When Schitt's Creek premiered in winter 2015, it's doubtful anyone expected the ensuing four years to play out as they have, both in the show's fictional eponymous town and the world at large. What's happened since doesn't necessarily need further documentation here, but it often feels like empathy and kindness have become precious resources that seem to be running in low supply in general society. Schitt's Creek, meanwhile, has slowly ascended, providing audiences with a much-needed embrace of warmth and, most of all, family. Along the way, the Pop TV and CBC series has cultivated a passionate fan base, taught us how to fold in the cheese, and procured some previously elusive Emmy nominations, including in the best comedy series category. It's no wonder Schitt's Creek is at the top of our list of 100 Best Shows Right Now.
"We might've been living in a falsely safe state [before], where we didn't acknowledge a lot of negativity," star Catherine O'Hara, who plays Moira Rose, the matriarch of the displaced, formerly wealthy Rose family, told TV Guide on the set of our exclusive photoshoot with the cast in Toronto, Canada, last month. "But I think if you do acknowledge the negative, it allows you to really embrace the positive, too, and to go stronger. ... Now there is dark, and we're going really light, too, because it's just as strong and it's more powerful, ultimately. And it's worth fighting for."
Co-created by father-son duo Eugene and Dan Levy, Schitt's Creek begins right as the Rose family, whose fortune was built upon father Johnny's (Eugene Levy) video rental business and Moira's (O'Hara) now-fading acting career, lose everything thanks to an unscrupulous business manager. As a result, the family, including their two grown children — the aesthetic-obsessed gallerist David (Dan Levy) and tabloid socialite Alexis (Annie Murphy) — are forced to relocate to Schitt's Creek, a small town Johnny once bought as a gag. But what could easily have been a routine fish-out-of-water story quickly turns into so much more, as the Roses, unable to use wealth to shield themselves from true intimacy, have to reckon with the kinds of people they are, who they want to be, and how much family really means to them — often in spite of their own intentions.
"That was really the thesis of it all from day one: What happens when you take money out of an equation, money that's been a Band-Aid to problems and has allowed this family to exist in a very superficial atmosphere? What happens? What's left?" Dan said. "And the only thing, inevitably, is love. So how do you go about swinging the pendulum slowly but surely from one end to the other?"
While it's easy to see in retrospect how the show's heartfelt mission was baked into the series' premise, the initial episodes did have a bit more bite to them than the show has now, as the Roses' edges hadn't yet begun to soften in their new environment. (It's hard to imagine Moira repeatedly slapping anyone now the way she did Roland Schitt [Chris Elliott] in the show's second episode.) But partway into the first season, Schitt's Creek settled into itself, finding ways to mine laughs from the culture clash between the privileged, emotionally stunted Roses and the equally eccentric array of locals, while always making sure to highlight the humanity of everyone involved.
Dan attributes the show's ability to find its footing so early wholly to the series' incredible cast, who made the characters feel "so real and lived in from the very first episode." And he and Annie Murphy are also quick to credit how having longtime collaborators and friends Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as the heads of the Rose family not only helped set the tone for the characters, but also for the cast and crew on set.
"Catherine and I, we have the same kind of working technique," explained Eugene, whose 40-year collaboration with O'Hara includes SCTV, Best in Show, and Waiting for Guffman. "We just kind of delve the character and take that work very seriously, and then the comedy comes out of character. And we've been doing it a long time and just that comfort factor, I think, it's something you can't buy really. It comes with just experience and years of knowing and liking each other as friends."
"I think what [Dan] and I took from watching Eugene and Catherine work together is that as professional as they are all the time, they have this incredible sense of fun," Murphy added. "They're still having so much fun working and trying things and playing around. And I think [Dan] and I benefited from that."
The freedom to play around on set and turn the experience of making Schitt's Creek into a true collaboration — not just for the actors but between all the departments — adds to the show's feeling of authenticity, since everyone is encouraged to bring something of their own to the table. And it's because of the little quirks and idiosyncrasies that these characters have such a rich sense of history, depth, and humor.
