'THe Big Door Prize' Asks Deep Questions About Happiness

This image released by Apple TV+ shows Gabrielle Dennis, left, and Chris O’Dowd in a scene from "The Big Door Prize."  (Apple TV+ via AP)
This image released by Apple TV+ shows Gabrielle Dennis, left, and Chris O’Dowd in a scene from "The Big Door Prize." (Apple TV+ via AP)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Not to be rude, but are you living your best life? Are you sure? Might you be destined to be something else? Do you know what that could be?

Those are some of the deep questions residents of the fictional town of Deerfield are dealing with as they confront fulfilling their life potential in the new Apple TV+ series “The Big Door Prize” premiering Wednesday.

“The show is in many ways about the idea of the road not taken, and that no matter how happy or fulfilled you think you are, there’s always this curiosity about the other path,” says David West Read, showrunner and executive producer.

The premise is this: One day a mysterious machine appears in the local store, offering to reveal to every user a specialized card printed with what they should be, like “Meteorologist,” “Healer,” “Storyteller” and “Undertaker.”

“This isn’t something you typically see on television. Definitely not wrapped in the form of comedy and magic,” says show star Gabrielle Dennis. “It definitely has you looking within and asking these questions, which can be both a beautiful and scary experience.”

Each of the 10 half-hour episodes of “The Big Door Prize” takes turns exploring how members of the community are handling their results. Some quit their jobs, some begin new hobbies, others act differently.

The school principal gets “Biker” and soon is riding on a motorcycle until she crashes it and goes to the hospital, where she meets a doctor and falls in love. At her wedding, she credits the machine for connecting her to her new husband, but was that what the machine meant?

The series is based on a novel by M.O. Walsh, which appealed to Read's love of stories that mix humor and heart with a magical or sci-fi element. He happened to read it during the pandemic, and the book seemed more timely than ever.

“In real life, I saw people hitting the pause button for the first time in a long time and thinking about like, ’What’s that thing I haven’t done — like learning guitar, baking bread, taking up a hobby or breaking up with my partner?'” he says.

The spine of the series is a married couple played by Chris O’Dowd and Dennis. O'Dowd's character — a cheerful high school teacher — is unmoored by the destabilizing effect of the machine. When he suddenly learns that his wife enjoys spicy food and men with tattoos, he asks her: “What will I find out next? That you also enjoy meth?”

O’Dowd says it was interesting to play a man wondering about his life's destiny because the actor says he himself almost never stops to consider his own happiness, despite outside pressures.

“We are given in the modern world just such a high bar for what happiness can be, I think, because of social media and because of this kind of constant portrayal of the wonderful and the beautiful out there,” he says.

Read, an Emmy-winning writer from “Schitt’s Creek” who penned the story for the Broadway hit ”& Juliet,” says the couple at the center of the new series get curious answers from the machine.

“Part of what’s compelling for me about them is that they don’t know how to get there. They don’t have a clear directive. Their cards are ambiguous and and frustrating,” he says.

“If only life were that simple that we all knew exactly what it was that was going to make us happy and we could just go out and do it. But knowing that, on some level, you feel like maybe you could be happier, but you don’t know how to get there, is much more interesting to me.”

One of the show's most compelling characters is the town's priest, played by Damon Gupton. It's the priest who must try to understand whether the machine is part of some grander plan and how faith fits in, not to mention grief and addiction.

“This show is heartfelt and aspirational, but I wanted it to also contain some darkness to feel like it represented the full spectrum of experiences that people can have with this machine,” Read says.

On the lighter side, Dennis' character uses the disruption to speak up for herself, start doing things for herself. “For her, it’s a very big question to explore because sometimes as a mom and a wife, some women feel that they lose themselves,” she says.

As for what O’Dowd wishes he'd see if he asked such a machine, the answer is a sense of humor. “I would want it to on both sides be written the words ‘Please Turn Over,’” he says, laughing.

___ Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits