am always open to new experiences, but the fact that they were going to pay me for my time and cover all the expenses was a big drawcard.”
Turns out Gladden got paid for his time and then some. Following the reveal, he was gifted $100,000 for his ‘role’ on the show. It’s a nice gesture by producers, but it could also be viewed as softening the blow.
“I don’t want to say it softened the blow, but it definitely didn’t hurt by any means,” he says.
“This was not a negative experience for me, but the money just added to the shock value of realising what had happened.”
Gladden (far right) was unaware that his role as a juror was for a fake TV experiment.Credit: Amazon
Given the potential for blowback, Gladden confirms he was offered welfare checks at every stage of the experiment.
“During casting, I was required to meet with a therapist for an hour-long conversation, and then when we were sequestered, I was required to take a phone call with him,” explains Gladden.
“After the reveal, I met with him again to debrief on what I’d been through.” No prizes for guessing his first question after the finale: “I just kept asking him ‘are you an actual therapist?’ – I was so paranoid.”
If anything, Jury Duty has been a wholly positive experience for Gladden. He recently signed a management deal with Artist First, whose clients include Jordan Peele and John Travolta, and just this week, he appeared in a Mint Mobile advertisement alongside Ryan Reynolds.
Might we see Gladden follow in the footsteps of his new famous friend James Marsden and try acting, for real, this time?
“I’m so grateful for James, like if I ever have to bounce anything off him, he’s been great about advising me on handling all this attention,” says Gladden.
“But I’m obviously not an actor, so I’m not out here looking for the next big role, but I am open to whatever comes my way from this.”
Ultimately, Jury Duty made for good viewing because they found a good guy in Ronald Gladden.
But the show’s success has already led to talks of a second season, with executive producer David Hatton telling Deadline: “We could do more, but it won’t be the same format because the process of finding these wonderful real people involves a bit of subterfuge.”
The question remains whether we should continue prioritising our viewing experience at the expense of an oblivious subject. How long until we take it too far and are glued to a real-life Truman Show?
“They are similar, but what I went through was on a much smaller scale; I didn’t have this catastrophic ‘Oh, my whole world is fake’ moment,” says Gladden.
But does he plan to revisit the film anytime in the near future? “No, I prefer not to watch it just yet; might be a bit too soon.”
Jury Duty is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.
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