While we, as Canadians, consume American media on a daily basis, it’s not often that Americans engage with us or our media on the same level. There are, of course, anomalies. Some shows, like How I Met Your Mother, include references to Canada as part of the joke, and Americans have taken a liking to certain Canadian actors (ahem, Ryan Gosling and Ryan Reynolds). Apart from stereotypes, the international community lacks common knowledge about Canada. This past year on exchange, I was shocked if anyone could name a Canadian province let alone a TV show or movie. Overall, though, Canadian media is, unfortunately, largely engaged with by Canadians and those living in Canada.
Schitt’s Creek, a sitcom that premiered on the CBC in 2015, is a notable exception to this rule. In 2019, Schitt’s Creek received three Emmy nominations, an astounding feat for a Canadian television show with an almost entirely Canadian cast. The show’s quirky characters and unusual style of humour make these nominations even more surprising. Though the show failed to win any category, the mere fact that it was nominated is a sign that America is finally willing to take Canadian media seriously. Just as this Canadian gem was beginning to win attention in wider circles, however, its creators, father and son team Eugene and Daniel Levy, opted to end the show after only six seasons. The show’s final episode aired in early April. It is now available to stream in its entirety on CBC Gem and will likely be added to Netflix later this year. I’m looking back at Schitt’s Creek’s brief but successful run and attempt to determine exactly what made this show so special (aside from the all-star cast and writers, of course).
In a lot of ways, Schitt’s Creek is your typical sitcom. It follows the fictional Rose family, who lose their fortune and are forced to move to the town of Schitt’s Creek, which the patriarch of the family, Johnny Rose, had bought his son, David, years earlier. As Daniel and Eugene Levy admitted in the special that followed the series finale, the rich to poor trope upon which the show is based is not unique. However, in the typical show with this type of storyline, the characters are essentially caricatures. In Schitt’s Creek, on the other hand, the primary focus of the writers was to build strong characters that would carry both the plot and the comedy. While the Schitt’s Creek characters fit with some of the typical stereotypes (the spoiled heiress, the attention-seeking actress, the dopey small-town mayor), they all have an emotional depth to them that allows the viewer to connect with them on a deeper level. The daughter, Alexis may be frustratingly spoiled and clueless, but we can all connect to her struggle to find her place in the world outside of her family.
In addition to this emotional depth, the strong characters also provide the comedy with more authenticity. When I was talking to my dad about the show in preparation for this article, he said that it reminded him of this show we watched from the 60s: The Andy Griffith Show. According to urban legend, the rule of thumb on The Andy Griffith Show was that the writers weren’t allowed to write jokes. Instead, the characters were so well-developed that the jokes revealed themselves.
It is this delicate balance of familiar tropes, authentic comedy, and complex emotions that makes Schitt’s Creek, in my mind, more than a sitcom. One of the most popular sitcoms amongst our generation is undoubtedly The Office. I can’t go a day on Twitter without seeing at least one meme that uses a screen cap from the show. I used to be amongst The Office-haters, but when I was having a rough time last year, I found myself unable to stop watching it. The Office, I found, like many others before me, alleviated my stress. It allowed me to escape into another world where my biggest problem was my annoying, fictional boss, Michael Scott. In one way, Schitt’s Creek is like The Office. It allows the viewer to escape into a different world where there’s always a joke to lighten the mood. At the same time, however, Schitt’s Creek makes use of another important instrument, one that is more often found in tragedy than comedy: catharsis.
For those who haven’t had this term drilled into their head during English and Drama classes, catharsis is defined as the purging of negative emotions, often through watching something (ex. a play) that causes those emotions to come to the surface. A pretty clear example of catharsis would be watching a Nicholas Sparks movie when you’re feeling sad because you know it will make you cry and that you’ll feel better afterwards.
As you’ve probably guessed, most sitcoms do not achieve catharsis. To understand this point better, think of the show Friends, another classic sitcom. When Ross and Rachel break up, it’s clear that the two characters are upset, but the show does not dwell for long on these negative emotions. Instead, the primary focus of their break-up is the running joke in which Ross insists they were on a break and Rachel insists they weren’t. Our negative emotions aren’t purged in watching this scenario because the show doesn’t allow enough time for them to come to the surface. It’s too busy making us laugh. Like The Office, Friends is about an escape from reality. On the other end of the spectrum, a show like This Is Us, which is the complete opposite of a sitcom, is designed almost purely for the purpose of catharsis. If you can get through an episode of that show without crying, props to you.
From this brief survey of popular television, then, there appear to be two options: either a show that allows us to temporarily escape from our problems or a show that allows us to confront our problems head on and “purge” our negative emotions. In my mind, Schitt’s Creek defies this binary. In between moments of authentic comedy, it incorporates real emotion. I still can’t listen to the song Simply the Best without crying (if you know, you know). While many of these moments come later in the show and I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t had the chance to watch it yet, there is a very clear example from the first episode that I think illustrates this point. While the rest of his family is running around frantically trying to save the possessions that are being taken from them by a revenue agency, Johnny Rose acts as an emotional anchor. He sits there, stunned, as he is told that almost all of their assets have been seized. In contrast with his family’s reactions, which are overtly funny, Johnny’s reaction reminds the viewer of the reality of the situation: that misguided trust can sometimes result in your life being pulled out from under you. In this way, the first episode remains emotionally grounded when it could have become absurd. The rest of the series follows suit.
The popularity of this unique form of sitcom, one that blends escapism and catharsis is, I think, very indicative of our time. Since 2015, when the show was first released, North America has been going through a period of political turbulence. Frustration towards the present and uncertainty about the future have caused us to long for escape. At the same time, the almost constant presence of these emotions means that we can’t ignore them entirely. We need catharsis almost as much as we need escape. It is for this reason that I believe Schitt’s Creek was so well-loved, and future sitcoms would do well to try to emulate its blend of comedy and emotional depth.
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