Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
There’s nothing like finding a surprise hidden in a small town. It might be a colorful mural or a statue commemorating an obscure historical figure. Or, it could be a machine that tells your fortune — and makes you realize you’ve wasted your life. The presence of such a life-altering device in a little town is the premise of the new Apple TV+ series “The Big Door Prize.”
We’ve seen this setup before, of course. The best-known among similar stories for television is probably “Nick of Time,” a November 1960 episode of “The Twilight Zone.” William Shatner, in the lesser known of his “Twilight Zone” appearances, plays a man traveling with his new wife (played by Patricia Breslin) through rural Ohio.
When their car breaks down in tiny Ridgeview, Ohio, they wait for the local mechanic to make repairs, whiling away time at the Busy Bee Café. On their table, they find a tiny fortune-telling machine — a box with a devilish head on top — and feed pennies into it. The innocuous questions and answers about whether their car will be fixed promptly give way to more dire questions and pointed but maddeningly cryptic answers on the little cards the machine spits out.
Who could have put this little machine in this small-town diner? How can it seemingly know someone’s fate? Or is the young couple reading too much into its Magic Eight Ball-esque answers?
“The Big Door Prize” offers a neat twist on the typical fortune-telling machine. In the town of Deerfield, a mysterious machine labeled “Morpho,” which looks something like an immersive arcade game cabinet or a photo booth, appears in the general store. Even the owner of the store isn’t exactly sure how it got there and whether it was delivered or just appeared one day.
Very quickly, the Morpho machine becomes the town sensation. People come into the store at an accelerating pace to try the machine.
Why? Because Morpho tells you your true life potential.
As it turns out, maybe it isn’t the best thing in the world to know what you could make of your life — or what you could have made of your life. You might see all the missed opportunities of your existence, emblazoned on a little blue card.
Humor and Heart
In his review for NPR, Glen Weldon also remarked that the premise for “The Big Door Prize” sounds like “The Twilight Zone,” or a Stephen King book, and the title absolutely fits for either. But he notes that the new series does not follow the dark paths Rod Serling or King might have taken.
The series is based on a novel by M.O. Walsh, and, based on the Penguin Random House description, the book sounds a little more science fiction oriented. In the series, Morpho asks only for your fingerprints and Social Security number (an ill-advised request that the people of Deerfield surprisingly shrug off). In the book, the machine asks for a DNA swab and apparently determines your potential from that.
What happens next in both book and series is that people either live up to their “potential” as forecast by Morpho or think they’ve failed to meet it and decide to make changes in their lives: the school principal buys a motorcycle and promptly crashes it, for example.
Or, in the case of Dusty (Chris O’Dowd), the schoolteacher protagonist of the series, they resent the machine and its control over people who so quickly accept their “fortune.”
While Dusty frets and obsesses about the machine, his wife Cass (Gabrielle Dennis) finds that her potential is “Royalty” but keeps it hush-hush for a time. Giorgio (Josh Segarra), the local restaurant owner and former high-school athlete, is satisfied with his potential as a “Superstar.” Or is he?
Maybe the most poignant “potential” forecast, in the episodes that have streamed so far, is the one for Father Reuben (Damon Gupton), whose potential sounds fulfilled until you consider another meaning. The humor of the characters, particularly Dusty, is fun, but it’s the poignancy that makes the show such a rewarding watch.
Only in a Small Town
In that “Twilight Zone” episode, the young married couple — if they can survive the fortunes they are given — are able to escape the machine and the town by getting in their newly-repaired car and hitting the road. Richard Matheson, who wrote the episode as well as some of the greatest fantasy fiction of all time (including “I Am Legend,” “Hell House,” “A Stir of Echoes,” and “Duel”) intended their escape from the machine to stand in for escape from the little Ohio town.
“The Big Door Prize” is a story that really works best in a small-town setting. Not only does the mysterious machine capture the attention of so many people, but it’s also not long before everyone in town knows what the Morpho card forecast about the rest of their neighbors’ potential. Additionally, everyone knows the holdouts who don’t want Morpho to predict their outcomes.
Naturally, the premise of the book and series, in which a machine can tell you your fortune or your greatest potential, makes us wonder how other pop culture locales might have made sense of Morpho.
“The Big Door Prize” comes from one of the writers of another small-town television staple, “Schitt’s Creek,” but what if, in the remaining episodes of the first season — or in the already announced second season — Morpho took its show on the road to Mayberry, North Carolina? Could we consider “The Andy Griffith Show” and how Morpho would have foretold the potential for its iconic characters?
I think there’s no question that Andy and Barney were perfect for the roles they filled in life, though I’d really like to know if Otis would have read the card for his life’s potential and changed his ways, permanently. What if Floyd found out he’d wasted his life as a barber?
The possibilities are endless and only limited by the number of residents of any small town — or the number of people passing through.
You can watch The Big Door Prize on Apple TV+.
Keith Roysdon is a retired newspaper reporter and editor who moved from Indiana to Tennessee and works as a freelance writer. He’s co-authored four true crime books, including “The Westside Park Murders,” which was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. He writes news and pop culture commentary as well as fiction. His Tennessee-set crime novel “Seven Angels” was awarded the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for Best Unpublished Novel from Mystery Writers of America Midwest.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.