One Big Happy Family
Schitt’s Creek did everything right, and was rewarded with massive success on both sides of the border. On the eve of the show’s final season, nobody is more wistful than the family that created it, whether or not their last name is Levy
What’s the best thing about Schitt’s Creek?
Critics and fans who’ve fallen for the show have turned out in droves to dissect its admirable qualities. First of all, it’s unequivocally hilarious—according to Rolling Stone, “the funniest show on TV right now.” The family at the centre of the series, the once-obnoxiously-wealthy, now-bankrupt Roses (father Johnny, mother Moira, son David and daughter Alexis), actually grow into likeable people as they gradually settle into their backwoods new town (the show is aptly described by Vanity Fair as “a portrait of a bunch of spoiled jerks softening in new surroundings”). The core cast is solid gold: the Rose parents are played by comedy legends Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, David by a preening Dan Levy, Alexis by Annie Murphy doing a pitch-perfect Kardashian impression. The stellar supporting cast is a bottomless well of delight. Moira and Johnny, while beset with constant afflictions, share a relationship that is tender and supportive and resentment-free (The Atlantic called their “sweetly subversive” marriage one of the show’s “secret strengths”). The quirky world the show has built is a positive place, “warm and inclusive and tolerant” (The Guardian). A scene in which David’s boyfriend Patrick serenades him at an open mic with a moving acoustic cover of Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” blew up social media and was named by The New York Times as one of the most memorable TV episodes of 2018.
Then there are all the cherries on top: Moira’s menagerie of wigs. David’s incongruous, monochromatic fashion sense. Alexis’s endless “Ew, David”s. Johnny’s eyebrow calisthenics. Every scene with schlumpy mayor Roland or sardonic motel owner Stevie. Some might argue that Moira’s artificial, unplaceable accent alone is worth the price of admission.
“There are so many things to latch onto with Schitt’s Creek,” says Sally Catto, general manager for programming at CBC, the series’ home network (it airs on Pop TV in the US, as well as on Netflix). “The talent, the sayings, the wardrobe. The global success of it is incredible, and it has been so fun to be part of that snowball and watch the series just rise and rise and rise.”
Last season, on Pop TV alone, each episode of Schitt’s Creek averaged 3.3 million viewers; it’s been the number one scripted comedy on CBC since it aired. The series was nominated for four Emmy Awards (Outstanding Comedy Series, Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and Contemporary Costumes). It became the first Canadian series to be nominated for Best Comedy at the Critics’ Choice Awards. But, unfortunately for fans, the snowball is rolling to a stop after the show’s sixth and final season. We spoke to some of the people behind it about how the Schitt’s Creek got it so right, turning the little Canadian show that could into a certified international hit—and why they’ll never get over what they built together.
From its earliest stages, Schitt’s Creek has been a family affair. Besides Dan and Eugene, Dan’s sister Sarah rounds out the on-screen Levy contingent, playing ever-pleasant waitress Twyla; a fourth Levy, Eugene’s brother Fred, is an executive producer. Of course, Dan Levy is the show’s mastermind—the original idea was his. He is creator and executive producer, showrunner and star; he’s even directed a couple of episodes. But very early on, he asked his famous father Eugene, celebrated star of SCTV and Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Best in Show, to wade with him into uncertain waters. After all, his most high-profile gig to date was co-host of MTV Canada’s The Hills: Live After Show. He’d certainly never made a series from scratch before.
Eugene admits that, while delighted, he was surprised when his son approached him about collaborating creatively. “He’d always tried to maintain his own thing,” he says. “But of course I said yes. Quite frankly, it could have been any idea and I would have jumped in and worked on it with him.”
That said, he was not confident that the whole project would amount to anything more than a father-son bonding experience. “At some point I thought to myself, ‘If it’s not going anywhere, do I tell him he doesn’t have the talent to pursue this? Or do I not say anything and just keep working on this idea?’” These days, it must be hard for Eugene to tell this story without laughing.
From there, the Levys widened the family circle, bringing in the players they’d need to make this a go. Of course, Catherine O’Hara—Eugene’s erstwhile improv partner on SCTV and collaborator on Christopher Guest’s Best in Show and A Mighty Wind—was their only choice to play the Rose matriarch. Eugene’s wife and Dan’s mother, Deborah Divine, brought up the show to her friend, notable Toronto-based industry builder Peter Sussman, who suggested they try to pitch it in Canada. They made a demo reel with a skeleton cast—both Levys, O’Hara, comic veteran Chris Elliott. They took it to different places, but CBC “was ready to commit to a number of episodes,” recalls Eugene. “Sally Catto could not have been more receptive and excited about the idea of doing the show.”
