If you haven’t yet checked out Pop TV’s new comedy, Schitt’s Creek, the creation of father/son duo Eugene and Daniel Levy, you’re missing out on a hilarious and insightful look at what happens when a rich family is stripped of all luxury and plopped down in a place devoid of upper-class creature comforts. Life in Schitt’s Creek is all too much like real, down-to-earth, small town life. Far from being a work devoted to schadenfreude regarding their misfortune (cue The Simpson’s Nelson Muntz: “Ha ha! Now you’re poor!”), this show is not the least bit mean-spirited and it’s beyond funny because the main characters are rounded and quite sympathetic in their sense of displacement, loss and loneliness. The backwoods hamlet to which they’re relegated after the I.R.S. seizes all their other property for tax evasion (their accountant didn’t take care of business, and took off) is a town Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) bought for his son, David (Daniel Levy), as a joke, but now the joke’s on Johnny as he navigates the politics and power structure of his new surroundings. He’s treated with a certain amount of respect as the town’s “owner” but seems to be drifting as he becomes more accustomed to his situation: a captain of corporate culture without a ship. The real power lies in the hands of Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott) the town’s mayor and owner of the motel where the Roses now reside who can be nice when he’s not being slippery and a downright pain in the ass.
Johnny’s wife, Moira (Catherine O’Hara) is a former soap star who wears lots of black clothing, artsy jewelry, and has an extensive collection of wigs. At times it looks like she’s the one hit hardest by the trauma caused by the family’s loss of status but she’s stronger than she looks and occasionally her soft, breathy voice turns to steel when dealing with Roland and the frustrations of life in Schitt’s Creek’s only motel. Johnny and Moira sometimes get on each other’s nerves in their room with a ceiling that leaks brown water and where there are never enough towels but they seem to understand each other, can communicate clearly with “looks,” and sometimes when their two kids are fighting like cats and dogs next door, Moira just looks at Johnny and shakes her head slowly, which speaks volumes. Johnny and Moira know each other far better than they know their own children and part of the irony of their miserable situation is that by being forced into adjoining motel rooms, they’re getting to know David and Alexis (Annie Murphy) more than they ever did when David was living in a huge apartment in New York (that’s a thing of the past along with their palatial home) and Alexis was globe-trotting to far-flung locations with some of her rich “loose acquaintances” who have private jets and vices aplenty. By having to share a room, David and Alexis get on each other’s nerves a lot: he’s a Type A; she’s a Type B, but their attempts to get acclimated to their surroundings are fascinating and provide some of the most fun this season.
Alexis is the first to go somewhat native and is thrilled to be invited to a keg party by the motel receptionist, Stevie (Emily Hampshire) who runs the front desk at the motel. When any of the Roses walks in the door she observes them like they’re exotic creatures from another planet, and answers their questions with pure deadpan understatement though one gets the impression she’s laughing on the inside, not at them but at their reaction to her home turf, which, as something of a modern Beat chick with an outsider’s sensibility she recognizes as being off-center and provincial—but hey, it’s home. For now. As the season has progressed Stevie has developed an interesting relationship with David, the only one who seems to appreciate her dry humor and sharp but precise wit.
One of my favorite episodes so far was when David’s clothing has been evicted from his father’s closet and he decides to part with some of his beloved designer duds to try and raise a little cash for more eye cream—he got fired from his bag-boy job the first day because John was constantly calling him to see how he was doing. Stevie suggests a trip to the local thrift shop but David, who’s only accustomed to upscale consignment shops at worst is appalled to discover there that his Parisian leather sneakers with Vulcanized rubber arches are only worth a couple of bucks. David’s reaction: “You’ve lost my trust,” he tells the young man behind the counter, “And my business.” The clothes are the only thing of his former life that David has left and their apparent near-worthlessness on the local market wounds his ego. If you’ve ever needed a few bucks and tried to sell some items at a popular “clothing exchange,” you feel David’s pain. He takes it personally.
Daniel Levy is adept at showing David’s struggle to carve out a life in Schitt’s Creek. As he tells Alexis when she asked why none of his friends have called he tells her they’re just giving him some space. As they both know, nothing like going broke to dent one’s social life. When Johnny and Moira go away for a weekend for some much needed privacy, Alexis convinces David to have a party in their motel room. He agrees only if it’ll be a game night, with very strict rules, guidelines and time boundaries. All of that goes to hell however when a bunch of guys Alexis invited from off the street arrive to do some serious drinking. David, horrified, retires to his parent’s room for the duration of the evening to read. The look of disappointment on Stevie’s face shows how fond she is of David and when she goes to try and talk him into returning to the party to help her team win at charades, it’s a real moment. David is smart, funny and uptight; Stevie seems to be the only one in town who “gets” him, and much to her surprise, vice versa.
As for Moira who spends much time alone watching television, Roland’s wife Jocelyn’s (Jennifer Murphy) offer to take Moira to the local salon for a “spa day” recently came out of left field. Moira was mortified at the hairdo she ended up with but tried to hide the fact from Jocelyn, who after all, had paid for it. Moira is caught completely off-guard again when Jocelyn, ever polite but much more aware than one might think for someone who’s married to a guy like Roland, stops by to tell her she knows Moira hates the new hairdo, and knows that she hates Schitt’s Creek, but that the people there are just trying to help, and that Moira might need them someday, so she’d just better try and get used to it. Moira explains that she doesn’t really hate the town, all evidence to the contrary, but it’s not her town, and the hairdo is not her, though it looks great on Jocelyn. Neither woman pulls any punches during this conversation, and it’s a breakthrough moment of honesty.
Amid all the moments of laugh-out-loud fish-out-of-water comedy on Schitt’s Creek, there are genuine moments of poignance and discovery when expectations and assumptions on the part of the Roses and the other citizens are turned upside down, and therein lies the brilliance of the show. The Roses technically own the town, but economically and geographically, they’re strangers in a strange land. Doing their best to support each other through one of the roughest times of their lives, they find compassion and common ground in unexpected places, with unexpected people.
I wouldn’t exactly call Schitt’s Creek, a dark comedy, but perhaps a grey comedy. It has its darker moments, like at the end of the first episode and their first day in town, when the family is saying good night to each other; Moira closes the good nights with, “Let’s all pray we never wake up.” Even the show’s theme song begins with decorous, inquisitive notes (from a French horn, perhaps?) then slowly builds to a regal tune of perseverance: dignity. That’s what the Roses are trying to maintain, along with their sanity.