Chris O’Dowd has carved out an unlikely career as an eternal Irish everyman. He has in recent years played a Celtic astronaut named Mundy in the Cloverfield Paradox and a talking dog called Shamus in Mary Poppins Returns (“well Mary Poppins, is it yerself?”). But though the roles change, the persona is always that of a mildly shambolic Roscommon man-child who has just fallen out of bed and could do with a breakfast roll before setting the world to rights.
That is the guise in which he makes his Apple TV+ debut in The Big Door Prize (streaming from Wednesday, March 29th). Dusty is an Irish schoolteacher who has somehow ended up in small-town Louisiana – one of those amiably bedraggled types at which O’Dowd excels (if a script called for “befuddled Irishman” who else would you hire?). He maintains that air of oblivious bonhomie even as life in Deerfield is turned upside-down by the arrival of a mysterious machine that reveals to the townsfolk their “true life potential”.
The Big Door Prize is adapted from a science fiction novel by MO Walsh by Schitt’s Creek producer David West Read. But the sci-fi doesn’t really extend beyond the idea of a device that reveals your “true” destiny. Otherwise, The Big Door Prize inhabits the gently feel-good milieu with which Schitt’s Creek had such success.
It’s slight and rather silly – but O’Dowd’s guy-next-door routine gives the audience something to cling to as the townsfolk begin to act out the sense of manifest destiny sparked by the machine.
‘I miss breakfast rolls and the sense of humour but our life in the US has been as normal as anyone else’s with young kids’
Dusty in fact gets off relatively lightly. When he gives in to the inevitable and investigates his true destiny, it is revealed that he is fated to be a “teacher/whistler”. That sounds insignificant – compared with wife, Cass (Gabrielle Dennis), who learns that she is meant to become “royalty”.
She’s already had a nagging sense that she was intended for better things than cosy marriage to a slow-poke high schoolteacher. Armed with this new knowledge, she takes steps that cause the relationship to fray.
This is potentially dark material. However, The Big Door Prize isn’t interested in dystopian doom and gloom. Rather, its mission is to gently explore the question of what life would be like if we had a chance to chase our real sense of who we should be.
The answer is that we’d be better off in some ways and worse in others. For O’Dowd, meanwhile, it’s impossible to imagine he would be doing anything other than what he is at presently: gently tickling our ribs with performances that capture a very Irish irascibly and repackage it for the whole world.