The small town of Deerfield is a comfortably ordinary place until a mysterious machine called the Blue Morpho arrives. In exchange for a few quarters – and providing one’s Social Security number and fingerprints – the machine promises to reveal a person’s life potential.
Soon the town is in a tizzy as people learn what their future could, or should, hold – a person might be a magician, storyteller, hero, liar or royalty. In some cases, this information, which is dispensed by the machine onto a card, can rapidly upend a person’s entire life.
That’s the starting point for “The Big Door Prize,” a new comedy series based on M. O. Walsh’s book of the same name. Premiering on Apple TV+ on March 29, the show follows Dusty Hubbard (Chris O’Dowd), a local teacher, his extended family and neighbors. Each episode dives deeper into the story of a new character, like Jacob (Sammy Fourlas), a high school student whose twin brother – the local superstar athlete – recently died, or Father Reuben (Damon Gupton), the new priest in town.
The series was created by David West Read, who spoke recently by video about creating the show. Read previously wrote for “Schittt’s Creek,” and some characters, like Jacob’s dad, the widowed Beau (Aaron Roman Weiner) or Giorgio (Josh Segarra), are over-the-top in a way that’s reminiscent of that much-loved series, but mostly the show’s tone is quieter and more thoughtful.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What would your card say?
If this machine existed, I hope it would say “writer.” I don’t really think I’m capable of doing anything else. But as the show demonstrates, knowing you’ve reached your peak is not the happiest thing either.
Q. Would you put your Social Security number and fingerprints into a mysterious machine? That seems crazier to me than believing what the cards say.
In this modern age, at a certain point I think we all say, “Well, I guess my privacy is not something I can hang onto anymore.”
I give up a lot of personal information on a regular basis and sign agreements that I don’t read. So if everyone in town was doing this and making huge changes as a result I’d probably get sucked in.
Q. What made you want to adapt this book?
I love things that blend comedy and pathos, and I love light sci-fi, where it’s our world with maybe one unnatural element. This is almost like the movie, “Big,” where a machine comes into a very natural, grounded world. It’s more about what people do as a result of the machine than the machine itself.
This book has this amazing premise but there’s also a whole cast of characters and there’s the idea of viewing this through the lens of all these different people. That made it feel like it would have legs for a series. Going deep on a different character the focus of each episode while still keeping the overarching story on the Hubbard family was part of my original pitch.
We also enjoy giving each character their own visual language and musical style in their episode. Beau’s card says “Sheriff,” and so his has a spaghetti Western theme and some of the shots are like from a John Ford movie, with references to classic Westerns.
Q. How many of the life potential cards are from the book and how many did you create?
It’s a mix. There were some we loved from the book that we adapted to the series and then we had a brainstorming day in the writers’ room to think about anything potential might be and what could go on the cards. The doctor getting “undertaker” came out of our writers’ room – it made us laugh and then suddenly we had the idea for a character.
The series is necessarily something different. The book has an ending and explanation and I wanted to build our own mythology and give ourselves the longest runway possible for this story.
After the pilot, basically none of the stories in the season are from the book. We have spun off so far so we don’t have to worry about what we did or didn’t use from the book. We’re filming something completely new.
Q. When an intriguing character appears in someone else’s episode do you think, “Oh, we should give her an episode” or is it all plotted out?
We knew which big stories we wanted to tell in the first season and are planting those characters in little moments in the first few episodes. But over the course of shooting, when actor meets role and something suddenly sparks, you think, “Hey, they could hold their own episode one day, even if we don’t have it yet.”
Q. Were you surprised by how good Sammy Fourlas was, considering his background as a TikTok star?
I never thought we’d cast a TikTok person. I don’t even have a TikTok account and I feel so old even saying TikTok. It’s amazing having someone like him with actors like Crystal [R. Fox] who has decades of stage and screen experience. Sammy has never done a movie or TV show, but he was the most grounded, natural, talented actor. Maybe more people will be discovered that way. I’m a believer.
Q. How much do you think about dialing up or down some of the more outsized characters?
I still consider those bigger characters grounded in some truth because they’re being performative in their world for a specific reason. Beau is dealing with the loss of his son after the loss of his wife and he feels untethered in his universe. Adopting this cowboy persona works because westerns are a world of good and evil and everything is simple and it makes him feel attached to something he understands. So even though it’s ridiculous to see a guy turning his garage into a saloon and walking around in a cowboy hat and boots, it comes from a real place.
Q. How different would this have been in a bigger town or in Brooklyn or L.A.?
If this machine showed up in a big city, it might not have any impact. When there’s one new thing in a small town, it’s the only thing they’ve got. Everyone knows everything about everyone. They’re sharing what card they got with each other, and it becomes self-fulfilling in a way – if your card was true for you then maybe mine will be true for me. And then they work themselves up into a small-town frenzy.
You wonder who’s going to lie about their card, who most wants you to know what’s on their card, who’s going to tell you their card means something other than what it means. We’re trying to explore all of them.
Q. Why does getting a card change everyone’s behavior?
People start thinking about what their card would be and what they want it to be and then reacting to what it actually says. The show is about how the machine makes you dig deeper in getting to know yourself.
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