Although they’ll use any excuse to get out of jury duty in a real courtroom, American TV viewers can’t get seem to get enough of fake ones. Inexorably, senselessly, like Kafka characters with remote controls, we wander endlessly through a labyrinth of TV courtrooms, lawyer’s offices, and prison holding cells, mentally debating the fine points of legal theory and deliberating over sentencing. Even for those of us who have never witnessed a real trial, the lingo—“Objection! Hearsay!” “Sustained.”—is as familiar as the lyrics to our favorite song. And no matter how much legal television we get, we want more: The 12-year-old Law & Order franchise can’t stop spawning spinoffs (a new one, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, will be premiering in the fall) while high-concept legal programs like the recently canned Century City (which combined sci-fi and courtroom drama to investigate law in the future) proliferate endlessly. Shows like Ally McBeal, The Practice, and the real-life dramas on Court TV and Judge Judy may come and go, but the hunger they feed is inexhaustible. We want justice, and we want it in prime time.
The Jury, a new one-hour legal drama that premieres tonight (Fox, 8 p.m. ET), with two back-to-back episodes, has a fresh approach to satisfying our jones for jurisprudence. Unfortunately, it also has a structural flaw so basic, it’s hard to believe the idea ever made it out of a pitch meeting. Given that The Jury focuses neither on the crime nor on the trial itself, but on the behind-closed-doors deliberations of the jury, the series has 12 crucial characters—12!—who will necessarily be replaced every single week. We spend approximately two-thirds of each onscreen hour with these people, yet we have very little idea who they are beyond quickly sketched-out “types” (the sassy Latina, the sweet little old lady). We also don’t have much interest in learning more since the following week we’ll meet a fresh dozen. The show’s familiar faces—and very attractive faces they are—are provided by a pair of dewy defense attorneys (Anna Friel and Shalom Harlow—yes, that Shalom Harlow, the supermodel) and two prosecuting attorneys, played by interchangeable Ken dolls Billy Burke and Jeff Hephner. There’s also a crusty, unflappable judge, Horatio Hawthorne, nicely played by Barry Levinson, the show’s co-writer and co-creator (who also directed Diner and Rain Man and is one of the talents behind HBO’s Oz).
The premise of The Jury is far from dumb—as Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men showed, the jury room can be a spellbinding place—but Fox-ification has not served this concept well. The crimes in question are lurid and tawdry: a possibly accidental teen-on-teen shooting and a Romeo and Juliet-style murder/suicide gone wrong. The flashbacks to the crimes and their trials are shot in that jumpy, blue-filtered, hand-held camera style that has infected all of crime television (and plenty of aspirin commercials) since 1993’s Homicide: Life on the Street. When that show (produced by the same team that made The Jury: Levinson, Tom Fontana, and James Yoshimura) premiered, its jittery look signified rawness, grittiness, and a disdain for TV polish; now it signifies par-for-the-course prime-time suspense. Still, I like how the jury-room scenes leave behind all the rapid cuts and stylized jiggling, as if the camera itself were trying to imitate the calmer, more rational deliberations of the jurors.
Unfortunately, interesting though their subject matter may be (in one of my favorite moments, the aforementioned little old lady cites a famous study of suicide survivors, 100 percent of whom regretted their decision to take their own lives), the deliberations are not exactly dramatically compelling. The jury room is an inherently static, visually dull place, and though the actors squabble gamely, neither the dialogue nor the characterizations are vibrant enough to propel the viewer through one claustrophobic, talky scene after another.
But The Jury does offer a novel feature that may go some way toward scratching our nation’s itch for courtroom drama. Fox provides a hot line through which viewers can themselves play jury and vote on a verdict for each case via their wireless phones, American Idol-style. By punching in “G” for guilty or “N” for not guilty, they, too, can administer justice (or at least feel like they are). After the final commercial break, the onscreen jury delivers its verdict, immediately followed by a reconstruction (blue-filtered and jumpy) of what “really” happened at the scene of the crime.
On most trial TV shows (as in life), the courtroom serves as the only space in which to recreate crimes that have already occurred: The version we cobble together from testimony and physical evidence is the closest we can ever come to the objective “truth” about what happened. Indeed, this may be the very thing that constitutes the enduring appeal of televised trials. But no matter how much we may long to travel back in time and know what really happened, we’re stuck in the present, listening to lawyers and witnesses tell and retell stories that are all necessarily skewed by the teller’s point of view. The Jury, with its focus on the unglamorous nitty-gritty of post-trial debate, almost dares to suggest this: that every event is, finally, accessible only through the perspective of the person telling the story. It could have been the Rashomon of trial shows, but The Jury ultimately backs down, tossing viewers the bone of the final “what really happened” vignette. This, apparently, is supposed to be a satisfying resolution: In return for having endured 55 minutes of dull deliberations, we get to travel back in time and witness the crime itself, seen from a single, quasi-omniscient point of view. It’s not clear whose point of view this is; God’s, I guess. Apparently the Lord, like Barry Levinson, prefers a shaky hand-held camera with a blue filter.