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The Unlikely Inspiration of Jury Duty

Ted Lasso has been the feel-good hit of the pandemic era; at a time of unprecedented isolation for us, both physical and emotional, it's a show about connection and the power of seeing the best in one another. It has provided a spiritual salve at a time we seem to need it most.

But while Lasso emerged from the minds of talented storytellers, intent on helping remind us of the good that resides in each of us, the Truman Show-esque pseudo-mockumentary Jury Duty gets my vote as the hard evidence we needed for this thesis.

If you haven't yet seen this show and need a jolt to boost your faith in humanity, I would highly recommend checking it out on Amazon streaming as soon as you can. (You could even binge it in one sitting as I did.) I mean, you should totally finish this article first, but then go run to your TV.

Many of our fellow Americans are feeling discouraged and angry, exhausted by the amount of incompetence and ill will we're confronted with on a daily basis. Every day, in the news, on social media, in our personal conversations, we're being shown evidence of how selfish, and lazy, and mean our fellow humans are.

Add to that the focus on how people who think differently from us are trying to destroy our beloved country, and negativity about others can feel like all we see.

But I've seen first-hand how rewarding it can be to focus on seeing the best in our fellow human beings. A few years ago I wrote about how the various jobs I was doing helped me to take this approach, hearing the stories of incredible people all around me. It reinforced the magic within the human race that has brought us this far.

Reality TV often does just the opposite. Producers are constantly trying to create compelling storylines by provoking conflict and zooming in on the worst of us. Perhaps it would be worth a look at how the reality TV boom of the 2000s helped to tee up our current mode of media outrage manipulation, honing the producer's craft of creating just the right contempt-inducing narrative around someone's character with highly selective editing and manipulative coaxing.

But Jury Duty is something different. Let's set the stage.

The show is set around the one juror—Ronald Gladden—who doesn't know the trial he's sitting for is completely fake, and that he's surrounded by actors. Some of the cameras, and interviews with the jurors, are enabled by the premise that it's a documentary on the experience of jury duty. But the candid action is captured by hidden cameras, which is where the heart of this show lies.

Jury Duty was conceived as a sitcom by producers of The Office, so naturally there are hijinx going on all around Gladden, many of them involving alternate juror and prominent actor James Marsden—who hilariously misses no opportunities to remind us of how prominent he actually is. (Yes, he was totally in The Notebook.)

But these producers were also looking for something inspiring, and they got even more than they bargained for. Without giving too much away, this was more than just an opportunity to capture the awkward reactions of an unsuspecting mark to the hilarious situations around him. It was also a character study built around watching a citizen reckon with the great responsibility that stems from one of our most precious rights within a modern democracy—a trial by a jury of one's peers when it comes to settling matters of the law.

In this regard, we're left inspired by the conduct of a man who takes that process very seriously, driven by a real desire to find the truth and see justice served. And throughout all of the absurdity of his circumstances and the solemnity of his duty, we consistently see Gladden's best impulses emerge.

To be fair, this was a man who was chosen from around 2,500 applicants for the "documentary," through an extensive vetting process. The producers clearly saw something promising in him, aside from just his telegenic presence.

Even so, Gladden consistently outshone those expectations.

"You were presented day after day with countless challenges, responsibilities and ethical dilemmas," declared the fake judge upon revealing to him the show's conceit, before declaring him a hero for his responses.

Much of what prompted these feelings, which seem to be genuine from the entire cast and crew, were the little things. Time and again he chose simple acts of humanity, like sparing someone's feelings, or taking blame for another's mistake to help them save face.

But there's a deeper pattern that seems to drive much of the "sweetness" that everyone involved in the show sees from him, and that's his seeking of connection and his curiosity about others. One of the marquee examples of this is Gladden's behavior towards an awkward gadget inventor whose traits "were specifically intended to frighten" him, explained the judge. But it's to this character he extends some of his deepest level of connection and humanity.

It's actually Gladden's embrace of his civic duty that provided some of the most inspiring moments for me. I've been called for jury duty twice in my life, neither time ending up serving. But I tend to be vexed and disappointed by the seeming obsession we have with "getting out of jury duty."

Sure, it can be a burden requiring us to take time away from our jobs and lives, but the system is generally pretty accommodating for those with significant hardships. For the rest of us, it can be a chance to see our legal processes in action, to meet some new people from very different walks of life, and to participate with them in an act of civic affirmation.

We get to know them, to think with them. And together we get to do service not just to a system that's been created to serve society, but to an individual fellow citizen in dire need of that service. Be it the plaintiff who has been wronged by someone and wants to be made whole, or the defendant who stands falsely accused of a crime, we do our duty for them because we expect the same in our time of need.

I was inspired not just by the sense of curiosity and empathy Gladden brought to this duty, but also his respect for and efforts to uphold a process that can be challenging, and often not entirely obvious in its rationale. And I think that speaks to the humility we see from him—consistently, both before and after the big reveal.

And this experience seems to have inspired him. "I haven't really given back in a while, and I miss that feeling," he said afterwards. "It does feel good." I imagine there are a lot of folks who'd be eager to step up for one another when empowered. But, yes, humans have also evolved to pick the low-hanging fruit, so sometimes we need to embrace the smaller and easier acts of humanity. We've got to start somewhere.

Perhaps a great place to start might be the other spaces we share with our fellow citizens where we may not share backgrounds and beliefs, our organizations. Our attempts to understand our colleagues, our compatriots, our fellow congregants, and all the other people we share group membership with is an act of civic engagement that helps us to govern together.

While so many of us are wary of engagement in this way because of the potential risks to our working relationships, we should acknowledge that the risks of the atrophy of our powers of civic collaboration are also significant. Perhaps displays of the rewards of civic work done well, like the show Jury Duty, can be a powerful motivator, one we so deeply need at this point.


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