Their Show Flew Under the Radar. TikTok Blew It Up.

On the night of April 6, the creators of “Jury Duty,” a hybrid documentary-sitcom in which an ordinary man unwittingly participates in a staged trial among actors, came together in Culver City, Calif., for a cast and crew screening of the series.

The atmosphere was muted. Early reviews had been unflattering — The Hollywood Reporter, earlier that day, had called it “a bad show for benign reasons.” And with it premiering the next day on Amazon Freevee, an ad-supported streaming platform few were familiar with, expectations for the show’s success were modest, if not outright low.

“The vibe at the screening I would describe as very much like, ‘We made a show, we should be proud of that,’” Todd Schulman, an executive producer, said in a recent video interview. “I believed in what we had made. But there’s so much content out there, and this is on a platform that’s not as well-known as the other ones, so let’s be realistic about what’s going to happen.”

“Then the next three weeks unfolded,” he continued. “And it felt insane.”

After a slow start, “Jury Duty” rapidly found an audience, building ecstatic word-of-mouth buzz to become a bona fide social media sensation, with clips of the show racking up hundreds of millions of views on TikTok.

Broader interest in the show spiked accordingly, more than doubling in the month after premiere, according to research by Parrot Analytics. (The company assesses the popularity of shows by analyzing audience demand — a combination of streaming, social media, search and other online behaviors.) Interest in “Jury Duty” remains higher now than it was during the show’s initial run, in April, suggesting that plenty of viewers are still discovering it, Parrot said.

Like most streamers, Amazon declines to give viewing numbers, but it confirmed that “Jury Duty” has been Freevee’s most watched show since it premiered. Last week, seeking to capitalize and build on the popularity, Amazon released a line of “Jury Duty” merchandise as well as new versions of the episodes that include cast commentary.

All of which has prompted a lot of people to ask the same question: How did this happen?

“Jury Duty” feels like a minor miracle. The premise is fraught with peril: The nominal star, a contractor named Ronald Gladden, has no idea that he is in a sitcom — he had been told that some parts of the trial were being recorded as a documentary — and one of the thrilling things about watching is the constant sense that at any moment it could all implode. Ronald could have discovered the ruse; the actors playing the other jurors could have broken character or flubbed lines. But all involved managed to pull it off.

Gladden, center, was the only non-actor in the series, and viewers were charmed by his agreeable demeanor.Credit…Amazon Freevee

Schulman and his team weren’t even sure that they could. When they were pitching the concept around Hollywood, they received little interest, with most networks passing on the grounds that it posed too much of a creative risk. It was ultimately Freevee and its head of originals, Lauren Anderson, who was eager to take that chance.

“Usually when you say ‘They took a chance on us,’ it means they took a chance because the show could have been bad,” Schulman said. “But they could give us millions of dollars and not get a show — that’s a different scale of chance-taking.”

In an interview, Anderson said that when she first heard the pitch, at the start of the pandemic, Freevee — which was known at the time as IMDb TV — hadn’t released any original content and was looking for “noisy, buzzy and unique” programming to set its slate apart. “I got the feeling that this could be really special,” she said.

James Marsden was less confident. The star of “Westworld” and “Sonic the Hedgehog” has a recurring role in “Jury Duty,” playing an exaggeratedly arrogant, pretentious version of himself who is ordered to be a backup juror for the trial. While Marsden was initially intrigued by the idea, he said in a phone interview that his doubts set in once the production began.

“I started thinking, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into? Can we even do this? Can we pull this off?” he said. Even if it worked, he didn’t think it would land: “I thought this would either be the end of my career or something that maybe a handful of people would see.”

Even Gladden didn’t expect much to come from it once the production had wrapped. (That he was on a TV show was revealed to him in the final episode, but he had to wait months for it to make it to air.)

“It was on a brand-new streaming platform that no one had ever heard of, so I didn’t really think it was going to go anywhere,” Gladden said over the phone from Los Angeles. “I truthfully didn’t think anything was going to come from it.”

