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How 'Jury Duty' follows a long legacy of prank shows

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the TV show "Jury Duty," producers staged a fake trial with a jury box full of actors playing their parts - except for one person who thinks it's all real. And in the wide-eyed reactions of Ronald, the show's hero, there are echoes of decades of mockumentaries, reality television and prank shows. Nick Marx teaches film and media studies at Colorado State University, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

NICK MARX: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So let's start with prank shows. Like, "Jury Duty" is kind of interesting because it has some of that form. How long has this type of show been around?

MARX: So this type of prank show has been around for as long as TV has, more or less. We can see an early version of it in the 1940s and 50s with "Candid Camera." If we zoom ahead to more recent times, a show like "The Joe Schmo Show" on Spike TV or even "Punk'd" on MTV play with some of the conventions you see in "Jury Duty," where either the cameras are hidden or the contestants know about them, and somebody doesn't know they're being recorded, right? They're not in on the bit.

What I think makes "Jury Duty" different and why so many people have been attracted to it is that there's no real mean-spiritedness towards the character who's not in on the joke, Ronald, right? He's not made to be the sort of fall guy for a lot of the stunts and plot events that happen. And so there's a little bit more of a relationship the audience can form with that character and not feel bad about what's being done to him.

RASCOE: Well, what made audiences engage in prank shows that did seem to have a little bit more of a mean streak or maybe a naughty streak in the past?

MARX: Well, if you take a show like "Punk'd," those were all celebrities getting their comeuppance, right? So it was pleasurable for audiences, regular people, to watch early-2000s celebrities, you know, work their way out of a car crash or something like that. And thinking more broadly about the appeal of reality television, you know, a lot of it is based in schadenfreude, the idea that we take pleasure in other people's pain or demise. So a lot of reality TV, you might argue, is audiences kind of, you know, enjoying the fact that the characters are getting in a fight or that they're doing something stupid or silly that they wouldn't do.

RASCOE: This show had, like, one person who was reacting, you know, naturally, the way normal people would react. But then it had actors and writers shaping the story. So it's kind of like in the middle of, like, a fully scripted sitcom, but also reality TV. Now, I know a lot of people would say reality TV is scripted, too, but not in this way, right?

MARX: You're right. I think the closest sort of generic counterpart to "Jury Duty" is "The Office." And that's no accident, because the creators of "Jury Duty" both worked on that show, "The Office." And what the show is doing is playing with that workplace mockumentary format that "The Office" did, and "Parks And Recreation," and to a lesser extent, "Modern Family" and others. The sort of conventions of everybody being gathered in one place, hanging out, you know, getting up to no good and hijinx and pulling pranks on one another - that's got a really robust recent history that I think "Jury Duty" is very consciously playing with.

RASCOE: How much of a role do you think that the show's one non-actor had in its success? Because it seems like you had to pick the perfect person for this role because if it was someone that the audience, like, couldn't stand, it'd be a totally different show, right?

MARX: Absolutely. I think the Ronald character, if we want to call him that, has to be this kind of affable, laid-back guy, precisely because audiences have seen the sort of outrageous reality-series character before. And we're used to versions of that and our relationship with those characters. This, I think, presents something new, wrapped up in the bigger shell of something that's pretty familiar and has been successful for TV in the past.

RASCOE: And so, I mean, have we had a lot of scandal in this genre? And I'm talking about - obviously there are lots of scandals in reality TV and prank shows. But things presented as spontaneous or real or a prank, and then it turns out, OK, this wasn't what, you know, we thought it was. Has that happened a lot, or can you think of some examples?

MARX: Sure. That's happened - it happens all the time. It happens so often that it's often tough to tell what's sort of performance on the part of these characters kind of playing themselves and what's being done at the behest of producers. Maybe the most famous example stretches all the way back to the 1950s quiz show scandals, where producers were manipulating the outcome of a game show, essentially, at the behest of one of the sponsors of the show because they preferred one candidate win the quiz show over another candidate. So that was really a kind of benchmark moment. And the more recent versions of, you know, reality contestants and people lying to one another, getting into and out of relationships - I think you always have to view those through a lens of skepticism because it serves to draw more viewers in, right? The fact that somebody's being deceitful can ultimately serve to just draw more interest into the show.

RASCOE: That's Nick Marx of Colorado State University. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARX: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.