The ‘fish out of water’ scenario has long been a rich source for comedy writers. There have been individual characters, like Cambridge professor Jeffrey Fairbrother trying to run an entertainment staff at a holiday camp in Hi-de-hi! or Charles Emerson Winchester III trying to perform meatball surgery miracles in a frontline unit in M*A*S*H when he is more suited to conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sometimes shows pitch a whole group into unfamiliar territory, and in 2015 we were treated to one of the finest such efforts as the Rose family lose almost all of their wealth and opulence and are pitted into small town life in Ontario in the roaring success Schitt’s Creek.
The Roses have well and truly blossomed. Family patriarch Johnny (Eugene Levy) has made his fortune through Rose Video, the second largest video store company in North America. As if that wasn’t enough, his wife Moira (Catherine O’Hara) spent six and a half years fronting glitzy soap opera Sunrise Bay. Between them, their fortune allows them to lead a lifestyle of absurd opulence, employing a staff of 27 and thereby ensuring that their two adult offspring have no intention of leaving home.
Eldest child David (Dan Levy) is a pan-sexual who spends most of his time looking down on all around him. His minimal interest in working for a living comes in the form of galleries and exhibitions, although to his horror he eventually discovers that the only clients he ever had were actually covertly working for his parents to make it seem as though he was succeeding.
Daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy) has even less inclination to earn a living. Dropping out of high school, she is a superficial, name-dropping socialite, oblivious to how ‘normal’ people live and fully expectant that the world around her should be accommodating to whatever needs she has in order that she never lift a finger.
This then is the life of the Rose family – until one day, their whole world comes crashing down upon them. The family’s business manager has been embezzling funds, to the extent that everything the family possesses is being taken away. Only one thing remains beyond the clothes they are standing in – the deeds to a town Johnny bought as a joke due to its comical name – Schitt’s Creek – and it is here where they find themselves arriving with nothing.
When they arrive in Schitt’s Creek the family’s first encounter is with the mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott). Roland is lazy, scruffy, slow, manipulative and demanding, which makes him rich material for storylines. His wife Jocelyn (Jennifer Robertson) is a somewhat more conventional person and she teaches at the local high school. At the start of the series the pair have one offspring of their own, Mutt (Tim Rozen). Mutt is of immediate interest to Alexis, carrying a smouldering mystique about his silent and nature-loving ways as she gets to know him intimately while litter-picking for community service punishment.
In terms of accommodation, the Roses are forced to take interlinked rooms at the town’s motel. It’s a beaten down place where very few of its facilities are in good repair, but they rarely need to be since the motel hardly every receives any guests. Schitt’s Creek is merely an amusement to those traveling further to Elmdale. Given its lack of guests, there is no real need for the motel to have much of a staff, so sullen and sarcastic Stevie (Emily Hampshire) is content to run the place, preferably without having to interrupt her reading.
Unsurprisingly, the Rose family are all aghast at the world they now inhabit. Devoid of money or belongings, aside from a vast array of wigs from Moira’s acting career that seem to survive the repossession cull and could warrant their own room, the family are essentially starting from scratch. Their only apparent opportunity to escape the town is by managing to sell it on, and it is to this end that Johnny focuses his attentions, while the remaining family members try to acclimatise. David finds himself becoming best friends with Stevie, sometimes a little more, fuelled by their love of sarcasm and sniffy put-downs. Alexis meanwhile is in pursuit of love. While Mutt is the focus of her more animal instincts, local vet Ted (Dustin Milligan) is a far safer bet – steady job, kind-hearted, polite and devoted to his animals. But since Alexis has rarely looked further than skin deep, her path to love is set to be a confusing one as she dithers between the pair of them.
For Moira, there is no question of finding work or love, so she needs to fill her time elsewhere. In such a small town however, her on-screen past seems to carry little sway, so she instead finds herself lending her talents to the local female singing group, the Jazzagals.
Over its six seasons, the focus of Schitt’s Creek’s central family begins to shift. As they acclimatise to their new surroundings and the insular lives they now lead, they become less driven by selling the town and more focussed on successfully reinventing themselves. For Johnny, a variety of entrepreneurial opportunities arise, although each present a challenge when the cooperation or approval of Roland or one of the other town folk is needed. Moira focuses her efforts on joining the town council, while Alexis and David both branch out into earning money via their first taste of gainful employment. In later series, both make significant strides in both love and careers.
There are likeable parallels between Schitt’s Creek and quirky 1990s hit, Northern Exposure, where the central character of Dr Joel Fleischman was coerced into becoming doctor to the remote Alaskan town if Cicely in return for them paying his medical training fees. Both have one central hospitality venue, Schitt’s Creek’s Café Tropicana seemingly the social focus for food and drink. Northern Exposure also found Joel bemused and frustrated by the bizarre characters around him and is desperate to find a way to leave, while in fact he learns a way to live in the unusual warmth of the offbeat townsfolk.
What makes Schitt’s Creek so successful and differentiates it from Northern Exposure is the family dynamic. The Rose family discover themselves in their new lives, finding hidden talents, love and emotion that barely existed in their wealthy and superficial Hollywood lifestyle. What kept the viewers coming back for six seasons was the fact that each character grew so much. By the end of series six, wrapped up in a very likeable finale, we feel like we have joined the Roses on a journey of discovery along with some of the town’s inhabitants.
Schitt’s Creek was a glowing success, pulling in awards for all its leading players as well as a multitude of other categories. The four lead actors are all exceptional and of the supporting cast, particular standout is Elliott as Roland, previously seen as Robert’s creepy brother-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond and a riot in his inappropriate and hysterical role of mayor. Although a slow burner, with initial recognition based largely in Canada, Schitt’s Creek grew to become one of the most decorated comedies of all time in award terms and a jewel in the crown of streaming service Netflix. It’s a fully justified success story, so if you haven’t stopped by, it’s well worth saying howdy to the residents in Schitt’s Creek…you really won’t want to leave.
Review by Brian Slade:
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on January 9th, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.