Schitt’s Creek and the pleasures of a 'sweetcom': A criminally underrated series that brings back the charm of optimism

The army of Schitt’s Creek converts continues to be on the rise.

Poulomi Das May 13, 2020 15:00:11 IST
Schitt’s Creek and the pleasures of a 'sweetcom': A criminally underrated series that brings back the charm of optimism

The first season of Fleabag, arguably the most popular show of last year, opened with Fleabag, its caustic titular protagonist, devastatingly played by show creator and writer Phoebe-Waller Bridge, loudly wondering whether she had a “massive arsehole”. Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, a comedy about an animated talking horse with suspected depression has been labelled, on more than one occasion, as the “saddest show on TV”. Then there’s Succession, another crowd favourite of the moment, which essentially revolves around a wealthy dysfunctional family that envisions love as a power-struggle and affection as a competition of who can inflict the nastiest blow on the other. 

Look around the landscape of television right now and you’ll realise that these three shows where interactions are laced with a shared undercurrent of sarcasm, deflection, and cruelty, are emblematic of the current cultural language at large. As it stands, our consumption habits have drastically changed, in that we don’t seem to reach out for our remotes as an escape from life any longer. The demand from shows is instead to reflect our collective disillusionment in a way that might offer us a way to decode it ourselves as well as feel more whole, as a part of a community where cynicism is the mother tongue.

Today, TV’s heroes are antiheroes (Russian Doll, You’re The Worst, Killing Eve, Better Call Saul) and cheeriness, once a staple device for shows to distract from the inherent cruelties of life, is now unanimously frowned upon. Instead, shows that turn into pop-culture royalty, are littered with protagonists who insist on making eye contact with the sorrow and unpleasantness that engulf the business of living rather than carrying on the pretence that life is a situational comedy.

Does that then make the 'sweetcom' – comedies characterised by their disarming optimism toward life and its flaws (Modern Family, Parks and Recreation) – an obsolete genre?

Granted, the enduring popularity of Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Good Place (it’s no coincidence that they share a co-creator in Michael Schur), recent shows that fit the definition of the sweetcom might indicate otherwise. But it’s difficult to ignore that it’s also their unwavering belief in affording grace that can at times be off-putting – for instance, I’ve still not managed to finish either show because the cloying niceness got to me after a point.

But that wasn’t the case when I chanced upon Schitt’s Creek, a modest Canadian sweetcom that premiered in 2015, which like the Penn Badgley-starrer You, acquired a life of its own once Netflix acquired it three years ago. Co-created by father-son duo Eugene and Daniel Levy, who also co-star along with the phenomenal Catharine O’ Hara and Annie Murphy, Schitt’s Creek is centred on a super-rich, super-spoilt socialite family’s fall from grace. When the Rose family suddenly go bankrupt and lose their social and financial standing, they’re forced to decamp into a less-than-satisfactory motel room in a small, nearly-invisible town – Schitt’s Creek – that they once purchased as an inside joke. 

Schitts Creek and the pleasures of a sweetcom A criminally underrated series that brings back the charm of optimism

The Rose Family from Schitt's Creek season 6.

Like a lot of people, I slept on the show presuming it to be yet another run-of-the-mill small-town satire, discovering it only last month – I’ve breathlessly devoured all six seasons in under a week. The fish-out-of-water premise is familiar if not unappealing; the clash of class-fuelled mentalities and eventual triumph of simplicity was expected to say the least. But over six impeccably crafted seasons, the show upends every presumption possible: for one, that clash never happens, partly due to the Levys’ refreshing refusal to temper the general optimism of the show’s storytelling with broad idealism. 

I have never been this willing to admit that I have been so off-mark about a show and I’m not the only one. Since the show garnered its debut Emmy nominations last year, Schitt’s Creek found itself getting a makeover: it was now being unanimously adjudged as a cult classic. Last month, The Guardian argued that Schitt’s Creek might be “the best sitcom of the last decade”. The (in)famous video of Kelly Clarkson declaring the show as her “jam” before announcing the winner for Best Actor in a Comedy Series at the Critics Choice Awards, a category that Eugene Levy was nominated in, has long gone viral. Even Mariah Carey publicly came out as a fan, following in the footsteps of Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Lawrence. Online, as the show wrapped up its final season, – although Netflix still keeps its numbers a prized secret, a source at the streaming platform admitted to Vulture that “the series is very much a hit”.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to claim that the unlikely, widespread success of Schitt’s Creek outranks the good-natured but niche appeal of both its predecessors. The continuous pleasures of Schitt’s Creek as a sweetcom lies in how its creators contextualise the overall sweetness of its universe not as a preferred mode of living that comes naturally to its protagonists but more as a last-resort practice that they slowly adopt to. When the show opens, the Rose family – Johnny (Euegene Levy), the patient patriach, his wife Moira (Hara in a career-defining performance), a proud, former soap star and an uncaring parent, and their children, David (Daniel Levy) a pretentious pansexual, and Alexis (Murphy), a more emphatethic version of Paris Hilton – is both selfish and self-absorbed. 