Says CBC’s Catto, “At the time we ordered it, we were really doubling down in terms of our comedy strategy, looking for single-camera auteur-driven comedy. We really wanted that distinct voice, and for sure Schitt’s Creek delivered on that. It also served a notice to other talent that, at the CBC, you can tell your stories the way you want to tell them.”
Andrew Barnsley, of Project 10 Productions, was brought on as executive producer, to handle the financial and legal side of things, and he set up Not A Real Company Productions with Dan and the two elder Levy brothers. Barnsley’s chief goal, he says, was to protect Dan and Eugene’s vision. It was far from just another job for him: his work with Schitt’s Creek is now finished, but he claims the experience will stay with him forever.
“I often find myself having to pinch myself that this is happening and has happened,” he says. “It’s a monumental achievement. I feel such tremendous pride for the creators, the producers, the cast, the production team, the post team. When I look back and see what a group of people accomplished together, guided by a very precise vision, I know how special it was. Everything: the ups, the downs, how hard we had to work, building a family with the cast and crew.”
It’s a feeling everyone on the team seems to share, including Dan Levy. He insists that what he’ll miss most about Schitt’s Creek is the people who surrounded him in the writers’ room and on set, that he has “never worked with kinder, harderworking people.”
Annie Murphy, who plays Alexis, feels it too. She was was thrilled to be chosen for the role, at a time when a succession of closed doors had her wondering if she “was going to have to become a masseuse or something like that,” she jokes. She was excited simply to audition because she might get to meet Eugene Levy, one of her heroes. Turns out only Dan was in the casting room, and the two immediately established a “very brothery/sistery vibe,” where they intuitively knew how to push each other’s buttons. Now, looking back from the other end, she reflects, “As cheesy as this is, what I’ll miss most is the people. Now I can say that not only do I know Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, but they are dear, dear friends of mine whom I love very much. All of us have become so close.”
When Schitt’s Creek premiered on CBC in January 2015, it captured an audience of over 1.3 million. On Pop TV in the US, the show was more of a slow burner. Dan chose Pop TV as the show’s US network due to his existing relationship with network president Brad Schwartz, a fellow Canadian who had launched MTV in Canada and worked with Dan there.
“It was quite an easy decision, really,” says Schwartz. “Dan emailed me directly and asked if they could take us through their vision for the show. I had our partners from CBS and Lionsgate with me, and we literally ‘bought it in the room.’ Dan and I had great success together before, and I bet that we would do it again. Plus, having pinch-yourself legends Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara involved didn’t hurt.”
And so, Schitt’s Creek became Pop TV’s flagship show. Viewership climbed slowly but steadily over the years, before exploding into the millions after the first several seasons began airing on Netflix in 2017. Celebrities from Tony Hale to Mariah Carey to Stephen Curry publicly avowed their love of the show. It was no longer Canada’s best-kept secret.
Schwartz believes that Schitt’s Creek’s success illustrates the benefits of a series, particularly a Canadian series, joining a small network to become its number one show, as opposed to “a larger network’s number eight show,” ultimately lost in the shuffle. Pop TV “loved the show relentlessly,” he says. “It received an outsized proportion of everything—marketing, press, creative, budget, social.” He was proud to act as the show’s internal champion—“the guy out front with the megaphone”—noting that US networks sometimes fail to support series acquired from Canada: “Not because they aren’t awesome, but because of the ‘not invented here’ syndrome.”
The success of the show has proven that its positive, left-of-centre humour plays equally well in both countries. Still, Canadian viewers may justifiably feel a sense of ownership over Schitt’s Creek. Whatever scenes aren’t filmed in Toronto studios are filmed in rural and suburban Ontario (Goodwood and Orangeville). Scenes like the first-season bush party feel instinctively familiar to Canadians who grew up outside of urban centres. We might even claim that the tolerance it naturally (never preachily) espouses is a Canadian trait.
But the show’s Canadianness is more a function of osmosis than any keep-it-local strategy, says Eugene Levy. Geographical references remain oblique; you certainly won’t hear “eh.” But how could the show be anything but Canadian, with a virtually all-Canadian crew steering the ship?
