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'The Big Door Prize' asks: How would you live if you knew your life's potential?

Dusty (Chris O'Dowd) stares his potential in the face in <em>The Big Door Prize.</em>
AppleTV+
Dusty (Chris O'Dowd) stares his potential in the face in The Big Door Prize.

The premise, at least, comes straight out of The Twilight Zone.

In the small town of Deerfield, a mysterious machine appears one day in the general store. Sit inside its booth, which surrounds you with an eerie blue glow, and the apparatus dispenses a card that reveals your life's potential.

And if AppleTV+'s The Big Door Prize was in fact a Twilight Zone episode, or for that matter a Stephen King novel, you'd know what to expect next: A moralistic tale that posits a vision of humanity as venal, petty and grasping. The machine's presence would tear the town's families apart, sunder friendships and stoke seething resentments that would soon bubble over into inevitable violence, because these pathetic townsfolk refused to content themselves with their sad little lots in life. The sinister (possibly infernal?) machine exposed their empty, meaningless lives, and mocked them for daring to imagine an existence other than the one they were stuck with. Stupid hicks. With their dreams.

Thankfully The Big Door Prize isn't interested in that particular tidy, condescending formula.

Writer/creator David West Read's previous gig was Schitt's Creek, which gives you a clearer sense of what to expect. On that series, the main characters' big-city hauteur eventually melted away to an abiding (if often grudging) appreciation for life in a small town. In The Big Door Prize, Read has taken M.O. Walsh's 2020 novelof the same name and washed it in the gentle waters of the Creek, dialing back the book's darker themes for a more nuanced and generous take on the people who make Deerfield their home.

Said townsfolk are, it will not shock you to learn, quirky.

Because this is TV, and that's the law.

Make it quirk

But it's not quite so simple: A series likeGilmore Girls called upon the wacky residents of its impossibly bucolic setting only infrequently, and only then to dutifully manifest their characteristic oddness in a quick scene or two per episode, before sinking back into the whimsical, undifferentiated background. But The Big Door Prize features a true ensemble cast of characters, many of whom become the focus of individual episodes.

This ensemble is led by a magnificent Chris O'Dowd, who stars as Dusty, a preternaturally affable teacher at the local high school. O'Dowd is leaning hard into the character's hapless-goofy-Dad charm, here, and it proves impossible to resist. He gives Dusty, who at first seems perfectly content with his life, a winsome, searching quality that intensifies over the course of the season; he knows himself, but wonders, wryly, if there's more to know. As his wife Cass, Gabrielle Dennis strikes similar but complementary notes; she's also grounded and happy, yet the card she receives from the machine leaves her pondering her future — idly at first, then much, much less so.

The couple's teenage daughter Trina (Djouliet Amara) is still reeling from a recent tragedy, but finds a fraught kind of comfort with Jacob (Sammy Fourlas); both actors invest their characters with intelligence and wit that keep them from coming across as the kind of sulky, underdrawn teens that populate the CW.

Again and again, characters that could have been thinly drawn yet still funny — Izzy, the town's narcissistic mayor (Crystal Fox), Beau, Jacob's macho father (Aaron Roman Weiner) and bluff restaurant owner Giorgio (Josh Segarra, great as always) — are given the time and attention to surprise us with layers of emotion and absurdity that make them rounded and real.

At some point early in the season — it was somewhere around the wedding episode, which features a character performing a wildly ill-considered dance number, and the townsfolk reacting to it — I realized I'd gone from laughing at these characters to laughing with them.

Beyond the Zone

Given the cynicism of its premise — small towners get shown their true potential — it's only natural to expect that The Big Door Prize would seek to speak to, and reassure, our most cynical selves. And I suppose it could be read as a cautionary tale about what happens when we place too much faith in technology, even if said technology is mysterious and possibly supernatural.

But in showing characters attempting to shake themselves out of their unexamined lives, The Big Door Prize never contents itself with ridiculing their previous complacency. Instead, it spends its time (and thus, our time) delighting in their newfound curiosity and drive, their willingness, their openness, their sense of purpose.

What makes us most human, it seems to say, isn't our pettiness, our greed, our self-satisfaction, or any other moral failing that Rod Serling would step out from behind some shrubbery to lecture us about at the end of a Twilight Zone.

The Big Door Prize instead suggests that it's the act of striving for something — not necessarily for something better, or something more. Just ... for something. It makes a strong case that we are at our best, our most human selves, when we allow ourselves, finally, simply, to try.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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