Sunday, March 26, 2023

The Big Door Prize, on Apple TV+

The Morpho is like the Polybius of fortune telling machines. One day, it just appeared in Deerfield’s general store. For a handful of quarters, it promises to tell your “true potential.” Some are impressive, like the “royalty” card received by Cass Hubbard, but for some, their Morpho cards become a source of shame. Soon, the Morpho machine turns the town upside-down in creator David West Read’s ten-episode The Big Door Prize, based on M.O. Walsh’s novel, which premieres Wednesday on Apple TV+.

Dusty Hubbard is a likeable, mildly under-achieving high school history teacher, who lives happily with his wife Cass and their daughter Trina. When the Morpho appears, he intuitively resists, especially because he is somewhat intimidated by his wife’s “royalty” potential.

His student Jacob Kovac is not a Morpho fan either. Poor Kovac already has more than enough to deal with. He can hardly talk to his father Beau, who is still bitterly grieving the death of his identical twin brother, the school’s star athlete. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Jacob Kovac was cheating with his brother’s neglected girlfriend, Trina. They are trying to secretly continue their relationship, while grieving as the town expects. However, the Morpho seems to know, judging from her card. Jacob’s card is something radically different, but it carries even more stressful implications.

Father Reuben has a complicated response to the Morpho machine. He understands the importance of interpreting signs. Indeed, he was led to Deerfield by signs that seemed prophetic at the time. While the series has a somewhat ambiguous attitude towards the priesthood as a chosen profession, Father Reuben himself is an entirely sympathetic character.

It is hard to precisely categorize
Big Door Prize, but Read (a writer and producer on Schitt’s Creek) uses the fantastical element to create a surprisingly funny small-town sitcom. Admittedly, the neuroses of both Dusty and Cass Hubbard are often grating, but Read and the writers constantly puncture their pretensions and expose their self-importance.

On the other hand, there is some terrific chemistry that develops between Djouliet Amara and Sammy Fourlas as Trina and Jacob. We clearly root for them as a couple, despite all the complications of their relationship. Likewise, Damon Gupton and Ally Maki are weirdly engaging as Father Reuben and Hana, the town’s new bartender, who seems wholly unphased by the Morpho phenomenon—but something about the good Father might just be getting to her.

The couplings of Trina-Jacob and Father Reuben-Hana get the series smartest, funniest dialogue—by far, but the series also gets a fair amount of laughs from traditional humiliation-style sitcom humor. Poor Hubbard gets publicly embarrassed more than Fraser Crane, but at least his rival, former Rangers goalie Giorgio gets his share too. Even Cass gets some metaphorical pie-in-the-face, thanks to her extremely unmaternal mother Izzy, played with savage diva-ness by Crystal Fox. As the Hubbards, Chris O’Dowd and Gabrielle Dennis would be massively embarrassing to have as parent, but they are sufficiently amusing to keep watching as they blunder into their next misunderstanding.

The fantastical nature of the Morpho is not front-and-center throughout the first season of
Big Door Prize, but whenever Read circles back to it, the mystery deepens in intriguing ways. Eventually, a lot of unexpected connections get made, while slyly addressing the age-old free-will-versus-destiny spiritual-metaphysical conundrum, which makes for a surprisingly satisfying viewing experience. Recommended for fans of light fantasy and small-town scandals, The Big Door Prize starts screening Wednesday (3/29) on Apple TV+.