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Should Jury Duty’s duped star Ronald be eligible for TV’s highest acting honor?

One of the year’s best sitcoms wants to Best Actor, but it’s tricky

Ronald Gladden and James Marsden (playing themselves) standing in a still from Jury Duty season 1 Image: Amazon Freevee

Can an actor actually be the best actor if they don’t know they’re acting? That’s the conundrum at the heart of Jury Duty’s Emmy push. FreeVee, Amazon’s free, ad-supported streaming service, has submitted the mockumentary sitcom’s first season for several Emmy comedy categories, including acting, writing, and directing.

But the looming question reportedly being considered by the Television Academy is whether Ronald Gladden — the solar contractor from San Diego unaware that his jury summons is fake and everyone around him is an actor — is eligible for an acting award, per a report last week from Variety. The hope is that Ronald would be considered for the lead comedy actor race, facing off against award darlings like Bill Hader in Barry, Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso, and more.

In a week with a new Marvel movie, a new Zelda game, and Mother’s Day (PSA!), the question of whether a breakout TV performance that’s not quite performance counts as acting might not be the most pressing issue. Even if it’s just a way to drum up publicity for a show already benefiting from word-of-mouth, the decision could impact other shows like Murderville that skirt the line on the comedy/variety show divide. Like a good legal drama, there’s a lot to dig into in the name of justice. So what is the right thing for the Academy to do? Let’s hear the evidence.

The case for Jury Duty’s Ronald as a great “performance”

The cast of Jury Duty sitting at a table looking bored and frustrated Image: Amazon Freevee

Sure, Ronald doesn’t know he’s in a sitcom, and certainly doesn’t know he’s the regular Joe at the center of a lot of pageantry. But Jury Duty is a scripted show, with plotlines and characters happening all around him. Like Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock, Ronald has been living theatrically in everyday life, even if he doesn’t know it.

The uncouth way to say this is that Ronald has been giving one accidental improv performance. Since that’s technically the way all of us are moving through the world (though most without a camera crew), consider it this way: There are plenty of shows where performances heavily and routinely incorporate improvisation, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Reno 911!, or The League. As Variety’s article notes, some of those performances have taken home nominations at the Emmys. Why not Ronald?

In that way, Jury Duty and the totally improvised Ronald performance at the heart of it absolutely qualify. He has completely melded his emotions into his part, whether it’s reacting to someone trying to say they’re too racist for jury duty or telling James Marsden that the Sonic movie is funny actually. What’s more method than that?

The case against Ronald

Of course there is the truth introduced by every promotional item and tagline for the show: He’s not acting. There’s “12 jurors, and 11 actors;” the whole conceit is to surround a regular guy with people acting, and build a show around the way he bounces off their plotlines unknowingly. Ronald, delightful as he is, could no more be accused of acting than Mario could be of loving the color red, or Star Trek’s Worf excels at being the best guy — it’s just what they do. While I love Ronald and his quiet, wide-eyed reactions to the jury’s mellow wackiness, he is just reacting.

While Larry David certainly plays an improvised, lightly satirized version of himself, Ronald’s performance is better likened to a reality star, rather than a mockumentary lead. (The premise isn’t far off from 2003’s more reality-skewing The Joe Schmo Show.) The whole thing is essentially a game, and Ronald is just running through it.

Were we to allow him to be honored for his contributions, we’d have to redraw the boundaries of performance as we (the Emmys) understand it: Are the heroes and villains of Love is Blind eligible for their altar performances? What about all the people on Survivor who didn’t come here to make friends? Where does Nathan Fielder and The Rehearsal fit into all this?

Game as Ronald is, his eligibility as Best Lead Actor throws the whole thing into question. That is something that this court (the Emmys) are simply not equipped to overturn decades of precedence on.

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