The Big Door Prize, review: Chris O'Dowd is superb in this cynic-defying feel-good comedy

Patrick Kerr and Chris O’Dowd in The Big Door Prize - Apple
Patrick Kerr and Chris O’Dowd in The Big Door Prize - Apple

The efficacy of the “Thought-Provoking Comedy” depends very much on what mood it finds you in. The Good Place, After Life or Ted Lasso are either masterpieces of popular philosophy seasoned with edgy jokes, or self-help with swearing. But none of them leave viewers on the fence – it’s love or loathe, binge or barf, this touchy-feely stuff.

The Big Door Prize, a new thought-provoking comedy from Apple TV+, comes at the same time as a new series of Ted Lasso and just after the “what-if-psychoanalysis-is-just-about-being-honest, hmm?” comedy Shrinking, so the world’s largest tech company plainly think there’s something in provoking thoughts as much as giggles. Based on a novel by MO Walsh, set in smalltown America, it begins with the mysterious arrival of an arcade machine at the local store. For a couple of bucks, the Morpho machine will scan your hands, ask you a few questions and then print out a little blue card that tells you your “life potential”.

Unsurprisingly the Morpho machine is an instant smash hit with the locals, who all suddenly find that their humdrum lives now have a purpose – storekeepers strike up new careers as magicians; grumbling palookas recast themselves as heroes. It is, in many ways, the embodiment of the X-Factor sell – once you know what “your dream” is, you merely have to pursue it. Every setback is thus just an opportunity, and all is well.

The Big Door Prize peoples this thought experiment with the standard sitcom smattering of ordinary – and yet remarkably witty – townsfolk. Dusty (Chris O’Dowd) is our lead, a teacher who is quite happy with his life choices and wants nothing to do with the Morpho; Cass, Dusty’s wife, is browbeaten by a domineering mother (who also happens to be the town mayor) and wonders if she has more to offer; Dusty’s student Jacob is precisely the kind of mumbling, shuffling teenager who needs to realise his potential, and duly does.

From all of this it would be easy to dismiss The Big Door Prize as manipulative, motivational schmaltz. And yet you can forgive a lot of guff for one funny line, and the Big Door Prize has plenty. The Ted Lasso formula of saccharine sentiment offset by salty humour is a highly effective one-two, and the performances here across the board are superb. As a card-carrying cynic and all-round curmudgeon, I confess that I was won over as, over the 10 episodes, one by one the residents of Deerfield go and get their Morpho cards. The show’s moral memoranda are slowly, cleverly subsumed by a broader sense of community.

These half hours spent in the company of this contrived Happyville – where no one seems to be anything less than quite well-off even though they never work – are nonetheless just a really nice place to be. Perhaps life is as much about finding contentment as reaching your potential, it suggests; and then it makes you feel entirely content to be watching, laughing and sticking around.