One of the more underrated sitcoms of the last couple of years, Schitt’s Creek revolves around a wealthy Canadian family who lose everything, and are forced to relocate to a town that they purchased as a joke many years before. Moving into the Schitt’s Creek motel, which they eventually start to manage, Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy), Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara) and their children David (Daniel Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy) suffer a bit of a culture shock when they’re forced to engage with everyday people, and to leave their lavish lifestyle behind. At first, the real world is personified by Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire), the motel clerk, but their experience of the town gradually expands out to include a local café, tended by Twyla Sands (Sarah Levy), the mayor Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott), his wife Jocelyn (Jennifer Robertson) and a whole other cast of characters. In particular, David and Alexis’ love interests come to contour much of the series’ trajectory, whether it’s Alexis’ boyfriend and (briefly) her fiancée Ted Mullens (Dustin Milligan), David’s brief fling with Stevie, which settles into a friendship, or David’s more abiding romance with Patrick Brewer (Noah Reid), a local businessman with whom he eventually establishes a boutique department store.
On the face of it, that’s a fairly familiar premise – the kind of setup that seems destined to be either sententious, exploitative or just plain tired. Yet Schitt’s Creek builds a funny, warm and authentic atmosphere out of its relatively familiar coordinates, thanks in part to the family vibe that percolates its way through every scene, and gradually comes to make the town feel like one big family as well. In part, that’s because this genuinely is a family effort, with three members of the Levy family cast in starring roles, and Daniel Levy helming much of the production and conceptualisation of the series. Yet there’s a different kind of family relationship at play here too – that between Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, who have been a comic duo for so long that simply seeing them in the same room together creates a sense of homeliness and warmth. While they may have become Canadian comedy’s first couple, they’ve never really had a chance to explore their rapport in such an extended way as they do here, with the possible exception of their recurring roles in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries. To a certain extent, then, Schitt’s Creek is about immersing the audience in Levy and O’Hara’s comic rapport, which is so organic, effortless and instinctive by this stage in their careers that it gets the series as a whole into a warmly comic groove that persists across all its different narrative strands, and its different emotional registers as well.
More generally, however, those two types of family – the biological family personified by the Levys, and the professional family embodied by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara – suffuses Schitt’s Creek with a more provisional and collective approach to family than you normally see in most sitcoms, and especially in most American sitcoms. In fact, watching Schitt’s Creek, I was reminded how indebted even the most irreverent American sitcoms are to the nuclear family, which is effectively synonymous with the genre itself. While that may force the most ingenious American sitcoms to reconceptualise family in brilliant and enduring ways, there’s also something salutary about the relaxation of Schitt’s Creek with regard to family – a relaxation epitomised by the porosity of the motel which forms the motor engine of the series as a whole. With all four members of the family shacked up together, and different members of the town coming and going at all hours of the day, the motel breaks down the idea of their family as a splendidly isolated entity, epitomised by an episode in which they receive a portrait that used to hang in their mansion, only to realise that it doesn’t even fit in their new rooms, and can’t be plausibly housed anywhere in the motel either. All those tendencies are enhanced when Johnny, and then the family, start to manage the hotel, as their personal and professional space fuse, making their lives feel even more inextricable from those of the townsfolk, and the Schitt’s Creek community at large.
As a result, the integration of the Roses into the community is much more heartfelt and nuanced than you normally see in fish-out-of-water sitcoms of this kind. While the locals may be exotic to the Roses, the Roses are equally exotic to the locals, and by showing us both sides the series evokes a porous exchange between the two that gradually settles into a genuine and authentic sense of community, without ever quite losing the comic difference between the Roses and the locals that gives the series its edginess either. Nowhere is that clearer than in the evolution of David over the course of the series. At first, David seems more or less gay, but his brief relationship with Stevie momentarily disrupts that, suggesting a closeted or bisexual narrative, only for David to matter-of-factly reveal he is pansexual – an orientation that seems to apply to everyone in the series, so fluidly and deftly do emotional and romantic connections transpire in the space between the two main sets of characters. Yet that Gleason isn’t present as an exercise in transgression, or as a way of further exoticising David, but as an embodiment of the principles of community and sociability that animate the series as a whole, meaning that it is only when he fully embraces his Gleason that is able to settle into the domestic bliss with his new boyfriend, Patrick, that suffuses the latter part of the third season – a bliss that culminates much of the town spirit and civic initiative that makes the series as a whole so warm and cosy to watch.
For all those reasons, Schitt’s Creek feels like a distinctively Canadian sitcom, taking differences in class, gender, orientation and difference that an American sitcom would have to wrestle with in a more agonised or avant-garde manner, and then simply accepting those differences, and working with those differences, in a more matter-of-fact, pragmatic and homely kind of way. Everything that the modern American sitcom needs to “resolve” already feels resolved here – or besides the point – which might rob the series of its comic tension if it were in less capable hands, but in fact builds a subtler and more awry comic signature, and a more seamless blend of comedy and drama, than I’ve seen in most American sitcoms. Indeed, the subject of Schitt’s Creek often seems to be the American sitcom, and America itself, as all the characters long for a world outside the town that is figured in terms of America – the allure of Los Angeles, the art market of New York – only to gradually realise that the town itself, and their interaction with it, has already addressed precisely what that recourse to grand American vistas is supposed to provide and resolve. And it’s in that gesture that Schitt’s Creek cements itself as one of the most astute commentaries on the American sitcom of the last couple of years – a wonderful opportunity to see two great Canadian comedians, and a team of talented Canadian actors and screenwriters, celebrate their comedy and their craft at its most idiosyncratically Canadian.