Friday, May 19, 2023

The Big Door Prize will make you reconsider your life choices

Since we already let machines run our daily affairs, why not let them run our lifepaths?

In the remote town of Deerfield, the place where grand aspirations go to die, people could use a jolt of motivation. So one day, a mysterious machine appears in a grocery store. For a few coins, it reveals to you what your potential is in this life. And what each inhabitant of Deerfield does with the machine's verdict forms a fabulous mosaic of character studies. What if you life potential demands that you leave everything behind? What if it's a life-threatening adventure? What if it's where you already are? What if it's in your past, where you can no longer go? What if it's beyond human capability? What if it's what you used to want and gave up on? What if it's what you secretly fear to be true?

I don't know what secret recipe Apple TV is hoarding, but somehow they keep producing some of the best science fiction series out there. For All Mankind, Severance and Hello Tomorrow! would suffice to draw the attention of any science fiction enthusiast, but their new series The Big Door Prize does something really special. With the light-touch addition of the tiniest of speculative elements, this story pushes the lives of an entire town sideways, dissecting their unconfessed inner demons and casting a compassionate eye on their frustrations.

The standard dictum on characterization is that a character's true self is revealed in their choices. What The Big Door Prize adds to this rule is having the characters learn in advance what their true self is meant to be, and from then on we follow how they respond to that statement. You see, the thing about stories with prophecy is that the character's actions in response to the prophecy are themselves part of the prophecy. If a machine that reads your lifepath tells you that your best potential is superstardom, but you already peaked in your teens, that doesn't exonerate you of responsibility for what you do with your present. If the machine tells you that your best potential is fatherhood, but your wife died years ago, what you do with that information may show bits of what kind of father you might have been.

Now, to be clear, the series never confirms that the machine is accurate. It always repeats the same verdict if you consult it multiple times, but how it knows what to say to each user is anyone's guess. It's equally fascinating to watch the responses of those who believe the machine as those who don't. Over the course of the season, people may suddenly end their marriages, or change careers, or make outlandish purchases, or radically revise their image of themselves. In a curious way, this story serves as a didactic demonstration of one of the principles of good writing: choice is more appealing than fate. It doesn't actually matter how the machine works or where does it get its predictions from; what matters is the reaction of someone who chooses to trust the machine, and of someone who had no direction in life, and of someone who wants to prove the machine wrong, and of someone who would prefer an open future without constraints.

The Big Door Prize has abundant love for its characters, and where it's most visible is in its protagonist, the moral anchor played with delightful sincerity by Chris O'Dowd. It's always refreshing to find a comedy that doesn't rely on detached cynicism, and this role of an unassuming schoolteacher in search of a purpose is written with such maturity and performed with such charm that the surreal shenanigans of the rest of the cast are made more credible because he's there to drive the emotional content down to earth. These are characters who were living on autopilot, who for the first time are given a hint that they can choose to live differently, who might otherwise have gone on for years wondering what if. But for some, that broadening of possibilities carries its own shadow of dread. For some, it would have been preferable to never know they had a choice. For some, to glimpse their other available lives is too scary to bear.

Who is the machine to tell them who they can be? How much does it really know about them? And why should anyone take its verdict seriously? The collective response to the machine is volatile, an agitation waiting to happen, a potential mass that only needed a little stirring to undergo chain reaction. More than what the machine says, the significant event for each of its users is the way their interiority is affected by an external perspective. It's terrifying to consider that we don't fully know ourselves, that we may need help in figuring out what we're capable of. It's terrifying to suspect that we would have been happier in another life. The threat that the machine represents is bigger than discovering another option; it's discovering that there are options. It sounds like a simple idea, but perhaps we don't act upon it as often as we should. After all, if you're convinced a machine can't possibly know your potential, why would you go ask it?

The Big Door Prize explores what happens when people are invited to look in the mirror. It carefully untangles the reasons why we lie to ourselves and sometimes pretend we're satisfied with things the way they are. It questions the criteria we use to label some choices sensible and some others absurd. And above all, it suggests that we shouldn't need a magical machine to wake us from the unexamined life.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.