The Big Door Prize Masters the Art of Comedy-Spiked Pathos
The Thoughtfully Compact M.O. Walsh Novel Balloons into Something Bigger (and Funnier) on the Small Screen
Expansively adapted from the 2020 M.O. Walsh novel of the same name, The Big Door Prize is the kind of show that sneaks up on you. Not in drawing you into its premise: the idea of a mysterious, blue-lit butterfly machine that promises to reveal your “life potential” appearing in the middle of a small town general store one weekend and changing the way everyone in town relates to themselves, each other, and even reality itself is an easy sell—especially when said small town cast is anchored by Chris O’Dowd at his anxiously-funny-everyman best as middling high school history teacher/moderately accomplished whistler Dusty Hubbard.
Nor is it sneaky in establishing the specific parameters of its piercingly affective, affectionately goofy comedic register: all it takes is one cut from Dusty riding his fortieth-birthday-present scooter to school with the Usher soundtrack he’s riding along to, to Dusty riding his fortieth-birthday-present scooter to school without said soundtrack, and there you have it—the whole comedic tone of the series is set. (That said, it’s not until Episode 3, “Jacob,” that you’ll realize The Big Door Prize has jokes jokes. I mean, no spoilers, but *every single detail* of the Deerfield Hooves Homecoming game in the third episode? Multisensory comedy gold.)
Where The Big Door Prize sneaks up on you is in how effectively it layers its dryly mundane comedic sensibilities with its high concept blue butterfly MORPHO machine gimmick to create a final product that so precisely reflects what it feels like to just be a person that it’s legitimately bracing. You show up for Chris O’Dowd’s charmingly awkward mid-life crisis—and boy, does his delivery of the (non-existent) expression “shakin’ jams” in the first episode pay dividends on that front!—but then the camera widens its lens to take in all the other MORPHO-blinkered residents of Deerfield, and all of a sudden you find yourself immersed in Kierkegaard’s take on anxiety, the deep unknown waiting just over the edge of every cliff, and the fairly stark reality that all human lives have the potential to branch off onto a new path, all the time.The nutty humanity driving M.O. Walsh’s original story remains the same: people, as a rule, want not just more from life, but a little bit of magic, too.
It’s a lot! But at the same time, it’s saved from being too much by the willingness the series has to widen that lens. We could easily stay tethered to Dusty as he grows increasingly discombobulated by the absolute fervor with which the rest of the residents in his sleepy hometown flip their lives upside down at the behest of a mysterious data-mining machine whose output is demonstrably outlandish—that kind of homegrown hero take on the “stranger in a strange land” concept could have been handily spun out for ten short Twilight Zone-esque episodes. But The Big Door Prize wants the MORPHO machine to do more than that.
Instead, the audience finds itself at the end of each episode all but flung into the MORPHO-warped perspective of another Deerfield resident. At the end of Dusty’s episode, we’re tossed over to his wife, Cass (Gabrielle Dennis), a DIYer mired in ennui whose basement closet is packed with towers of neatly labeled boxes filled with the tools of hobbies and dreams she left behind. From Cass, we shift to Jacob Kovac (Sammy Fourlas), a mop-haired Deerfield High student who’s only barely managing to deal with the recent death of his twin brother by self-medicating with a secret girlfriend (and a ton of pot).
From Jacob, we switch to Father Reuben (Damon Gupton), one of two recent transplants to Deerfield whose wisdom Dusty often seeks out; from Father Reuben, we shift to Trina (Djouliet Amara), a character significantly reimagined from the book to be Cass and Dusty’s teenage daughter; from Trina, we shift to Beau (Aaron Roman Weiner), Jacob’s deep-in-denial Zamboni-driving dad; from Beau, we shift to Giorgio (She-Hulk and The Other Two favorite Josh Segarra), Cass’s longtime bro-y admirer; from Giorgio, we shift to Mayor Izzy (Crystal Fox), Cass’s insufferable narcissist of a mom; and from Izzy, finally, we shift to a bartender named Hana (Ally Maki), Deerfield’s other recent newbie, whose emotional distance from Deerfield’s complex social web ends up proving critical to the whole series.
(And, not for nothing, whose very existence marks the steepest departure from the book. Which, given how many of the book’s core details ended up changed in translation—not just the nominally stylistic shift from DNAMIX to MORPHO, or the loss of the beloved trombone, but both the names and broad family biographies of both the Hubbards and the Kovacs—is saying a lot!)
In short, in thrusting its audience in turn into each of these characters’ inner worlds, The Big Door Prize effectively transforms the MORPHO machine from a fun gimmick to a critical dramatic device, and takes Deerfield from being just another quirky small TV town to what is, ultimately, a lucid case study of the human condition.It’s all so warm, and all so real, and all so deeply, deeply funny.
That said, what the series doesn’t do as it accomplishes all of that is lose sight of the fact that a gigantic part of the human condition is that humans are all just so… weird. Absurd. Straight-up goofy! And in that weird, goofy absurdity, we’re also hilarious. Which, if the first message The Big Door Prize is trying to impart is “people can choose for their lives to have more than a single chapter,” the close second is “…but almost all of them will be funny in one way or another.”
Sure, much of the physical comedy through which that inherent human goofiness manifests in The Big Door Prize’s world might generously be described as “heightened”—see the warring wedding party dance performances in Father Reuben’s episode for just one example, or Beau’s bizarre Burly Boy battle against one of his dead son’s basketball buddies a couple episodes later for another.
But in between those standout moments of slapstick absurdity is an ocean of quieter, more quotidian comedy: Dusty’s “blue ass dots why” Google search; Jacob’s aggrieved teenage inattentiveness when he becomes the first person to discover the MORPHO machine; the perfect out-of-touch adult obliviousness when Deerfield High’s basketball coach announces the title of the song the school band will be playing in Jacob’s brother’s memory. Even just the subtle shifts in expression on any given character’s face as they suffer the inherent embarrassment of being one human surrounded by a bunch of other humans—it’s all so warm, and all so real, and all so deeply, deeply funny.
In terms of watch-alikes, the most direct comparison might be Dispatches from Elsewhere, a dreamy, poignantly funny Jason Segal joint that ran on AMC+ for one enormously compelling season in early 2020. That series also hinged on a whimsically mysterious premise, which it also whisked its audience through by shifting into a new character’s perspective at the start of each episode.
But where Dispatches from Elsewhere leaned heavily on the inherent mystery of its immersive scavenger hunt conceit to build up to a deeply personal gut punch of a finale, The Big Door Prize is aiming to do almost the exact opposite, using the MORPHO machine to trigger at least one personal gut punch per episode, all in a bid to distract us with pathos as it builds up to a first-season kicker that promises to crack open a bigger mystery than anyone who’s been effectively distracted (never mind who’s read the book) might be expecting.
That said, whatever mysteries that series creator David West Read might be leading his version of The Big Door Prize to in this or any hypothetical future seasons, the nutty humanity driving M.O. Walsh’s original story remains the same: people, as a rule, want not just more from life, but a little bit of magic, too. Give them a mystery machine that offers a concrete version of both? That’s the start of a million good stories.