The Big Door Prize S1E1: Dusty

Apple TV+’s strategy of quality over quantity has given us some of the best TV of the last few years, from Ted Lasso to Severance, our pick for the best TV show of last year. And it makes it a natural home for The Big Door Prize, a show that shares Lasso and Severance’s mixture of offbeat high concept and often unflinching existential look at life’s big questions.

The Big Door Prize leads with an obvious question: how much potential do each of us have? This is not a rhetorical question. A mysterious machine called Morpho — part 1980s Computers Are Magic, part fortune teller from Big — arrives without explanation in the small town of Deerfield, and offers a tantalizing proposition: for two dollars, it will tell you your life’s potential.

But Dusty Hubbard (Chris O’Dowd) is happy with his life just the way it is, thank you very much. We open on his 40th birthday, as his doting wife Cassandra and sarcastic teenage daughter Trina shower him with presents and good-natured ribbing. The family has a Hanukkah-like tradition in which he gets 40 presents of escalating interest. Forty calls for a much larger range than 8, so they start with deliberately-disappointing fare — granola, a couple of dollar bills stapled together, and a t-shirt that reads, I’m 40 Put a Bullet In Me (“It’s funny, and it makes me feel bad.”) — and escalates to a scooter and a theremin. Interesting, thoughtful presents, but also the stuff midlife crises are made of.

A lesser show would hit you over the head with Dusty’s midlife crisis, but O’Dowd wonderfully underplays things. As an actor, he’s capable of more subtlety than we saw in the likes of The I.T. Crowd and Bridesmaids. Underneath his jocular charm with the locals and appreciation for the birthday presents, a current of dissatisfaction runs underneath. It’s taking some effort to present that face to the world, but not too much. 

Dusty is subtly different when he gets to school, genuinely excited to see the kids and start his day. It only takes a few quick scenes to show that he’s a good teacher, engaged in the material, interested in the kids’ well-being, and nonplussed when his history teacher jokes inevitably fall flat. The show isn’t loaded down with jokes, and what jokes it has are largely deadpan or sarcastic asides. But O’Dowd is just naturally funny, and brings effortless charm to a wordless scene where he tries very hard to look cool while riding his new scooter to work.

He also seems to have a perfectly happy family life. Cassandra (the charming Gabrielle Dennis, from A Black Lady Sketch Show, Luke Cage, and S.W.A.T) still flirts with him, and when the two go out to an Italian restaurant for a birthday dinner, it’s to playfully embarrass their daughter, who works there. Behind her teenage eye-rolling, there’s genuine affection there. Dusty tells a friend he has “everything I ever wanted.” But the friend insists that, “maybe you didn’t want enough.”

That dissatisfaction we saw lurking in the corners at the beginning of the episode starts bubbling up to the surface. Dusty’s been with his wife since high school, he’s only ever had one job, and emigrating from Ireland as a child was his last big adventure. Before Morpho showed up, that felt like enough. But it only took a slight nudge to make Dusty start to question his whole existence. It finally comes out that he’s not entirely happy facing 40 with one relationship in his life and “no discernable talents other than whistling.” And the prospect of upending his life, as Morpho has inspired his neighbors to do, is terrifying.

He challenges his students to decide for themselves what they want to be instead of letting some electronic fortune teller decide for them, but when a student puts the question back at him, he has no response. And when he asks Cass point blank if she’s unhappy, she dodges the question. And then we get another piece of what’s underneath the Hubbard’s ostensibly happy family — Trina’s boyfriend recently died. She’s dropped out of most of her classes, and she’s clearly going through a lot more than we saw on Dusty’s birthday. But the first episode just shows us the cracks in the family’s happy facade. How deep they go is for future episodes.

In the meantime, things start to get weird. The shop that contains the mysterious machine has a line out the door, and seemingly all of Dusty’s students have a blue envelope in their hand and are eagerly discussing their potential and what it all means. But he’s been studiously avoiding the strange intruder… but it — or something — seems to have found him. In the shower, he notices three small blue dots on his ass. Googling “blue ass dots why” offers no answers. The next day, there are five dots. 

Neither we nor Dusty get an explanation, but everything in his life seems to be pushing him towards Morpho, lurking in the shop, spreading its influence — healthy or otherwise — through the town. After forcing Dusty to interrogate his own life and his family’s, he finally breaks down and visits the machine. He gets his little blue envelope. And what’s inside is decidedly different from the encouragement everyone else got. How Dusty will deal with this remains to be seen, but the episode ends not with his reaction, but with his wife’s. Cassandra hadn’t mentioned Morpho, but we see her pull the blue card from under her pillow and look at it again. It’s had an effect on her too. Episode two is titled “Cass,” so we suspect her potential, and how it squares with her satisfaction with her own life, will be front and center.

Stray Potential:
• The first episode was written by David West Read, an Emmy-winning writer from Schitt’s Creek, who developed the series, based on the book of the same name by M.O. Walsh. 

• Giorgio’s Italian Restaurant and Sports Center has both a statue on the roof of a giant plate of spaghetti, and a neon sign that says “Laser Tag” interrupting the decor. It’s the kind of odd detail the show is full of, and gives the proceedings a slightly unreal feeling even without the mysterious machine and blue dots.

• The show’s also good at subtly showing the effects Morpho has had on the town. By mid-episode, Dusty rides his scooter to work again, with far less enthusiasm, while in the background one neighbor exercises on his lawn in a full karate outfit, and another shoots an apple off his daughter’s head with a bow and arrow, as his principal speeds by on her new motorcycle.

• Apple TV+ opened with 3 episodes, and will then proceed weekly. We’ll do two reviews a week until we’re caught up.