The Sweetening of Schitt's Creek

TV Features Schitt's Creek
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The Sweetening of <i>Schitt's Creek</i>

I’d intended this column to focus on Moira. Catherine O’Hara’s former soap star, with a wardrobe of whites, blacks, and slate grays in a woozy array of textures and patterns, sporting so much costume jewelry that one fears she’s going to throw out her back, might be a walking Magic Eye image of Harry Winston’s work bench. Or, for that matter, a Dr. Frankenstein voice coach’s bungled experiment: Her accent skates uncertainly through American, Canadian, and British registers, and that’s when she’s not test-driving her Cockney to buy a used car. The narcissistic matriarch of the spoiled Rose clan, stripped of their fortune and plopped down in the rural burg of Schitt’s Creek, Moira—as played by O’Hara, dressed by costume designer Debra Hanson, and written by Schitt’s Creek co-creator Dan Levy and his team—was, for the series’ first two seasons, the main reason to tune in; she’s high camp catnip (“What is your favorite season?” “Awards.”) with a wig collection that qualifies as the best drama on television.

And then something happened. Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy), once the owner of a successful chain of video stores, rediscovered his purpose running a motel. Moira won a seat on the town council. Their son, David (Dan Levy), opened a store and met a man. Their daughter, Alexis (Annie Murphy), finally finished high school (it’s a long story) and decided to enroll in community college. In Seasons Three and now Four, the Roses put down roots, and as they have, the people of Schitt’s Creek—once treated primarily as rubes, innocently getting in the way of the family’s plans to flee back to their former lives—have learned to wrangle the Roses, in some cases by developing sharper edges of their own. Though it hasn’t lost its absurdist inflection, what began as a fish-out-of-water comedy about a bunch of snobs reduced to eating mozzarella sticks at the Café Tropical has become a gentler, warmer, more complicated tale of what happens when the fish sprout legs: Call it the sweetening of Schitt’s Creek.

The plots remain as farcical as ever: In the Season Four premiere, Johnny stages an impromptu vodka-and-cinnamon-rolls get-together for the motel’s guests to distract from the removal of a dead body in one of the rooms; an upcoming episode finds Moira preparing for an anti-asbestos benefit concert, unsure whether to perform a number about Imelda Marcos, Patty Hearst, or conjoined twins. Of the last of these, she warbles, “the Foxwoods Casino Gazette did say it was a performance they’d never seen before,” and though the same doesn’t quite apply to Schitt’s Creek, its savvy remix of otherwise familiar features has grown on me. Levy and the brilliant O’Hara are the main draw, of course, one bumbling and one preening, both as confidently funny as in any of their collaborations with Christopher Guest, but it’s the mordant writing that keeps the whole thing afloat. As with Difficult People, the demise of which leaves Schitt’s Creek as perhaps the gayest comedy on TV, the series’ voice is, so to speak, “Extremely Online”—it’s peppered with Alexis’ name-dropping (e.g., “I stole this dress from Ashlee Simpson”) and David’s high-fashion ambitions (e.g. “I look to, like, Gwyneth, who soft-launched the Goop newsletter, and now it’s a thriving lifestyle publication slash empire”), all knowingly delivered in the airheaded upspeak of “brand ambassadors” and “social media influencers” and Instagram wellness gurus. In its way, actually, this is Schitt’s Creek’s canniest class satire: It understands that most of the canards applied to “millennials” are as much a function of one’s social status as one’s Facebook status, that only the affluent, or recently so, can commit time and resources to cultivating pristine digital personas.

The rest, as the series underscores, are working, studying, quietly striving, and look askance as being lumped in with their more privileged peers: David’s friend and former love interest, Stevie (Emily Hampshire), her sense of humor even drier than one of Moira’s martinis, inherits the motel, and with it more responsibilities than she believes she can handle; his business partner and new love interest, Patrick (the winsome Noah Reid), uncomplainingly assumes the burden of applying for licenses, landing grants, maintaining ledgers, all the drudgery of real life that Roses tend to forget during their many flights of fancy. Increasingly, though, Schitt’s Creek seems comfortable playing with the contrast—later this season, Stevie and Patrick join forces to prank David, teaching him a lesson about his unwillingness to compromise; the mayor’s wife, Jocelyn (Jennifer Roberston), stands up for herself in the face of Moira’s diva routine. (Mayor Roland Schitt himself, played by Chris Elliot, is the one extant link to the series’ astringent origins—a broad-as-a-barn busybody with implausible hair who seems more and more out of place in Schitt’s Creek’s evolving complexion.) The point is, these and others in the supporting cast no longer stare, slacked-jawed, at the Roses’ rude affectations, at least not for long: Instead, they exhibit their own foibles (besides being tacky), and challenge the Roses to be better people, less selfish, less oblivious, less insincere.

I suppose this is why Moira, clad in her armory of bangles, her chainmail of furs, strikes me as Schitt’s Creek’s North Star, at once its foremost constant and its compass of change. Under O’Hara’s wing, pursing her brightly colored lips in dismay and sashaying into every room as if she had an audience, Moira’s an exemplar of the sweetness beneath the series’ bite—she still speaks out of the side of her mouth, still prefers to be the center of attention, but when she praises David for the store’s successful grand opening or ditches a concert for Alexis’ graduation, there’s no doubt that she means it. Though the Roses haven’t wholly sloughed off their old selves—fortunately so, for that’s still the inspiration for the hardest laughs—they keep chancing into the kindnesses that have become the series’ backbone, the substructure that makes it much roomier than its collection of comic set-ups.

The sweetening of Schitt’s Creek culminates, in the fourth season’s sixth episode, with a rendition of “Simply the Best” so heartfelt that even Moira, never one to cede the spotlight, finds herself uninterested in a tidbit of town gossip; like me, perhaps, she’s come to appreciate some sentiment stirred in with the jokes. Schitt’s Creek’s central idea has always been that no one is immune to life’s humbling (and hilarious) twists, only now, layered atop this conviction, the series suggests that no one is incapable of redeeming themselves, either. It has learned, of all things, a lesson of Moira’s, her self-serving remark from the Season Three finale simultaneously suggesting the artful uses of affection: “When one of us shines, all of us shine,” she says to her singing group, angling for a solo. “That is the meaning of ‘ensemble.’”

New episodes of Schitt’s Creek air Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Pop TV. The first three seasons are now streaming on Netflix.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.