There’s an interpretation of the beloved comedy Schitt’s Creek wherein the town of Schitt’s Creek is actually Purgatory — a metaphysical proving ground in which the Rose family faces a series of banal and repetitive tasks meant to test their respective souls and determine whether or not they’re worthy of salvation.
It’s not a perfect interpretation: There’s maybe a little more coming and going from Schitt’s Creek than behooves the theory; plus when you open a theological door to ponder whether, in this scenario, Chris Elliott’s Roland is God or something, nobody is likely to be satisfied. But for approximately 90 percent of the show, you can absolutely accept Schitt’s Creek as limbo. If you choose to.
The Big Door Prize
The Bottom Line
A mix of low-key pleasures and misguided aspirations.
The truth, though, is that some shows are designed to be treated as allegory and other shows are designed to resist allegorical readings — to be ongoing, slice-of-life shows, treated literally if not seriously. I can accept that Schitt’s Creek is probably the latter.
Apple TV+’s new dramedy The Big Door Prize is probably the former, and series creator David West Read presumably knows the difference, because he was also an executive producer on Schitt’s Creek.
This is probably going to end up sounding like a negative review, so before wallowing too deeply, I want to make this clear: I liked most of the 10-episode first season of The Big Door Prize. I liked the ensemble cast, which gets better and deeper as it goes along. I liked the small-town backdrop and the philosophical underpinnings. It made me laugh occasionally and some of its emotional threads felt rich to me.
But I enjoyed the show as a contained thing — not quite as a short story or single Twilight Zone episode, but definitely not as an ongoing series and extra-definitely not as an ongoing series driven by concrete mythology instead of ephemeral spirituality. By the end of the season, which pivots needlessly in the direction of a follow-up, it was becoming clearer and clearer that The Big Door Prize had an interest in “answers” and “explanations” that far outstripped my own preference to, as the theme song for a far better show once urged, “let the mystery be.”
Based somewhat on the novel by M.O. Walsh, The Big Door Prize focuses on the residents of the town of Deerfield, whose world gets turned upside-down when, out of nowhere, a strange machine pops up at the local general store. Named “Morpho” and featuring the blue butterfly of the same name for an insignia, the machine promises that for only $2, it will help you “Discover Your Life Potential.”
For some people, that “potential” is a vocation like “Tattoo Artist,” for some an avocation like “Magician,” but for others it’s a more nebulous concept like “Hero” or “Superstar” or “Royalty.” Soon, the whole town has made it to the front of the Morpho line and, with the information relayed on a simple card in a blue envelope, found confirmation for the life they were already living, inspiration to embark on a new path or confusion in the polysemic meanings of a vague descriptor. Either way, it turns Deerfield topsy-turvy as people abandon established jobs, reshape their identities and put their fates in the hands of a machine that nobody understands.
The series is ostensibly a portrait of the town, with each episode loosely focused on the experience of one resident, though the story is generally filtered through the Hubbard family.
Dusty (Chris O’Dowd) is a high-school teacher already nearing a midlife crisis on his 40th birthday when Morpho appears. Dusty thinks he and his wife, Cass (Gabrielle Dennis), daughter of the town’s mayor (Crystal R. Fox’s Izzy), have a perfect marriage, but Morpho has a way of exposing unpleasant truths. Dusty and Cass already know that their daughter, Trina (Djouliet Amara), is a mess after the recent death of her boyfriend, a tragedy that is also impacting his less popular twin brother, Jacob (Sammy Fourlas), who just happens to be the person who discovered Morpho in the first place.
Other residents impacted by Morpho include former hockey star and Italian eatery impresario Giorgio (Josh Segarra); Jacob’s grieving dad, Beau (Aaron Roman Weiner, an MVP in the second half of the season); doubting priest Father Reuben (Damon Gupton, offering earned gravity); and suspicious new local bartender Hana (Ally Maki, getting snarky value out of a non-character).
The Big Door Prize walks a delicate line between low-level, charming absurdity and obligatory concreteness, and for most of the season, the concentration will favor those who prefer the absurdity.
Deerfield is an especially pleasant concoction, a town that’s both modern and, in its own way, as artificial and hermetically sealed as the setting for Apple TV+’s retro-futuristic Hello Tomorrow! It’s fully recognizable and weirdly foreign, and whether it’s the teetering pasta tower atop Giorgio’s or the cruise ship-themed bed and breakfast, I probably would have loved to turn the oddness up even two or three notches more. As it stands, everything in the production design of The Big Door Prize is just slightly askew, an invitation to constantly be asking, “Is this normal or is it too normal to be normal?”
The characters talk in jargon-filled loops fueled by decades of shared experiences and town traditions, fertilized by the insularity of nobody ever leaving and nobody new ever arriving. Everybody knows too much about everybody else and everybody has heard everybody else’s stories — whether it’s Cass’ obsessive idealizing of her three-month semester in Europe or Izzy’s memories of her time as a professional dancer or anything related to Giorgio’s time in the NHL. You can see how even the smallest thing could shake up this community, much less a potentially cosmic thing.
The show’s early directors, starting with Anu Valia, go for a mood that’s amusingly eerie, but consistently underplayed. At those early stages, the story could go one way and be Needful Things, a different way and be one of those Vonnegut-style satirical explorations of epically intimate quirkiness, or a different way still and become Schitt’s Creek.
It’s no insult to go in that Schitt’s Creek direction, obviously. It’s an Emmy-winning show that combined broadness and heart. I wouldn’t have trusted the show to solve the mysteries of the universe, but I wouldn’t have trusted The Leftovers to do that either and The Leftovers is one of the best shows ever made. Still, every time The Big Door Prize got explain-y, my attention waned — whether it was Dusty summarizing the show’s thematics in one of three or four different classroom monologues, the ongoing puzzle of the blue dots that keep popping up on certain people’s skin, or the end-of-season revelations that endeavor to make the show feel less contained.
The show’s performances range from effectively sitcom-y to effectively grounded, usually playing off each other. So if O’Dowd is maybe a hair exaggerated in his bumbling perplexity, Dennis’ quieter, sadder performance reins him in, with Amara offering the perfect blend of those sensibilities. Amara’s a real revelation here, and her scenes with Fourlas, full of unforced sweetness and easy banter, anchor the show. Segarra doesn’t exactly blend the O’Dowd/Dennis sensibilities, but he plays them both; some episodes he’s full-on wacky and others nearly dramatic, and neither feels out of place.
Really, though, there are no weak spots in the ensemble accumulated by casting director Gayle Keller. If the promise of a second season was just spending time with these characters in flux, I would at least be curious. But The Big Door Prize is already a delicate show, and the direction it feels like it’s going is one that jeopardizes its fragility rather than buttressing it.