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The Gentle Reprieve of Schitt’s Creek

Schitt’s Creek
CBC.ca

In 2018, friends and family wouldn’t stop talking about The Great British Bake Off, known on this side of the Atlantic as The Great British Baking Show. “I’ve fallen into my seasonal depression and it’s the only thing keeping me sane,” an unhappily unemployed friend said, relaying an obsession with trying Baking Show recipes. “It’s so relaxing!” my aunt, in recovery from a major surgery, texted while on medical leave from her demanding job. “Have you watched it?” Everyone wanted to share it with me, admitting they were marathoning the show as a kind of ad hoc antidepressant to the trying, exhausting, and relentless march of the year.

The Great British Bake Off has functioned as a salve for the battered brains of my fellow Americans. Part of this is, of course, the escapism of nice, gentle Brits doing nice, gentle things, like baking without manufactured interpersonal drama (as there surely would be on an American iteration). But part of it is the escapism of watching denizens of another country acting profoundly un-American, the relief of seeing human beings unencumbered, at least temporarily, by the anxiety and rage felt daily by those of us living in this country. Trump’s presidency has made this more acute for everyone; I say “everyone” because even those who support the president, a vocal minority, are as much engines of anger and spite as those who revile him. We are all tired and angry, and the qualities that we were taught to value as Americans—rugged individualism, competitiveness, and a dogged determination to climb the backs of others to reach the peak—have begun to look especially unflattering in the harsh light of the present global moment.

Non-American television, which previously seemed to fall into the category of cheap imitation (think the UK’s Friends-derived Coupling and Australia’s successful importation of the soap opera genre), is being enjoyed in the States in a whole new way. Now it’s the subtle differences that we want to see, not the appealing similarities. The sheer relief of being reminded that there are other societies out there, functioning and otherwise, not so different from ours and yet entirely foreign, is a pleasure that used to be known only to those Americans with the means and luck to travel. Watching the exported cultural products of the rest of the world, a cheaper means to the same end, is easier today than ever, and brings with it a kind of mental respite sorely needed by everyone I know possessed by Bake Off.

My non-American television of choice is Canada’s Schitt’s Creek, a short scripted sitcom starring comedy legends Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara and co-created by Levy and his son, Dan. I discovered the show on a spring break trip to Halifax in 2016: Netflix’s licensed offerings, when I logged on in Nova Scotia, were different than they were Stateside, and my options were more limited. Canada isn’t really known here in the USA as a peddler of prestige TV; Degrassi has become a punch line, especially to a generation that remembers Drake as Jimmy Brooks, and Toronto-based Orphan Black attained a cult following but never quite became a breakout hit on this side of the border.

Upon reentry into my native land, I tried to introduce friends and family to Schitt’s Creek, the first season of which was available on streaming services. No one I showed it to seemed to particularly take to it. “It’s too broad,” my mother, someone with whom I often share opinions, explained to me as though I were missing the obvious. “Chris Elliott is in it, for God’s sake.”

Granted, the SNL alumnus is in it, and he plays a very broad sidekick: Roland Schitt, the mayor of the eponymous town in which the show is set. The premise is simple: a wealthy family of four, the Roses, lose everything they own except the small village that one of them once purchased as a joke.

I don’t really understand the idea that a family can own a town, but I’ve ascribed it to a nuance of Canadian law about which I remain ignorant. Suffice it to say, the show requires the buy-in that this family, once dripping in jewels and ensconced in a big city mansion, is unable to live anywhere now except a low-budget motel in rural Canada. As the show’s charming fourth season started, in early 2018, it was a tough conceit to still swallow, but that’s the immeasurable Canadian-ness of it. The Rose family, some years into their fall from grace, no longer seems driven by anything grander than making the best out of their shitty (forgive the pun) situation.

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Schitt’s Creek

On my bedroom wall is a cross-stitch embroidered with the saying “Bloom where you’re planted.” A good friend with whom I once moved to Los Angeles sent it to me the year after I gave up on California. I had run out of savings and hope, and returned to the Midwest and the office job I’d left so triumphantly the year before. The cross-stitch is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received, because I hear it in the voice of my friend, urging me to do something I’ve always found to be very difficult. My thoughts have long been dominated by daydreams of the better-paying job I could have, the better-functioning country I could find, the better life that awaits me, elsewhere.

This is the lesson that the Rose family learns, incrementally, in each episode of Schitt’s Creek. We watch each person take baby steps towards self-actualization, and slowly forget about where they’d prefer to be, and it involves sometimes painful disillusionment. If Schitt’s Creek were penned by Americans, one could imagine the motivation for each character to be a variation on how to escape rural anonymity, how to exploit the locals and land, and how to recover the vast wealth the Roses lost in the pilot episode. Yet Schitt’s Creek is much more of a character study, a quiet comedy in which the characters’ emerging dimensions and relationships spark the laughs.

