Seven episodes in, and it’s still hard to know what to make of The Big Door Prize. Is it a deeply philosophical show about paths not taken and life’s regrets? Or is it a silly comedy about broad characters acting out in embarrassing ways? It’s both, and the speed at which it goes from one mode to the other can sometimes make the show feel uneven, but it also lends surprising poignancy.
In last week’s B story, Dusty got drunk in front of his students against his better judgment and shenanigans ensued. This week, Dusty smokes weed in front of just one student (Jacob), and it feels like a stale repeat… until instead of shenanigans, they have a surprisingly deep conversation. Jacob admits he was seeing a girl in secret that he just ended things with (although not who), and Dusty counsels that finding someone special is rare, and he shouldn’t be so quick to walk away. Dusty also confesses that he feels like Cass is outgrowing him. “It’s like she’s got all these secret compartments she’s starting to open, and I don’t have any secret compartments.” Or, as he’s quick to acknowledge, maybe he’s just afraid to open them.
He has reason to feel threatened this week, as Giorgio is pulling out all the stops to impress Cass, and Dusty’s anxiety over that is his excuse to smoke weed. It’s a shtick-y setup that smoothly transitions into depth. And Giorgio — preening, overconfident, completely lacking in self-awareness, and transparently lusting after a married woman — is the show’s shtick-iest character. This episode’s task is to show his hidden depth, and he has some, just not enough.
The plot revolves around the gala for Cass’ new charity, the George Constanza-esque Potential Fund, raising money for people — or one person in particular, as her goal is to raise $10,000 so one of the town’s teenagers can fulfill their potential. (Never mind that every teen we’ve seen on the show resents their potential or is completely disinterested.)
Cass is Oscar-night-level dressed up for the Gala, in a blue butterfly-themed dress, of which Dusty is predictably skeptical. He’s wearing head-to-toe burgundy in anticipation of inevitable wine stains; she’s less than impressed with his practicality. He’s also skeptical of the Potential Fund, and is generally dragging down what’s supposed to be her big night.
Giorgio, on the other hand, is falling all over himself to impress. He sends Dusty away on a fool’s errand to get ice (at the shop where Jacob works, which leads to them smoking up together), and has spruced up the restaurant with details that recall Cass’ time living in Italy. He’s attentive in a way Dusty isn’t, but it ends up coming across as overeager and a bit stalker-y, and it’s always hard for someone to see that they’re on the wrong side of that line or why.
And that’s the problem with Giorgio. He’s easy to sympathize with — he and Cass open up to each other about not knowing their real fathers (although we don’t get any details on Cass’ side), and we learn he was trying to be a pro hockey player when his career was ended by an injury. And yet the harder he tries — not just with Cass, but seemingly with life in general — the further he gets from what he wants.
The problem is, even as we get reasons to sympathize with him, he’s hard to actually like (and to hammer that home, the show gives us a scene of him berating the restaurant’s staff, every TV writer’s shorthand for “asshole”). He’s arrogant and self-absorbed, and he’s the stereotypical “nice guy,” who thinks if he bends far enough backwards for Cass, she’ll forget her husband and love him instead. And given Cass isn’t entirely happy with Dusty, he might have an opening, if only he took everything down several notches. But he can’t help going too far.
When the auction doesn’t do well (the Potential Fund’s mission is vague; asking guests to donate on top of the entry fee was too much; and of course Izzy’s on hand to undermine her daughter at every turn), Giorgio steps up with a $500 donation, and loudly encourages others to match. It’s a genuinely good gesture, even if it’s purely an effort to impress Cass.
But it immediately goes off the rails. In lieu of a donation, Beau offers to buy a signed hockey jersey on the wall for far less than it’s worth. Giorgio’s desperate enough to impress that he says yes against his better judgment, and that opens the floodgates to people lowballing him on his decor while he can’t bring himself to say no.
His attempt to buy Cass’ affection earns the $10,000 she was hoping to raise, and it earns him a quiet heart-to-heart with her as the evening winds down. They have a moment of genuine connection; she admits that she wanted to stay in Italy longer, but came back and married Dusty in a rush because his mother was sick, and they wanted to have the wedding before she died. She recovered, but by that point they had Trina, and her life’s path was more or less set.
Giorgio in turn opens up. His hockey injury happened because he got angry and overexerted himself when he learned she was marrying Dusty. He sacrificed his childhood to make it as a hockey player, and then threw that all away in a moment of anger. But at the end of the day, he’s still an aggressive weirdo hitting on a married woman, and Cass’ sympathy for him quickly curdles.
As does ours. The Big Door Prize’s format allows it to do what Orange Is the New Black did so well — casting a minor character in a new light each week, and making us realize that everyone has their own struggle we don’t necessarily see. Except there isn’t always more to someone than meets the eye. Beau seems like a short-tempered dim bulb who isn’t a terribly good father, and last week we found out that’s exactly who he is.
We learn more about Giorgio this week, we get a few notes of melancholy behind his brash facade, but at the end of the day he’s exactly who we thought he was. He’s not all bad, but his negative qualities outweigh the positive, and he doesn’t have enough self-reflection to improve. And while that describes plenty of folks in real life, it feels like an episode of wheel-spinning, and we’ve only got two episodes left.
And next week has the even steeper uphill battle of humanizing Izzy, who’s thus far been thoroughly unlikable nearly every minute she’s been on screen. Cass lashes out at her this week, calling her a “failed backup dancer,” but like Giorgio’s hockey injury, missing out on her dreams is a small tragedy that doesn’t engender any sympathy, as it’s inspired so much bad behavior. But maybe we don’t need to redeem Izzy, we just need to see Cass through to a healthier relationship with her mother. We’ll see what happens next week.
• “As they say in Italia, every wall is a door… and doors were made to be broken.”
• Dusty and Jacob get their weed from Xander, a spacy former student of Dusty’s whose Morpho potential is a baffling “Gum.” I wouldn’t object to seeing him play the Jesse Pinkman to Dusty’s Walter White at some point.
• A few weeks ago, Dusty realized what he thought was a series of sweet gifts for Cass actually annoyed her. This time he realizes her birthday gift to him — a theremin, which he was baffled by — was one of the rare times she asked him for anything, and it was for himself, not her. And he still ignored the gesture.
• We also get a tiny bit more of Hana and Father Reuben. He’s been avoiding her since their flirtation at the end of his episode, but she wants to spend more time with him. Except she slips up and admits she’s been sleeping with Giorgio, even though she doesn’t think very highly of him. “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just sex,” isn’t a line that reassures anyone, but it falls especially flat with a priest.
• Trina makes a fake Morpho card that says “gondolier” so she can paddle the restaurant’s gondola, presumably the least-menial job at Giorgio’s. The gondola’s paddle is a hockey stick. While I don’t have a lot of patience for Giorgio himself, I love every absurd detail about his restaurant.