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How Schitt’s Creek became one of TV’s most beloved comedies

Schitt’s Creek started meh and ended great. Its finale is a triumph.

Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Annie Murphy, and Dan Levy in Schitt’s Creek.
Pop TV
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Tuesday night, the beloved Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek aired its one-hour season finale on Pop TV. And that finale was, blessedly, a purely good thing in this world, because Schitt’s Creek can be relied on to offer us such small comforts.

Schitt’s Creek, created by and co-starring the father-son team of Eugene Levy and Dan Levy, is an endangered species of a TV show. It didn’t come out of the gate splashy and showy and perfectly polished with endless buzz, only to end up fading into obscurity over time. It premiered in 2015 with a small audience and at a quality level that could safely be described as fine to mediocre, and then it amassed a devoted fan base slowly, over six steadily improving seasons.

When it appeared on Netflix in 2017, it got a jolt of interest from the US. That interest only grew as the show kept getting better and better — and now, in the sixth and final season, Schitt’s Creek is genuinely great. Its finale arrived precisely at its creative peak.

Schitt’s Creek started sardonic and sour. It ended warm and sweet.

Schitt’s Creek revolves around the Roses, a formerly ultra-wealthy family who, as the show begins, are in the process of losing everything because of their business manager’s tax dodging. Patriarch Johnny (Eugene Levy) used to operate a video rental chain, while Moira (Catherine O’Hara and a voluminous wardrobe full of wigs) is a retired soap actress; the children David (Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy) are both dilettantes in their 20s. Now, the government (never named, so we never quite know if they’re in Canada or the US) has left them with a single remaining asset: the town of Schitt’s Creek, which Johnny had bought for David as a gag gift.

As they struggle to get back on their feet, the Roses establish themselves in Schitt’s Creek, moving into a shabby motel suite and assuring one another that this will only be temporary. But in that suite they remain, with Moira’s most beloved wigs hanging from the walls.

In its first episodes, Schitt’s Creek was sardonic to the point of sourness. For its jokes it leaned heavily on Chris Elliott’s Roland, the town mayor, and while Elliott is a talented comedic actor, the only joke Schitt’s Creek ever found for Roland was that he was very gross, and that the Roses were appalled by his grossness. That gag had a limited shelf life!

The rest of the show veered bleak, with most of the emotional life coming from the idea that the Roses were snobbishly isolated from everyone, including one another. Most of the time, their isolation was funny because the characters were paper dolls, but when they were allowed to be full people — particularly David, who is in many ways the series’ emotional core — Schitt’s Creek could be downright nihilistic. The first season ends with a pitch-black shot of David driving down a highway alone, fleeing a family he believes has forgotten him.

But over its transitional second season, Schitt’s Creek mellowed. It matured into a comedy that was willing to go very weird for its jokes. It stopped depending on an easy shorthand of “lol gross” for cheap laughs. And it deepened its characters into figures who had rich emotional lives, and who realized, over time, that they wanted to know each other better.

Each Rose develops an ambition and an avocation. Johnny, after flailing aimlessly while searching for another business idea, decides to make a go of it running the motel in which the Roses are living. Moira joins the town’s amateur choir and explores other acting jobs. Alexis goes back to school and turns her socialite social media acumen toward publicity, while also finding love with the town vet. And David opens a store and falls in love with his business partner, Patrick.

That last plot line is probably as responsible as anything else for Schitt’s Creek dramatic surge in reputation from “pleasant little Canadian sitcom starring a couple of comedy legends” to “the comedy that everyone in media is talking about.” Patrick and David’s relationship became emblematic of the softer, kinder Schitt’s Creek of the latter day, one in which everyone is a full human character and queer love stories are allowed to flourish sweetly and without tragedy looming in the background.

It also became one of the elements that set Schitt’s Creek most dramatically apart from its peers in the wholesome sitcom genre: While Brooklyn 99’s Jake and Amy and The Good Place’s Eleanor and Chidi exist in a cheerfully sexless universe, Patrick and David managed to have compelling chemistry.

So it felt good and right, in the end, for the Schitt’s Creek finale to revolve around David and Patrick’s wedding.

The Schitt’s Creek finale gives every character a chance to say goodbye. It’s lovely.

Before we get to the wedding, there’s the table-setting of episode 13, “Start Spreading the News.” (Episodes 13 and 14 aired together, but they’re not a two-parter. Episode 13 has a separate plot line and structure from episode 14, “Happy Ending,” which is the series finale.) After six seasons in Schitt’s Creek, Johnny has at last hit on a winning business idea and attracted investors, and the Roses at last have the money to leave. They will, it becomes clear, be departing their motel suite — the symbol of how transient they have insisted their time in Schitt’s Creek would be — by the end of the season.

And each of the Roses has at last achieved the ambition they set for themselves. Johnny has reinvented himself as a businessman through his work in franchising roadside motels. Moira, after paying her dues once again in The Crows Have Eyes 3, has reinvigorated her acting career and will now be starring in a prestigious reboot of her old soap; the two of them will move to Los Angeles together. Alexis, having bid a bittersweet farewell to her beloved Ted earlier in the season, has established herself as a legitimate publicist and is ready to strike out on her own in New York City. And David, having at last been given the opportunity to return to his fancy old friends and fancy old life in New York, decides that he will have everything he wants staying in Schitt’s Creek, with his husband and his best friend and his business.

So the members of this family that we have watched learning how to love and be careful with each other are now going to be going their separate ways, and the finale is a goodbye not only from us to them but from them to each other. And it’s enormously effective.

Every character gets a grace note. Moira, officiating the wedding, gets one last glorious wig (if you pay close attention you’ll see that the brim of her pope hat is woven out of the wig), and one last chance to say “bébé.” Alexis gets the truly A Little Bit Alexis moment of wearing a bridal gown to her brother’s wedding, and the sweetness of realizing her faux pas after the fact and apologizing for it. David gets to once more disintegrate into shards of pure horror at the realization that no one is living up to his very specific aesthetic expectations, and to come back together again in service of his reluctant love for his town, his family, and his husband. And Johnny gets the last misty-eyed look back at Schitt’s Creek as he drives away.

That final moment struck me harder than I expected it to. But it turns out that there is something very poignant, to those of us sheltering in place, confined to a world that is abruptly much smaller than the one we lived in just weeks ago, about watching a family who went from a mansion to a motel suite finish up their time in that suite.

The coronavirus pandemic is much deadlier and much more consequential than anything that sweet Schitt’s Creek would ever address, and those of us who are sheltering in place rather than out on the front lines as essential workers are the lucky ones. But part of what art can do is pick up unexpected resonances as times shift.

Schitt’s Creek is a fantasy about a family who moved from a vast, open, luxurious world to a tiny and difficult one, and the fantasy is that in this second world they find fulfillment and warmth and love. And now, as it comes to a close, that fantasy feels much closer and more urgent than it used to. Perhaps we can take it with us, even as the Rose family’s time in the town of Schitt’s Creek comes to an end.

The first five seasons of Schitt’s Creek are streaming on Netflix. Season six aired on Pop TV and is available on the network’s streaming platforms with a cable provider login; it is expected to stream on Netflix later this year.

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