For Fontana, these digressions are at the center of the series. “It’s about how you and I, as ordinary people who don’t know dick about the law, get to decide the fate of another human being. And all of our quirks and all of our past history and prejudices and neuroses come into play, that may or may not have nothing to do with the trial. You know, elements are introduced, people have opinions, people have stories, they remember things, they half-remember things, they say, ‘I read something once, I don’t remember what it was in, but it was very clear.’ Because that’s how we all talk in real life. You know, you go to a bar and have a conversation with somebody, it’s all bits and pieces and fragments of things; it has nothing to do with reality, with facts.”
The Jury is being filmed in Bayonne, New Jersey, on the same soundstage where Fontana filmed Oz. As Fontana and I walk through the set, he points out ghostly remnants of its former life as a maximum-security prison. “This is the hallway from Emerald City to the cafeteria,” he gestures, pointing to the left. “And this was the cafeteria. And this was the ER, and that was the ward.” We pass a dark hallway filled with empty prison cells. “See what I’m saying? It’s like Rome, where you see a wall and then what’s built under it.” We pass by a courtroom that features a painted portrait of a judge. It’s Fontana himself, rendered in dignified oil paint and gazing over his creation.
In the episode they’re filming today, two prosecutors, played by Billy Burke and Jeff Hephner, discuss a case of child molestation. Jake Paltrow—Gwyneth’s look-alike brother, lanky and stooped—is the director, and he and Fontana gaze at the monitor. They’ve decided to play the scene with the two actors tossing a football back and forth. “These should not be revelations,” emphasizes Fontana. “It should just be two guys wasting time.”
And true to Fontana’s television ethos, the producers are already experimenting with the show’s tone and structure—precisely the type of experimentation that got him in trouble on Homicide. While Paltrow’s episode is fairly grim, a week later they’ll be filming “Too Jung to Live,” a comic romp featuring a blonde vixen seducing her shrink in a schoolgirl outfit. Another episode stars a jury made up entirely of actors who starred on Oz, an inside joke typical of Fontana productions, which have included crossovers with Dick Wolf’s Law & Order universe. “The danger with the show is that it is a little more formulaic than the stuff we’ve done,” muses Fontana. “I think instinctively we’re saying we can live within the structure, but within the structure, we want to write a different poem every week. You want to see if there’s really room to fuck around.”
Warren Leight, who wrote the Tony-winning Side Man and now writes for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, judges The Jury’s prospects as excellent, despite what he jokes is a “Battle of the Bands” with the latest Law & Order spinoff. “I mean, networks can always break your heart, but I’d think at this point, it’s a case of ‘let Tom be Tom.’ He’s not unaware of what you need to do to sustain interest on a network.”
Fontana’s jurors ignore the judge’s instructions, get crushes on the lawyers, and base their opinions on TV shows.
“Everyone’s looking for a procedural: Fox certainly is,” adds Tim Minear, a producer of Fox’s quirky hour-long drama Wonderfalls, which the network canceled after only four episodes, despite glowing reviews. Given his experience, Minear could be dubious about The Jury’s prospects, but he, like Leight, suspects that Fontana may have figured out how to crack the code—riding back to network TV with an idea that is smart yet “not so high-concept as to alienate audiences.”
After Fontana finishes up on the set, we drive back to the city along with Jim Kramer, an old playwright friend. Fontana’s heading to a book party at Elaine’s. He’s plugged into a wide variety of these Manhattan social scenes: The week before, he’d dined at Spice Market with Blythe Danner, and the two had cried together and shared memories of Paltrow. A reporter from “Page Six” was sitting at the next table, and she printed an item suggesting the pair were a romantic item—ID’ing Fontana, to his delight, only as a “handsome gray-haired man.” (Jake Paltrow approached him the next day to joke that his father would be “laughing his balls off.”)
As the driver heads toward Manhattan, Fontana ticks off the many projects he’s juggling. It’s a week before Strip Search is due to air, and Fontana is looking forward to the debate he hopes the show will stimulate. The script features Glenn Close as a U.S. official whose interrogation of a Muslim suspect descends from mind games to Oz-level sexual humiliation. “The world caught up to the movie,” Fontana said later, the same day HBO put it back on the schedule. “But it gives me no satisfaction to have it be so timely.” (It may, however, have given him slightly more satisfaction to bump into the New York Times TV critic, Alessandra Stanley, who had dismissed his script in April as “specious and silly,” according to Fontana. A week after the Abu Ghraib revelations, she acknowledged that he had been “completely vindicated.”)
But on the drive, this turmoil is all weeks away. And the pet project about which Fontana is waxing most eloquent is not a TV script at all but a book: his unfinished history of “bad popes.” “Let me give you an example: the absolute worst pope ever!” he explains with an anarchic grin. “In order to become pope, he had the two previous popes killed. He may have, in fact, strangled the pope. When he then decided to put a previous pope who had been his enemy on trial, he dug up the body and dressed him in papal robes and had a trial, at which—surprisingly!—the pope was found guilty. They cut off the two fingers that he blessed people with, and his head, and they threw it all in the Tiber. In the meantime, this pope, this really bad pope, was sleeping with a 16-year-old girl. And had a baby with this woman. That baby became pope, and that pope’s nephew became pope. And he was also the worst pope.”
Kramer and I are laughing like lunatics. The driver exits the Holland Tunnel and starts heading into Soho. “Because he believed he’d been pope before, he thought he got ripped off in an election, so he negated all the ordinations of all the bishops,” continues Fontana. “He backdated his popedom. And then for the priests to be reinstated, they had to pay him tribute. He was a mob pope, he really was.”
Then Fontana attempts to draw the conversation back to his projects, all of which he argued were linked by this theme: the potential in each of us for extreme acts. “What drives a single human being like you or me to such a point? That fascinates me. Because it is in all of us. The potential for that is in all of us. Maybe not my sister the nun, but everybody else.”
“The ultimate thing that I hope The Jury shows is that it’s not a perfect system because it’s people, you know. It’s human beings. But it’s as close to perfect as we’re going to get. At least for now.” He laughs, and the driver heads for Elaine’s. “At least until Ashcroft takes away all our rights. And then we won’t have any worries.”