This all begins with Dusty (Chris O’Dowd) who is living a life that is ordinary though unsatisfying. Don’t let it be mistaken, he doesn’t have any significant troubles. He has a family, works as a teacher, and generally seems like a cheery dude as he goes around greeting his fellow residents with a smile. His wife Cass (Gabrielle Dennis) and daughter Trina (Djouliet Amara) get him some presents for his 40th birthday that serve as dark reminders of his aging, a hint of some of the more biting humor operating underneath the story, though everything seems to be going just fine in his corner of the world. If you were to imagine what the idea of a simple yet happy life might be, Dusty is currently living it. However, on the occasion of his birthday, he is reflecting on the path he has taken up until now. Is this all he is ever meant to do? Perhaps there is something else that he should be doing? Wouldn’t you know it, on this very same day, there is the arrival of the MORPHO. It is almost like an arcade game, though with much more existential stakes, and no one seems quite certain of what it is other than the basics about it providing you with your true potential. This lack of information creates a degree of reverence for this little box; tucked away yet easily accessible. Soon, the burgeoning midlife crisis that Dusty is going through spreads to all the other characters living in the town.
All of this makes for a great premise on paper. What better way to provide a kick in the pants to a group of characters than to confront them with what could supposedly be a different life they are meant to be living? There is a healthy dose of skepticism that is brought to whether this actually works from the start, ensuring the whole thing has an air of mystery to it, and there are many moments where this really works. In particular, there is one humorous bit surrounding a man who is told he is meant to be a magician though fails at almost every trick he tries. Is it delusional that he keeps trying? Perhaps. Is that not what all of us are doing as we go through our day-to-day lives? Absolutely. If you’ve ever stopped to take stock of your life and wondered if you should go in a different direction, you know how powerful of a moment this can be. The box is the center of the story, but it is merely the mechanism by which the characters begin to look inward. It is all played with a light humor, never reaching the uproarious levels one could imagine with this premise, which is then crossed with some more lightly existential musings. Though Dusty, Cass, and Trina are our entry point to this, it soon splinters out to all the characters going about their lives in the town. The longer this goes on, the more the series feels like it itself is searching for something more that it never finds.
Characters deal with repressed tragedies and painful contradictions that are profoundly human. Unfortunately, at the same time, there is much that feels oddly stiff to the entire affair. Some of the stiltedness is certainly meant to be part of the humor, but that itself is only sporadically realized. For much of the series, with its silly science fiction premise serving as a means to explore characters and the nuances of their lives, it felt almost like it could be riffing on the outstanding other Apple TV+ series Severance. Obviously, The Big Door Prize is not nearly as serious as that, but it felt like it could be a distant cousin in the genre family tree. It is the cousin that you may be able to enjoy getting to talk with in small doses, but it is hard to see carrying on with them staying in your home for as long as they seemingly want to.
The series isn’t ever obnoxious, playing everything oddly safe in a way that could be read as a pointed reflection of the small-town tranquility that can become suffocating when it is all you have ever known. We see this in Dowd’s performance where he seems to be putting on a happy face for those around him, his students, family, and friends, though it all feels hollow in a way the series doesn’t quite have a handle on. The “prize” offered by the machine is itself potentially a lie and nothing more than a randomized gimmick. It is just disappointing that the show itself is not rewarding, as it plays out with a twee sentimentality that wears thin.
By the time you get to the end of the ten episodes in this first season, you’re left wondering what it was all even for. The characters could be charming, but there is only the lightest engagement with the full scope of the story. Without giving anything away, this is intentional, as it ends on a cliffhanger with the promise of more to come. Although this actually does bring some degree of intrigue for an additional season, there is just so much to this outing that feels like it’s spinning its wheels. As a result, what are meant to be emotional gut punches lack the weight they need and the laughs become only light chuckles. For all the possibly interesting ways the characters grapple with what it is that they are even doing anymore, the surrounding show proves to be even more aimless. There is still room for The Big Door Prize to find a way forward, though this inauspicious introduction falls short of its full promise.
The Big Door Prize premieres March 29 on Apple TV+.