WHEN ORDINARY PEOPLE DECIDE
YOUR FATE: FOX'S THE JURY
By Michael Asimow
With few exceptions, the jury
gets shortchanged in popular culture. In countless trials in
the movies and on TV, the verdict supplies the necessary suspense
element in the story. When the judge asks the twelve strangers
whether they have reached a verdict, we never know whether the
defendant will get a lethal injection or be escorted out the
courthouse door to freedom.
the narrative function of the jury goes far beyond generating
suspense. The standard trope in courtroom drama is to treat the
viewers as if they themselves are the jurors who are called upon
to reach a verdict. They watch the trial (well, the best bits
of it anyway) as if they were sitting in the jury box and they
reach their own conclusions about which witnesses are telling
the truth or lying. Since the consumers of the film or TV show
are intended to see themselves as jurors, they never learn much,
if anything, about the actual jurors. Such knowledge would only
get in the way of feeling like a juror yourself. Thus the focus
in courtroom drama is on the defendant, the lawyers, the judge,
the victims, the witnesses-but not on those out-of-focus faces
in the jury box.
Of course, there have been
some important exceptions. By far the most famous is 12 Angry
Men, Sidney Lumet's great 1957 drama which is now nearing
its 50th birthday. (The Showtime 1997 remake wasn't at all bad).
Another big exception is the stunning 2002 BBC miniseries The
Jury which focused almost entirely on the jury deliberations
in a difficult multiracial murder case. Unlike 12 Angry Men,
the BBC's The Jury seriously explored all the personal
problems that the jurors brought with them to the courthouse.
Runaway Jury was a pretty decent thriller centering on
a juror with an agenda. But what else can you think of? Aside
from a couple of pretty average jury tampering movies (The
Juror, Trial by Jury), and a dumb Paulie Shore comedy (Jury
Duty), and occasional snippets of deliberation (as in The
Rainmaker), the movies have pretty much stayed out of the
All of which brings us to the
new Fox series, The Jury. Each week, twelve new actors
serve as the jury while the same cast members function as lawyers,
judge, and bailiff. (This will be a boon to the NY acting community).
We'll be sitting in the jury room with the jurors as they sweat
out their decision in a difficult criminal case. Occasionally,
the action cuts to scenes from the trial so we catch up with
what the jury has seen (we also see some plea bargaining which
the jury, of course, doesn't get to see). One interesting feature
is that viewers out there in TV land are asked to vote on the
case (The People's Court uses the same gimmick) which
requires us to pay attention and try to commit to one result
or the other. Finally, after the verdict is delivered, we see
what really went down at the crime scene. In the initial episode,
Three Boys and a Gun, we discover that the jury blew it.
You know what? I liked this
show. I liked it because it felt like real jurors wrestling
with real cases. They all had their own perspectives, their own
biases, just like real jurors do. They're people from different
ethnic groups, different social classes, who would never find
themselves together in the same room under other circumstances.
And they didn't always behave very well. Two of them spent the
night together and violated the judge's order by watching TV
news. One speculated that the defendant must have had a record
since he was a juvenile being tried as an adult. Others guessed
about what would happen to the kid if he is sent to adult prison.
Things got pretty heavy when one of the jurors accused the holdout
juror of being a Latina sticking up for a Latino defendant.
But they did a fair, responsible job, based on what they had
heard. It wasn't pretty, but it worked.
It's amazing, really. Almost
everybody does whatever they can to avoid jury duty. Those who
actually serve (only a fraction of those who were summoned) may
be good citizens or they may just be fearful of the consequences
if they flake. They have been conscripted to serve against their
will, torn from their jobs or businesses or from their homes,
and receive only a pittance for their services. It's the last
place they want to be. They must hang around the jury room for
hours or days waiting to be called. They are herded around the
courthouse like cattle. They are subjected to intrusive questions
and are unfairly challenged because lawyers think they won't
be fair or because they violate the lawyers' stereotypes. They
are bored to tears while sitting through tedious testimony or
inaudible sidebars. They have to deal with their fellow jurors
who they may think are complete idiots. Yet, both anecdotal evidence
and scholarly studies show that jurors are dead serious about
Jurors are just about the last
bastion of direct democracy in our country. They actually bear
the responsibility to apply the law in individual cases, involving
long prison terms, the death penalty, or huge amounts of money.
For practical purposes, their decision is final. Elites don't
make these critical decisions, ordinary folks do. Most of the
time, the individual has almost no voice in how things are run.
You can vote, of course, but you're one of millions. Your legislator
or your president or governor try to manipulate you but couldn't
care less what you actually think. Your life is controlled by
powerful officials such as police, tax collectors, or bureaucrats.
The jury room is just about the only place where you-just you-get
So two cheers for Fox's The
Jury. OK, the deliberations got a little tedious and some
of the jurors (and the bailiff) were annoying. But the show
effectively simulates real people struggling hard to do the right
thing, arguing passionately with their fellow jurors, handing
out justice in tough cases the best that they can. That's the
very core of our legal system. Maybe it's not the greatest system
in the world, but it's all we've got. The people whose hard
work and sacrifice makes the jury system function should be celebrated
in pop culture far more often than they have been.
Posted July 8, 2004