The Limits of Potential

Love and Life Lessons from Apple TV’s The Big Door Prize

Bryan J. / 7.20.23

Whether we know it or not, people often view relationships like the purchase in stocks or bonds. A boss may “invest” in an employee with their time and guidance because of their impressive resume. A coach may see a young talent and champion their training above others to not only win games, but prepare the athlete for future successes. In these contexts, investing in someone with potential reaps serious returns in the future. Because of who a person “could” become, we might be give more to the relationship or, conversely, be more forbearing with their shortfalls because their best days are ahead of them.

But assessments of another’s supposed potential should never be confused with kindness or generosity, let alone love. Love, almost by definition, transcends the linking of affection with achievement — it has far less to do with quid pro quo than it does with unconditional care and affection for another. To make good will contingent on performance is the antithesis of love, to say nothing of the Christian gospel.

Misunderstanding this reality, especially in life’s most important relationships, leads to heartbreak. Ask any child about their experience having a parent’s good will toward them tied to how they performed in school, sports, church, or music. Talk to a spouse (or ex-spouse) who got married based on their partner’s political, financial, or career trajectory. When we confuse loving someone unconditionally with loving someone based on their potential, disappointment is inevitable.

That is a difficult lesson for the town of Deerfield to learn in Apple TV’s The Big Door Prize. In the show, the community finds a new fortune telling machine has been dropped off at the general store. Instead of telling someone their fortunes, however, the mystical Morpho machine tells the residents of their town their fullest life potential. (After, of course, entering their social security number and fingerprints)

Before long, the line is out the door. The whole town is curious to learn what their fullest life potential could be. The Morpho dispenses little blue cards dubbing some users to be “Royalty” and “Brave” and “Dancer,” affirming some life choices and opening up new possibilities for others. But the machine also doles out ironic potentials — the frumpy general post owner’s grand life potential is to be a “magician” and the school’s principal’s potential card tells her to be a “biker.” Even worse, the machine doles out painful and hurtful possibilities too. One local teenager’s greatest life potential is “liar.” Chris O’Dowd’s character Dusty, a local high school teacher, discovers the greatest potential of his life has already been met: his card says “teacher/whistler.”

The result is a show that’s three parts Schitts Creek, one part Big with Tom Hanks, and two parts Twilight Zone. A supernatural, possibly divine glimpse into one’s “true” potential causes mayhem in Deerfield. Relationships strain and break as couples feel pulled in opposite directions, while new relationships form based on their glimpse into providence. Careers are shredded as townsfolk strike off on new haphazard adventures. Regrets are unveiled, jealousies are unearthed, pains are deepened. The biker principal ends up in a neck brace after a motorcycle accident and the magic show presented by the shop owner is an embarrassing flop. The town priest’s card reads “father,” and he doesn’t know if that is a renewed call to his vocation or a divine sign to leave the pastorate, get married, and have a family.

The turmoil of the adults in Deerfield provides a negative example for the youth. When parents and grown-ups in the show are presented with alternative futures for themselves, they revert back into teenage states of immaturity to cope with the revelation. Men fight and bicker and try to go after each other’s women, a display of juvenile masculinity that makes viewers cringe. Women group up and bicker and resent one another, cheerleading and gossiping and tearing each other down to climb in the social hierarchy.

The town’s actual teenagers ride out the calamity with some semblance of sanity. Some of the students find relief in the revelation of their calling at such a young age. Others encounter guilt and shame, learning that their fullest potential is to be a “liar” or some other defect of character. Some parents celebrate a child’s revealed potential as if it was gospel truth, while the teens chafe against the inherent determinism at play. Perhaps because they are so used to thinking about their life potential as high schoolers, or perhaps because they have so much time and freedom to map out their life trajectory, the show’s teens come to their senses before the adults. They find courage to disclose their secrets, open up about hardship, and as a result, grow closer to their families. They begin dating the people they are actually attracted to, regardless of their peer’s judgment.

By the end of the season, Deerfield’s teens come to a conclusion: screw all that. The good life is not lived by obsessing over potential. It’s a distraction from the things in life that actually matter.


The adults get closer to this conclusion as the season draws to a close, but we’re still not sure how things turn out for them. Dusty declares that the Morpho cards aren’t really about one’s potential, but they are the message that would inspire people to grow into their potential. In his view, the Morpho machine is a benevolent agent of chaos, bringing forward the town’s conflicts and hidden desires so that they could be resolved and reconciled. Whether he is right or not, we do not know: we’ll have to wait for season 2 to find out.

It wasn’t that long ago that the U.S. Army used the recruiting slogan “be all that you can be.” The idea was that personal growth, individual fulfillment, and vocational success were the keys to living a good life. Psychologists call it self-actualization, and it’s the same default mode that so many in Deerfield represent. Whether they are inspiring their children to do better in school or encouraging one another to pursue their own potential, the individual quest to “be all that you can be” is paramount.

But the dark side of this worldview is just as present, a Twilight Zone style moral parable cushioned by modern compassion. If love has nothing to do with potential, and potential has nothing to do with love, then our “fullest life potential” is peripheral to living a fulfilling and happy life. It may be nice to become who you were meant to be, but other things are much more important.

It’s comforting to discover that God doesn’t welcome or use people based on their potential. He does not sit on the heavenly throne reading through resumes until He declares, “Here’s the one! Oh my, what a wonderful saint this person will make by the time I am finished with them.” The Bible is full of timid, stuttering, obstinate, rash, disobedient and foolish people who receive a calling to do something they’re very bad at. It’s as if God intentionally uses people with zero worldly potential to show how wrong we are for putting so much investment in it, and to show us what real love looks like.

How odd and countercultural it is to proclaim that living up to one’s potential is not necessary for a good life! Or for that matter, how odd and countercultural it is to proclaim that living up to one’s potential is unnecessary for eternal life! We do not need to be “all that we can be” to enjoy a happy family, a close friend, or even the forgiveness of our sins. We were bought into this world without regard for our potential, and we shall leave this world regardless of our potential. Shouldn’t this imply that there’s something more important than potential during the inbetween?

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