‘The Big Door Prize’ Epitomizes Everything That’s Wrong with AppleTV+ Comedies

The sitcom about a fortune-telling device that remakes a town remains baffling in its second season
‘The Big Door Prize’ Epitomizes Everything That’s Wrong with AppleTV+ Comedies

In the small town of Deerfield, Johnson’s General Store is a significant hub of social activity and gossip. So when a machine called Morpho mysteriously appears there one day, promising anyone with a few quarters the chance to “discover (their) life potential,” pretty much everyone eagerly takes their turn and tells one another the fortune promised on the card the machine dispenses to them. 

Whose cards confirm they’re already living the life they’re meant to? Which townsfolk are inspired by their cards to make big changes to fulfill life potentials they never dreamed of? If you know nothing else about The Big Door Prize than you’ve read here right now, you’re probably wondering if the machine is the simple self-actualization tool it seems, or — more likely — part of some malevolent force’s nefarious plan. But the show is an AppleTV+ original, so I can assure you that there isn’t even any intimation of a dark plot. As such, the largely frictionless pleasantness of The Big Door Prize perfectly epitomizes what’s wrong with AppleTV+ comedies.

At the center of the series is the Hubbard family: parents Dusty (Chris O’Dowd) and Cass (Gabrielle Dennis), and their teen daughter Trina (Djouliet Amara). As the series starts, they’re already in an emotionally fraught moment. Dusty is turning 40, and Trina is still mourning the death of her boyfriend Kolton (Sammy Fourlas). Though they’re kind of furtive about it for different reasons, they all get Potential cards from the Morpho machine. (Said machine is extensively branded with color and imagery of its namesake butterfly — kind of on-the-nose for a device that’s spurring the people who use it to major life transformations.) 

Cass gets “ROYALTY,” which becomes a source of bitter amusement to her withholding mother Izzy (Crystal Fox). Trina tells everyone at first that she got “POTTER,” which is handy since it’s a hobby she already does; in fact, her card is “LIAR,” possibly because at the time of Kolton’s death, she was cheating on him with his identical twin brother Jacob (Fourlas again). And after holding out as long as he can stand, Dusty succumbs to his curiosity and gets “TEACHER/WHISTLER” — his current job, teaching history at the local high school, and a musical affectation he’s known for. While “ROYALTY” gives the vaguely dissatisfied Cass something to strive for, Dusty feels stifled by the thought that his Potential has already been fulfilled. But as the season goes on, introducing more Deerfield residents and the lives that led up to their various moments in the Morpho machine, many of them start to wonder how literally they should read the cards they’ve received. What does “MAGICIAN” mean? Or “HERO”? Or “GHOST”?

The first season closes on two cliffhangers. Cass and Dusty, who’ve been together since high school, wonder if their persistent memories of the only time they spent apart — Cass studying abroad in Italy, Dusty working at a ski resort in Whistler (yes, just like on his card) — point to their needing to try separating again. And: even though the power is out all over town, the Morpho machine still works, and is displaying a new message: “Are you ready for the next stage?” 

“It’s never done that before,” says bartender and relative newcomer Hana (Ally Maki). 

The Season Two premiere starts paying off on both of these plots. Dusty and Cass map out terms for a short-term separation — or “self-ploration,” as they awkwardly call it. And Hana tells us about her previous experience with the Morpho machine, in a different bar where patrons were a lot less interested in comparing Potentials and supporting any life changes they might inspire. “The next stage,” it seems, is for residents to insert their cards into the machine and see themselves in what everyone agrees to term their “vision”: a crude, late-‘80s-quality computer animation that adds a little more insight to the information on their cards. If Dusty sees himself skiing down a hill, is it a metaphor, or a strong suggestion that he go back to Whistler? What about Cass, whose 16-bit avatar gets very violent with people the three-dimensional Cass is closest to? What obligation does one have to tell a fellow citizen that they appeared in your vision?

A show like this, with a sprawling cast of quirky characters, requires credible chemistry amongst its performers, and Door Prize gives itself an advantage by bringing together such comedy stalwarts as O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), Dennis (A Black Lady Sketch Show), Patrick Kerr (Frasier) as General Store owner Mr. Johnson, Josh Segarra (The Other Two) as NHL star-turned-restaurateur Giorgio, Mary Holland (Veep) as journalist Nat and Cocoa Brown (Never Have I Ever) as Principal Pat. The real standouts of the cast, however, may be Fourlas and Amara, who manage to comment wryly on the newly erratic adults around them without seeming too snarky, and who bring a winning tenderness to Jacob and Trina’s complicated love story (possibly because, despite playing high school students, they’re 22 and 29). 

But good performances can’t obscure how deeply unsettling this premise is. The Morpho machine simply appears in the middle of the store one night, with no indication of who or what could have brought it there. Before it dispenses a Potential, it demands the user’s social security number and fingerprints of both hands. These circumstances alone should alarm anyone with the barest conception of personal information security, never mind when the feedback the machine offers seems to drive people to upend their relationships and/or careers. As depicted, however, users are only briefly surprised about the machine’s intrusive requirements; none that we see balk at it.

The few mentions of data mining the Morpho machine could be doing, though, are quickly waved off in a way I don’t find credible for a project set in the present day — which you can tell from the frequent sightings of iPhones and iPads. Citizens certainly experience negative effects of changing their lives according to Potentials, but their reaction is typically to seek more information from the machine by changing the data they input, not to question the entity that dropped the machine into their town for entirely unknown purposes. 

I don’t want to float conspiracy theories that it would apparently never occur to any Deerfield resident to imagine, but it’s hard not to look askance at a show all about enthusiastically accepting upsettingly invasive technology when it comes from a company that also makes the headset that purports to augment reality and the watch that knows if you fell down

Despite how few tweaks it would take to turn this premise into a Black Mirror episode, The Big Door Prize is committed to proceed as a feel-good romp with moderate philosophical ambitions: What an ordinary joe does when an exterior force causes them to contemplate their own existence and consider what kind of person they actually want to be — kind of like if The Good Place was about an enchanted photo booth or something instead of, you know, death. 

See also: Loot, which is about what an extremely rich joe does when an exterior force causes her to contemplate her own existence and consider what kind of person she actually wants to be — then using her virtually unlimited resources to make it happen. Or Ted Lasso, which starts out being about a guy set up to fail in the job he’s not qualified for, but turns into a meditation on mental health. Or The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin, about an old-timey highwayman who doesn’t kill anyone on purpose. Or Platonic, probably Apple’s best sitcom since Dickinson ended, but which is improbably about a pair of straight friends whose emotional connection to each other is stronger than either has with their partner, and yet no marriages come close to breaking up over it. Normally you don’t see TV stories this conflict-averse unless their target audience is literal babies.

Back to The Big Door Prize, which gives us both too much lore about the Morpho machine (you don’t actually have to input your real SSN or fingerprints to get a card; if you try to open the coin compartment, an alarm goes off) and not enough (some citizens grow little blue dots on their skin after use of the machine, but the show’s writers seem to forget about that for long stretches of time). 

The idea of a device that knows everything about you and tries to influence your decision-making is, to any sensible person, horrifying; but nothing that bad happens on The Big Door Prize, because nothing that bad ever happens to anyone in an Apple sitcom. It’s the emotional equivalent of checking in at the Genius bar, and just as antiseptic.


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