David's expressive face and body language were born from Dan's desire to create a character who, unburdened by social cues, responds to irritants in a very physical, transparent way. Alexis' animated wrist and hand acting was something Murphy decided on after becoming inspired by the way socialites tend to carry their handbags daintily slung over their upturned wrist. ("And so one night I was like, 'What if there was no handbag?' " Murphy recalled. "And I just flipped my wrist over and added another wrist to the mix, and then just kind of ended up with this pathetic little situation, which stuck.")
And even Moira's expansive vocabulary can be traced back to O'Hara, who gifted Dan an encyclopedia of rarely used words to use as a reference when accessorizing Moira's palaverous dialogue. But with Moira, it isn't just about what she says; it's about how she says it. The former soap opera star's inexplicable accent is yet another unique creation O'Hara brought to the part and something she previously described as "how people speak when they want to reinvent themselves over and over again." And thanks to O'Hara's unrivaled diction and elocution, the actress has even been able to reinvent the pronunciation of a word as commonplace as "baby" — or in Moira's world, "bebe."
"I think the first time I [said 'baby'] it was kind of by mistake or just goofing around, and then a few people laughed and it made me happy to say it that way. So yeah, I just stuck with it," O'Hara explained. "I don't know, just because we hear the word 'baby' every day — most people do somewhere — and it's just, why not say the word that we've all said the same way in the English language forever, why not now say it this way?"
"That really was a giant step in terms of the eccentricity factor of Moira in the beginning," Eugene added. "In a way, it really kicked it off."
But while the show is packed with jokes — the series warrants a rewatch to make sure you've caught them all — what has most deeply resonated with the audience is its idealistic view of the world, where even the toughest circumstances can be overcome with enough faith in yourself and supportive people by your side. Following a period largely dominated by snarky comedy, Schitt's Creek's debut in 2015 came at the start of a new wave of optimistic comedy that includes equally heartwarming shows, like The Good Place and One Day at a Time, that have provided a much-needed respite from an increasingly divisive cultural landscape.
"At this point, all people are looking for is a safe place to express how they feel and express why they feel it," Dan explained. "So by creating a world where conversations can be had without extreme consequence or fear that you're going to be humiliated or shamed for what you believe, I think to find that middle ground really allows for change and allows for people to realize that maybe really hard beliefs that they had held before are changeable."
The power of Schitt's Creek's safe space is most evident in the relationship between David and his now-fiancé Patrick (Noah Reid). In the first season, David told his friend Stevie (Emily Hampshire) that he was pansexual, using the metaphor, — a phrase one can now find cross-stitched and emblazoned on anything you can imagine on Etsy. And after a few other failed dalliances, including the briefest fling between David and Stevie and even a time when David and Stevie both dated the same man at the same time, David found himself falling in love for the first time with Patrick, his buttoned-up business partner who hadn't dated men previously and wears "straight-leg, mid-range denim," much to David's horror.
As David and Patrick's relationship evolved, and as Patrick became more comfortable with his sexuality and David more comfortable with his own emotions, Schitt's Creek gave the characters the freedom to bask in the beauty of their burgeoning relationship (including all the charming little stumbles along the way) without facing any of the bigotry or tragedy that arise in so many queer storylines on TV. The decision to make Schitt's Creek a world free of homophobia was a conscious one on Dan's part in the hopes that it would one day reflect the world as it was, and not just as it should be: "A world where love inevitably makes you a better, happier, healthier person, which I think generally is the case for all of us," he explained.
"In terms of, particularly the David-Patrick storyline, I've received a lot of feedback from religious-based people who just hadn't had an in toward understanding what a gay relationship, in this case, was about," Dan said. "And by rooting for these characters, they came to understand something that they had never been privy to before. And that kind of change is the change that I think we need to do more of, by just hearing people out and then having the conversation because that's where I feel like the really fundamental change happens."
Dan has said that he doesn't think of Schitt's Creek as a sitcom so much as "a drama that happens to have colorful characters and funny circumstances." But this isn't to say that the show ever loses its humor, even during its most emotional scenes. What Schitt's Creek does best is know exactly how and when to undercut the show's overwhelming sincerity with a bit of acid. Underneath all those feel-good moments, there's always a bit of well-intentioned humor that keeps viewers from feeling as though they've accidentally stumbled into Very Special Episode territory and are on the receiving end of the heartwarming lesson of the week.