Leading up to the premiere, the buzz was virtually nonexistent, but there were signs the show could resonate. A trailer put out by Freevee didn’t cause much of a splash, but then one of the show’s writers, Kerry O’Neill, shared the trailer to her Twitter account with the caption, “We truman showed a man,” and the tweet blew up. The idea that someone had recreated “The Truman Show,” the Jim Carrey movie about a man unknowingly living life on TV, “really contextualized everything for people,” said Nicholas Hatton, one of the show’s executive producers. The trailer embedded in O’Neill’s tweet received 1.3 million views.

While middling reviews dampened expectations, show clips put out by Freevee found an immediate foothold on TikTok. “I’m a 44-year-old man; I’m not on TikTok,” Schulman said dryly. “I couldn’t believe how many people my age or older were telling me that they heard about the show from their teenage kids. It was working its way generationally upward.”

The fan TikTok videos — which Freevee had no part in creating, though it also posted clips to its own TikTok account — were like short, self-contained advertisements for the series. Users shared scenes out of context with a line or two of explanation, and it proved more than enough for people to understand the conceit and get hyped.

Marsden felt the impact immediately after the first episode aired. “I started getting texts from friends and random people I hadn’t heard from in years,” he said. “What I kept hearing was, ‘You’re blowing up on TikTok.’ I didn’t even know what that meant.” The excitement spilled over into real life: “I walked out of my hotel room in New York to get a coffee and literally every other person under 30 was stopping me to talk about ‘Jury Duty.’”

James Marsden, right, played an arrogant version of himself in the series. “I thought this would either be the end of my career or something that maybe a handful of people would see,” he said.Credit…Amazon Freevee

At the same time, Gladden — who returned to contracting work after the show and had a minimal online presence — was thrust into social media stardom. “I figured that on Instagram that I might gain a few thousand followers out of it,” he said. “But when I very quickly gained over 10,000, I realized it was actually becoming a thing.”

Essential to the show’s appeal, especially on TikTok, has been Gladden’s warmth and positivity as the unwitting lead. Faced over and over again with oblique ethical quandaries engineered by the writers (such as whether to take the blame for an embarrassing bathroom accident caused by Marsden) and forced to endure the bizarre behavior of his fellow “jurors,” Gladden exuded an unflappable sweetness that viewers have found touching and inspiring.

Not surprisingly, the more than 200,000 Instagram followers he now has have been flooding Gladden’s inbox with positive messages. “People have been telling me things like, ‘You’ve inspired me to be a better person,’ or ‘you make me want to be nicer to people,’” he said. “It’s the best reaction I could have gotten.”

Every network hopes to cultivate this kind of grass-roots furor, and modern streaming content can feel as if it is actively courting viral success (consider the “Wednesday” dance). But no one involved with “Jury Duty” intended for it to be a TikTok hit.

“This show took off in a way that you can’t buy,” Anderson said. “It took on a life of its own, in the way that you want to happen for every show you make but which you just can’t predict.”

That it was a happy accident hasn’t stopped others in the industry from lusting after the recipe, of course. “I’ve had people who work at other platforms call me and say, ‘OK, what’s the secret? What did Freevee do to make this go viral?’” Schulman said. “It was completely organic.”

As for what it was about “Jury Duty” in particular that resonated with audiences on TikTok, Marsden has a theory. “Young people go onto YouTube or their explore feed on TikTok or Instagram, and they watch people slipping on the ice or doing a silly dance,” he said. “They want to see what’s going on out there in all its absurdity or its hilariousness or its scariness. They want to watch something real, and not fake.”

The centerpiece of “Jury Duty” is a real guy, and that edge of reality, Marsden feels, is what captures the imagination of the young. “Every 20-year-old can see themselves in that position and think, ‘What if that was me?’ There’s something kind of dangerous and exciting about that.”

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