“Because we were all Canadian, that naturally comes out. But while we were excited and proud of the fact that we were launching and producing the show up here in Canada, in our hometown, it was also important to us to try and keep things on a more universal level, so that it could play elsewhere around the globe,” says Eugene.
Not that the series succumbed to that other Canadian affliction, attempting to pass itself off as American. According to executive producer Barnsley, the series took its cues from an older show, one buried deep in Schitt’s Creek’s DNA: SCTV.
“SCTV was shot in Canada, had a Canadian sensibility, a Canadian cast. But it was set in Melonville, which is—well, who knows where it is?” says Barnsley. “For Schitt’s Creek, we were prioritizing story over geographic location.”
Whatever the trick, it worked. Cue the adulation on social media. Cue the homemade Halloween costumes. Cue the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Emmys, the continuous parade of magazine features.
Did Barnsley and the rest of the team expect the show to reach this level of success? “This is stuff from our wildest dreams,” he says. “This is a show we all love; we’ve been proud of it from day one. But I don’t think any of us could have predicted, day one, where it would end up.”
“It’s just really kind of made our heads spin a little bit,” says Eugene Levy, no stranger to success. “Now, when people come up to me, it’s only to tell me they love Schitt’s Creek. It’s way beyond anything we ever thought it could be.”
The success may have exceeded everyone’s expectations, but Dan Levy won’t hesitate to give credit where it’s due. “My name and my dad’s name are on this show as creators,” he says, “but it is a product of approximately 147 Canadians’ hard work. That’s what given me the most joy out of all of this—just the pride I have in our team and what they’ve accomplished.
In Goodwood, Ontario, a bedroom community north of Toronto (population: somewhere around 600), tourists snap selfies outside of the building that serves as Café Tropical in Schitt’s Creek. On the corner across the street is David’s store, Rose Apothecary. On the other side is Bob’s Garage. At times, tourists come by the busloads (for example, last summer, the fan-organized “SchittCon” drew nearly 100 people). They come from all over.
Goodwood, an affluent hamlet, is not actually Schitt’s Creek. Café Tropical is a private building. Rose Apothecary is a wool shop. But this is as close as you can get, and so tourists keep coming, even though there’s no longer any hope of glimpsing the series’ stars.
It’s not surprising. At bottom, Schitt’s Creek is a story about a family made by a family, both literal and figurative. The heartfelt dedication behind the camera translates on screen, creating a glow that audiences want to warm themselves around.
“Schitt’s Creek is a historically great series on all the usual merits, but what made it truly break out is that it is the right show for the world we currently live in, which can feel dark and divisive at times,” says Pop TV’s Schwartz.
Dan Levy believes it’s no coincidence that the show began to hit its stride at the same time that politics took on a darker tone in the US, bringing a steady and unwelcome diet of dismal headlines. “Before the show was a show, when my dad and I were breaking the story, we planned to root it in kindness,” he says. “My dad has always rooted his comedy in kindness. And that sensibility ended up really aligning with what people needed after politics shifted: hope and warmth and love and empathy and all of those things that we were not getting on the news.”
“Let’s not beat around the bush here—we’re living in a really shitty time,” says Annie Murphy. “From the get-go, the main goal was to create a place where people can go to escape that for 22 minutes.”
Of course, Murphy and the rest of the team will miss being able to escape to that place themselves, season after season. Dan Levy has signed on to produce scripted drama for ABC; great things are sure to follow for Murphy and the rest of the cast and crew. But whatever side of the camera you were on, it’s hard to follow an act like Schitt’s Creek.
“I’m not sure this experience will ever be replicated in my career,” says Barnsley. “Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But I don’t take any of it for granted. And it’s something I think about a lot. I reflect back often on the whole experience, and it’s been a dream.”
“Knowing that I will never see Moira Rose walk into the motel room ever again is kind of heartbreaking,” says Murphy. Audiences can surely relate. She adds, “But knowing that I will be able to invite myself over to Catherine O’Hara’s house for dinner is so wonderful.”
For viewers who don’t have that luxury, there’s still Netflix. And CBC Gem. And syndication (Schitt’s Creek will make its syndicated debut on Fox-owned stations in the fall). And, of course, one final season to bask in all the warm fuzzies that the series can dish out.
Schwartz sums it up: “With Schitt’s Creek, there is this little town that you can go to and get away from it all. It’s a place where love is love, friendships are loyal, family is joyous, happiness has nothing to do with money, and you can laugh, cry and be really, really happy.”
“Man,” he says. “Take me there now.”