This is made easier by the fact that most of these characters are experiencing these everyday emotions for the very first time. What would feel expected or inevitable to most well-adjusted people feels surprising and new to the Roses, as though they've just made the greatest discovery in human history: feelings. "There's no self-awareness of the importance or anything profound about the scene," O'Hara said of these emotional revelations. "It's just, 'What is this I'm feeling?' So you're experiencing it purely in the moment."
Take, for example, a moment in Season 5's penultimate episode, "The Hike," after Alexis has decided to follow her boyfriend, Ted (Dustin Mulligan), to the Galapagos Islands, where he's landed a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity to study the wildlife. "OK, this might sound insane," a very distressed Alexis warns Ted, "but I've had this nagging feeling that as soon as I get there, I'm gonna start thinking about my family. ... Like, I will physically be there, but I will be thinking about them here."
"Right, so what you're describing is missing someone, and it is a totally normal feeling," Ted reassures her.
Alexis' stunned realization that she will miss someone for the first time in her life, most of which she had spent jet-setting around the world while her family never knew where she was or what she was doing (with the answer often being she was held hostage in some foreign country), is played completely straight, allowing the audience to simultaneously laugh at the absurdity of how ill-adjusted Alexis still is while simultaneously celebrating the beauty of her emotional growth.
"It's really real-life experiences that are comic and emotional and everything else, but they're played out in a very real way where the audience really is invested in the characters," Eugene said.
As invested as viewers are, however, it took a while for the show to find a wide audience. When the series debuted, the first two episodes garnered nearly 1.4 million viewers in Canada but barely registered in the United States, with the first season averaging 263,000 viewers (including delayed DVR views). It took a few years, a lot of word of mouth, and a very helpful distribution partnership with Netflix that began in 2017, but Schitt's Creek has graduated from being, like Alexis' short-lived reality show, a "critically reviewed" series to a critically acclaimed one, with its most recent season reaching an estimated 3.3 million viewers on Pop's various platforms. This summer, the series also earned its first four Emmy nominations, including best actor and actress nods for Eugene and O'Hara.
"Usually shows don't get their first Emmy in the fifth season. Usually, you're just lucky to be on air by the fifth season. It's truly extraordinary," Dan said. "For a show this small to get recognized by the Academy, which is sort of the top of the top — it shouldn't be possible. And yet it is. So to not just get a nomination, but to get four nominations is truly extraordinary."
"And at the same time, we think we should win," quipped O'Hara.
Of course, all this newfound attention on Schitt's Creek — including a legion of celebrity fans, such as Keith Urban, Cameron Crowe, and even Twitter recognition from Mariah Carey — means there will be even more eyes watching to see if Dan and his team can stick the landing in the show's upcoming sixth and final season, which is expected to premiere this winter. This is why Dan is grateful that he happened to have written nearly all of the show's swan song before it made the transition from cult comedy to mainstream hit last year.
"I'm glad that we are ending the show with the same kind of purity that we started it with," Dan said. "And it's exciting now to be putting the show together because we're all done now, and we're editing it together, and it's exciting to know that this season will now be watched by, arguably, the most people that we've ever had watching the show. So that's sort of a thrill."
"Bottom line," Eugene said, "it's always a good feeling when people enjoy your show."
"And it's good to laugh," added O'Hara.
Photographer: Corey Nickols (@unicornfightclub)
Creative Director and Producer: Natalie Gialluca (@nataliegialluca)
Set Designer: Leanne Kelly/Plutino Group (@leannekelly.ca)
Stylist: Peter Papapetrou/Plutino Group (@peterpapapetrou1)
Hair: Dat Tran (@dattranhair)
Makeup: Candice Ornstein (@source.organics)
Cover Designer: Martin Gee (@ohmgeez)
Retoucher: Kevin Gimstead (@kevykuttit)
Video Producers: Aaron Segura, Tony Maccio, and Corey Nickols (@unicornfightclub)
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