New Apple TV+ high-concept sci-fi comedy The Big Door Prize stars perennial sad sack Chris O’Dowd as a man whose little world is rocked when a strange machine appears in the general store of his small town. Suddenly, friends and neighbors are changing their lives — and he feels out of step.
Funny, thought-provoking and sad, The Big Door Prize makes an interesting addition to the Apple TV+ lineup.
The Big Door Prize recap: Season opener
Season 1, episodes 1, 2 and 3: Dusty Hubbard (played by Chris O’Dowd) is at a crossroads. He’s 40, he lives in a small town and teaches at the high school. He’s married to Cass (Gabrielle Dennis), and they have a kid, Shayna (Djouliet Amara). Overall, Dusty seems as happy as he could be expected to be. And then the Morpho machine appears at the local general store.
What is the Morpho machine? It’s a kind of fancy novelty vending machine that tells you your life’s potential. The owner of the store, Mr. Johnson (Patrick Kerr), doesn’t know where it came from, but he knows he didn’t order it. The machine is already causing a stir. People are reading the little cards that reveal their personal potential, and then changing their lives accordingly. Divorces ensue (including Dusty’s parents), as do expensive new purchases, career changes and exotic excursions.
Dusty can’t bring himself to take his card from the machine. Though one day he gets a fair bit of advice from Father Rueben (Damon Gupton) one morning, who’s advising some of the other people in town about the machine, which has understandably shaken people’s faith. The priest remembers a woman who saw the face of god in her garden.
“Who were you looking for?” he asks Dusty. Was he hoping for some sort of divine revelation from the Morpho machine?
Plenty of mysteries to go around
Every minute that passes while Dusty is aware of, but not taking advantage of, the Morpho machine, he’s becoming more and more obsessed. He’s losing his balance elsewhere. He can’t ever seem to sink a shot, whether it’s an arcade game basketball or trying to throw a cup into the trash can.
Then there are the blue dots. Three dots in a perfect triangle appear on his skin by his waist. And by the next day there are five. Then Dusty learns Shayna dropped most of her classes and didn’t tell him and Cass. When he tries to talk to his wife about it, she’s short with him and starts putting the idea in his head that she isn’t satisfied with their marriage.
Of course, what Dusty doesn’t know is that Cass already used the machine. (A friend played by Mary Holland talked her into it.) Now, Cass has her fortune sitting in the bedside table — but she didn’t tell Dusty about it. It says simply, “Royalty.”
Do you really want to know your future?
Dusty, finally tired of lying to himself about how he feels about the mysterious machine and the idea that maybe he isn’t as happy as he always said he was, finally gets his ticket. Dusty’s Morpho readout says: “Teacher/Whistler.” The two things he already knows he can do/is doing. He tells Cass it doesn’t bother him, but it does.
Meanwhile, Cass doesn’t feel particularly royal. Her mother, Izzy (Crystal Fox), is the mayor and owns a shop in town. So she’s always the center of attention, which Cass notices (especially because Cass supplies her mom with crafts for her shop, but she does not give them good real estate on her shelves).
Shayna also has started to phase Cass out of her life. Shayna’s boyfriend died a few months back, and her only link to the boy is his depressed brother, Jacob (Sammy Fourlas), who doesn’t really want to talk about anything anymore. He’s one of Dusty’s students. And every attempt Dusty makes to get through to him just alienates him further.
Up Schitt’s Creek with a sliver of sci-fi
The Big Door Prize is based on a book of the same name by M.O. Walsh and created by Schitt’s Creek veteran David West Read. The new Apple TV+ comedy exhibits the same genial Canadian sense of humor and pacing as Schitt’s Creek. It’s about people just trying to figure out their lives.
The sci-fi stuff is the big departure, but I like how it’s just folded into the high school play quirkiness of the town setting. Everyone calls the high school principal “Principal Pat” (Cocoa Brown). The music cues sometimes deliberately resemble Angelo Badalamenti‘s sound track for Twin Peaks. That oughta get you good and situated in the world of The Big Door Prize.
Funny doesn’t need to be in your face
There’s a pretty good bit with Italian restaurant owner Giorgio (Josh Segarra), a failed hockey player. Comically oblivious to the space he takes up, he starts regaling Dusty and Cass with the story of his famous injury and how it led to him being able to purchase his restaurant, only for Dusty to produce a copy of his menu, which has the story printed up as a comic.
It’s unemphatic, which undercuts the punchline a hair, but the whole show exists in that unemphatic register. Declan Lowney directs some of this, and the last time we saw him around here he was making Ted Lasso, so we can be grateful for the restraint.
The Big Door Prize is a show with big questions on its mind, but it approaches them in a termitic fashion, slowly chipping away at big ideas with little hands. It mirrors the way we always get told about ideas in culture: Someone plants the germ of a suggestion, and soon it’s all anyone can think about. All it takes in this show is for someone to wonder, “Am I happy?” and suddenly the world is unraveling.
The direction could be more precise, but the writing and performances do a fair enough job carrying The Big Door Prize over the finish line.
Watch The Big Door Prize on Apple TV+
The first three episodes of The Big Door Prize premiered today on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, the director of 30 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.