How much would your life change if you actually knew your full potential? The Apple TV+ original series “The Big Door Prize,” a new comedy created by Emmy-winning producer David West Read, wrestles with this question. After the first three episodes premiered at the SXSW Film and TV Festival, West Read and stars Chris O’Dowd, Gabrielle Dennis, Josh Segarra, Djouliet Amara, Sammy Fourlas, Ally Maki and Crystal Fox took part in a Q&A moderated by IndieWire’s Ben Travers.
The 10-episode series, which begins streaming on Apple TV+ on March 29, is based on the 2021 M.O. Walsh novel of the same name. It takes place in the fictional Deerfield, a typical, idyllic small town where a high school teacher named Dusty (O’Dowd) lives happily with his wife of 20-plus years, Cass (Dennis) and teenage daughter Trina (Amara). However, the lives of people in this tight-knit community are changed forever when a mysterious machine with a glowing blue hue appears in the general store. The arcade game-esque machine, which displays the name “Morpho” in block letters and an illuminated butterfly graphic on the front, promises to reveal something called a “true life potential” to those who follow its minimal-yet-straightforward instructions.
During the panel, Travers asked O’Dowd about Dusty’s reaction to the soothsaying device. “I think he’s very fearful of change, and he finds that he’s probably had a lot of it in his life already, and then suddenly he feels settled and happy and everything is normal, and somebody throws in a grenade,” O’Dowd said. “The idea that he has reached his potential but there’s nowhere else to go is kind of terrifying — because what do you do tomorrow?”
“The Big Door Prize,” which promises viewers the same heart of fellow Apple TV+ series “Ted Lasso,” is also aiming for the same strain of thought-provoking science fiction that drives “Severance.”
When cast members were asked if there are any questions they want people to ask themselves while watching the series, Fox, who plays Deerfield’s mayor, Izzy, explained that she hopes people examine whether or not they’re living life with intention.
“After we’ve come out of this pandemic, I think everybody understands the importance of your time, what you’re doing with your time, what you’re doing with your life,” Fox said. “And we’re not sure, but we better get sure; you only get one life.”
When the cast was asked if the show has made them question their own potential, Segarra joked that he was going to quit acting to become a professional wrestler, and O’Dowd said that he’s positive his mother still wants him to be a lawyer. However, O’Dowd followed the quip by waxing philosophical about how the premise of an oracle giving direction to the directionless affects the townspeople.
“It’s kind of fascinating because you can see it on a much broader basis that’s happening in the world, where people will take on an idea and the power of an idea can be very suffocating for everybody else,” O’Dowd said. “Watching this, I suppose it’s like a little goldfish bowl version of society where it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to throw in one little idea and see who bites,’ and then you watch all of these people bite off this thing, and it changes the entire nature of it. I like the show for that reason — the faults of the true oracle.”
On the same subject, Dennis said she felt a connection with something her character said in the show: She’s just looking to be happier. “I feel like, ultimately, when we’re looking for our life’s potential, then we’re looking for the joy in life,” she added. “It’s like, how do we become happier than where we are now? ’Cause we don’t want to be less happy. The goal is to just advance.”
As Travers puts it, “The Big Door Prize” features a large ensemble asking big, hard questions. Creator West Read had the tall order of balancing comedy, drama and philosophy, while putting together something that’s still fun to watch, and the cast was essential in making it all work.
“The way that they can strike this incredible balance between hard, funny and pull up your heartstrings — that’s kind of like life,” West Read said. “It’s fluctuating constantly between these kind of soaring moments of joy and these deep moments of pain. It feels kind of all-inclusive in that way of the human experience, but it really is this cast that is able to pull off all of those tricky turns.”