The Mercy Seat


As I sit on the set of Fox’s latest drama series, The Jury, a wave of inertia washes over me. Not because I’m so blasé about watching TV shows being filmed, but because the set I’ve been ushered onto is such an authentic replica of a courtroom that it fills me with that precise brand of tedium known to anyone who’s ever been called for jury duty. I’m perched on one of those familiar wooden pews, listening to the judge prepare for the verdict—over and over and over. In between takes, a woman appears mysteriously out of cracks in the wall to fuss with his hair.

During a break in filming, the judge strides over to speak to me. It turns out to be Barry Levinson, Hollywood director and co-producer of The Jury along with longtime collaborator Tom Fontana. As TV cognoscenti will tell you, Levinson and Fontana are responsible for two of the grittiest crime series of all time: Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz. In fact, this Bayonne warehouse where episodes of The Jury are being shot served as home to Oz for many years. The day I’m visiting, former Oz cast members mill around the set. Most of these actors played Oz convicts; as a conceptual joke, today they portray jurors deliberating on a case about a prison uprising.

The Jury could be seen as the third part of a crime trilogy: Homicide gave us a graphic vision of cops, Oz took us inside the prison, and now we’re peeking into the cloistered world of the juror. But fans expecting The Jury to pick up where those previous shows left off may be disappointed. Forget the hyperactive camerawork, continuing story lines, and ensemble cast. This new series has only a small number of regular players—including supermodel Shalom Harlow and British actress Anna Friel as lawyers—and it thrives on a much more internal dynamic. Although each episode slips some turbulent action into the mix via flashbacks to the crime in question, most of the hour is filled with deliberation. Fervent arguments. Confusion. Jurors trapped in an airless room sort through reams of evidence, some of which they may have dozed through or misunderstood. They’re expected to put aside personal bias and come to the same conclusion as 11 strangers.

The debut episode pays homage to 12 Angry Men—an obvious inspiration for the series—with a plot twisted around a teenage boy accused of murder. Jurors are told not to consider his age because he’s being tried as an adult. But they can’t help thinking back to their own youth, wondering not just whether he shot the gun, but why he might have done it: Was he trying to be more popular? Was he jealous of the victim? Was his brain developed enough to hold him responsible? Like those “true crime” episodes of Dateline, in which reporters present evidence and then encourage viewers to make their own conclusions at each commercial break, Levinson hopes The Jury‘s audience will play along. After the verdict is announced, we get to see what really happened—and find out whether the jurors guessed right or wrong.

Although most Americans avoid jury duty like the plague, we salivate over courtroom gossip, dissecting details like what impression Martha’s accessories made on jurors. The show’s producers hope to capitalize on this kind of intrigue by creating what Levinson sees as “an abridged version of a court case through the eyes of the jury.” Because what they remember is just the juicier moments, he says, “it’s like a Reader’s Digest version of the trial, but sometimes they get things all mixed up. That’s frightening, but it’s the way it really works. They are just ordinary people, yet they are the cornerstone of our system.” Tugging at his judge’s robe, he says that he hopes viewers might even stop trying to weasel out of jury duty. “I think if the show succeeds that’s gonna be less of an issue—people might say, ‘Hey, that’s kind of cool.’ ”

Maybe—but then Levinson admits that he’s never actually sat through jury duty himself. On the other hand, Adam Busch, who plays the show’s goofball bailiff, takes me to his trailer and regales me with an anecdote about his brush with real courtroom drama. Busch, who has a cult following for his band, Common Rotation, and his role as a teenage nemesis on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, got called for jury duty in Hollywood the day before he was scheduled to meet with Levinson in Manhattan. “I shouldn’t tell you this,” he says conspiratorially, “but they were looking for two more jurors and they picked me. I started freaking out: I thought, I have to go to New York the next day. So I kind of pretended I was having an attack. It was no Method work, I was really freaking out! The lawyer said, ‘Obviously you’re in no shape to handle this case so just go.’ ” Which left Busch free to take on this unglamorous role as a civil servant, standing silently for hours clad in what he describes as an ill-fitting “bar mitzvah suit.”

“Actors on The O.C. get bikinis and palm trees, and we get this,” Busch quips, gesturing at the industrial Bayonne landscape outside his trailer. But if The Jury takes off, Levinson jokes, they could create spin-offs based on climate, à la CSI. “Can’t you see it? We could do The Jury: Hawaii. You know, it would be a courtroom, but you’d see palm trees outside the window.”