The Jury: Murder Trial – this legal experiment might be the most terrifying TV series ever

<span>Fair is foul, foul is fair … The Jury: Murder Trial.</span><span>Photograph: Rob Parfitt/Channel 4</span>
Fair is foul, foul is fair … The Jury: Murder Trial.Photograph: Rob Parfitt/Channel 4

If you remember last year – wasn’t that long ago, keep up – you might remember Jury Duty, a reality hoax series on Prime Video that was my personal show of the year. The format was amazing, so simple and so deft: a completely fake courthouse was set up in LA, where every member of the prosecution and defence, and every other member of the jury, was an actor. Then, at the centre, was the one normal guy who wasn’t in on the facade, Ronald Gladden. It was an extraordinary logistical achievement, and the show simply wouldn’t have worked if Gladden himself wasn’t a sweet, wholesome, open-hearted person. But despite being played for comedy, it managed to say some interesting stuff about the legal system in the US. It showed how easily a room full of 12 people can be swayed, by a well-told story or a shared trauma or just ignorance, or how the importance of a piece of information can be based purely on the context of the day it was told to you. Again, I cannot say this enough: you have to go and watch Jury Duty.

But before that, you should watch The Jury: Murder Trial (26 February, 9pm, Channel 4), which is actually a different show, despite having a similar name and, in many ways, a similar premise. First, it’s in Britain – Chelmsford in Essex, which feels contextually important. Second, no laughs. It’s a re-enactment of a real murder trial, done with (very good) actors, based word for word on court transcripts. All the jurors know it’s a fake trial being re-enacted for TV. But what they don’t know is, right next to them, using a different staircase and having their discussions in a different room, is an entire other jury. Two juries, one very real fake trial, some phenomenally forthcoming to-camera admissions and an insight into the jury system that has never been seen before. But also, one very huge and pressing question: will the two juries come to the same conclusion? If yes … cool, I guess? If no … well, actually, this might turn out to be one of the most terrifying series ever to air on TV.

In the preamble, it’s explained to us by various experts that, like anaesthetic, no one really knows how juries work, because jurors are all sworn to secrecy, and there’s no real insight into the discussions in these little, grey kitchen-meeting rooms. Studies have speculated that juries get their decisions wrong about a quarter of the time, which doesn’t seem … good. What’s masterly about The Jury: Murder Trial is you can see, in real time and by comparing the Red Jury to the Blue, how one big personality or one big opinion can tug a room in one direction, possibly irreparably. You see people cheerfully admit things a torturer couldn’t get out of me – on day one a guy just casually tells the others: “Yeah, I once threw a plate at my wife!”and everyone moves on as if it’s normal. Jury rooms, clearly, are a strange half-reality, and accessing them like this is enthralling.

But what’s truly fascinating is how quickly and intensely the jurors feel warmth or animus for the victim and the perpetrator of the crime based on their own shared experiences. The central case is a knotty one, which is presumably why it was chosen: a husband who killed a wife, admitted to killing his wife, but argued a “loss of control” defence because he didn’t fully remember what he did or why he did it. It’s a difficult watch, especially as you keep remembering that these are real words said in a real court about a real person’s life: much like Anatomy of a Fall, the character of the victim – and their relationship with their alleged killer – is dragged out, thin and vicious, and shown under bright light. A legal system that looks at injuries to a victim’s skull and says: “Well, they were a bit mean to their ex-boyfriend once, weren’t they?” feels – what’s the word I’m looking for here? – bad? Deeply cruel and unfair?

As TV experiments go, though, this is one of the more gripping ones I’ve seen in some time. Jurors cry and argue. You see them, after a particularly harrowing day in court, quietly and humanly gee each other up – a tap on a shoulder, a passed tissue, a “don’t think about it too much tonight, yeah?” – and you watch them morph from 12 separate people into one decision-making machine. There’s no way you can walk away from this and be, like: “The jury system? Yeah, I actually think it’s good!” but put that aside and enjoy this for what it is – very good TV – and you’ll be fine. I would probably cancel any crimes you were thinking of committing, though.