In its 2018 season, the Roses’ adult children, David (Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy), finally shed enough of their toxic self-absorption and self-pity to find love. Earlier seasons found them behaving like the spoiled heirs we Americans would recognize as Kardashian-adjacent, spending much of the first season whining and mocking the locals, traipsing around in designer clothes next to townsfolk in utility coveralls. At first, the stunningly beautiful Alexis treated seducing the most eligible bachelors of Schitt’s Creek as a game, until she fell in love with a diminutive, sincere veterinarian named Ted, who rejected her after she insulted him. David brought a small pansexual revolution to the town, dating men and women (sometimes both at once), though he never seemed to care for any of them.

By the fourth season, lessons of honest work and true humility learned the hard way have paid off in genuine character evolution. The Roses’ wealthy friends of yesterday have all but abandoned them, and the series shows them continuously choosing to make new lives in the ruins of the old. After working as a receptionist and finishing her high school degree, Alexis is more mature, more responsible, less inclined to petty digs. David has worked an unpleasant retail job, earning enough respect from his boss to be given a gift that allows him to open his own boutique in the town’s former general store, giving him purpose, and the end of the previous season showed him seducing his earnest business partner, Patrick. The highlight of season four, by most accounts, was the moment Patrick serenaded David with an acoustic guitar rendition of Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” at a relaxed open mic night. David goes from embarrassed, looking around in fear at the way people will judge the sweet and unassuming gesture, to letting himself enjoy the fact that his boyfriend is singing to him.

The elder Roses manage to change and evolve from their oblivious cruelty as the town’s forgotten owners to civically engaged residents in their own right. Though Moira Rose, the matriarch (played in delicious millionaire drag by Catherine O’Hara), never stops lamenting her lot in life and expressing a desire to return to her glory days, her throwaway lines eventually become more posture than rallying cry. After winning an election to the town council, Moira quietly seems to decide, finally, that the only way forward is through, the only reasonable possibility to bloom where she’s planted, leaving the trappings of her old life behind.

The biggest pleasure of the show for me is O’Hara, playing a former soap star with a wig collection to rival Cher’s. As she did in Christopher Guest’s movies, O’Hara manages to twist deeply bizarre caricature into humane portraiture. Her Moira is a grotesque, given the best bon mots and the most frightening wardrobe, a parody of the wealthy dilettante and aging starlet, with more than a few sartorial nods towards her character in Beetlejuice. Though she can be the show’s most caustic voice, Moira’s edges are softened by the real affection she has for her husband John (Eugene Levy), even after he loses the vast fortune that allowed her to exist in the manner to which she was accustomed. It could be the four decades Levy and O’Hara have spent playing off one another since the heady days of SCTV, but for whatever reason, their comic chemistry is as delightful as ever here, and infinitely sweetened by time.

Schitt’s Creek

As an American viewer, it feels even more like a fantasy than the usual sitcom does. Here are people who should, by all rights, be consumed by the desire to regain their lost status, their lost possessions, their lost glamo(u)r. But they aren’t. They’re content to make the best of their lives in rural Canada, in a town that, in spite of its name, is really rather pretty and charming.

Something about this feels foreign to me. Even the bucolic TV towns of Gilmore Girls and Hart of Dixie had a polish to them that Schitt’s Creek never achieves. It really is a working-class village; the addition of the Rose family adds a touch of city aesthetic, but it remains more or less the same place as the Roses embed themselves in civic life. There’s situational comedy, sure, but it’s never at the expense of the locals; the high-status Roses are usually the butt of the joke, and the victims of their own flaws and mistakes. The “fish out of water” premise that would have, in an American sitcom, pitted economic classes and geographic regions against one another becomes, in the quieter Canadian comedy of the Levys, a subtler story about a family rekindling their compassion towards one another and interest in the world outside of themselves.

Hugh Laurie, the Englishman who starred stateside in the Fox procedural House M.D., famously observed about American television that in order for it to function week after week, year after year, none of the leads can ever really change. There’s always a re-set that seems to happen with our television characters, in both our comedies and dramas: if the characters were to change, the show as it was conceived would cease to be, and it’s presumed that the American public wouldn’t want that. There’s the perception we turn to television for familiarity and comfort, and even in this golden age of storytelling, there’s an American tendency to reset plots and characters at the end of each televised season (sometimes even literally, as in the case of NBC sitcom The Good Place). Our comedic protagonists will always want more than their due, and their failure to get it is the source of our laughter (see Veep or Community).

Schitt’s Creek, on the other hand, is telling a story about people slowly accepting their lot in life, their place in the world, even when that place is Schitt-y. To watch the show’s four seasons is to watch broad types and tropes become subtler episode by episode, making us slowly question what, and who, the real object of the joke is. It’s a funny show, yes, but without the traditional scapegoats. Every time it tricks you into laughing at a buffoonish character, it slowly reveals a new facet that makes us care about them more. No one is one-dimensional in the town of Schitt’s Creek; each season, each episode, the archetypal characters become more human. Compare this to American comedies like Parks and Rec or The Office, in which the broadest characters either became more serious or more cartoonish over time. Schitt’s Creek never seems to concern itself with fitting in or being compared to splashy Hollywood sitcoms; it does its own thing, and its fourth season made for warm, uncompetitive, and blessedly un-American viewing.