Schitts Creek and the pleasures of a sweetcom A criminally underrated series that brings back the charm of optimism

David and Alexis Rose.

These are people who haven’t just escaped reality for their whole lives by affording to live inside their personalised bubbles but who are, for the first time, also realising the repercussions of their lifestyles. So instead of only following the conventional arc of a set of kind-hearted urban dwellers changing a small town for the better, Schitts Creek also chooses to dwell on the irresistibly heartwarming coming-of-age of four people who learn to be a family because of what co-existing in a small-town teaches them.

Of course, it helps that this journey of self-discovery the Roses go through over six seasons is peppered with hilarious catchphrases and DIY gags (“A Little Bit Alexis” deserves a spin-off of its own), pitch-perfect performances (every set-piece that features O’Hara is worth the price of admission), sharp anecdotes (you’d be hard pressed to choose your favourite Alexis adventure backstory – they’re all so good. A sample: “Do I have to remind you of the time that I was taken hostage on David Geffen’s yacht by Somali pirates for a week and nobody answered my texts?”) and genuine emotional sincerity.

It’s exactly this insistence on upending traditional sweetcom stereotypes that makes Schitt’s Creek so irresistible and unputdownable.

Take for instance, how the series chooses to do away with the presumed conservatism that shows centred around small towns are often guilty of indulging in. None of the residents of the small-town are caricatured as either close-minded or offended by David’s pansexuality – in the first season, he embarks on a brief relationship with Stewie (Emily Hampshire), the motel clerk and goes on to fall in love with Patrick (Noah Reid), his business partner, who he ultimately marries in the sixth season. It’s also worth noting that Moira is the absent parent in the dynamic, a luxury not always reserved for mothers who are usually expected to strive for perfection. But even then, she’s never pointed toward the hall of shame of a “bad mother”.

Schitts Creek and the pleasures of a sweetcom A criminally underrated series that brings back the charm of optimism

Moira Rose and Johnny Rose From Schitt's Creek

This lack of moral superiority and sexual stigma is embedded in the essence of the show: A scene in the first season where David explains his pansexuality to Stewie using a wine metaphor is a standout moment of writing that envisions inclusion as more than just representation. This is also evident in how Schitt’s Creek sees its protagonists. For the sake of earning laughs, Alexis, could have been reduced to just another depiction of the attractive, dumb socialite and there would have been nothing wrong in taking that comedic route. But the makers infuse her with both sensitivity and intelligence, shattering in a way the black and white depictions of women in pop-culture. 

Similarly, Moira’s snootiness is grounded in good intentions and a last-minute development of a conscience that is deeply moving, a send-off deserving of a terrific series. Even though the show occasionally provides justifications for its protagonists, it rarely hurries them in changing their values overnight which is what makes their evolution so satisfying and hard-earned. In that sense, the show’s greatest triumph is in how it manages the delicate balance of being enjoyably theatrical without overdoing the theatrics (even when Moira puts on the most ridiculous outfits, wig, or pronunciation of bébé).

Indeed, Schitt’s Creek’s inimitable achievement as an ensemble (never has a sitcom had such a perfect cast since The Office and Parks and Recreation) foreshadows the show's real significance: its reinvention of the purpose of the sweetcom. If anything, it suggests that there are more ways for a show to weaponise its cheerfulness apart from situating itself as a product of escapism.

Schitts Creek and the pleasures of a sweetcom A criminally underrated series that brings back the charm of optimism

The sunny disposition of Schitt's Creek doesn’t mean that the show casts a blind eye at the anxieties of existing in a world that feels like it’s closing down on its inhabitants. 

Rather, it offers another alternative mode of coping, one where community and collaboration is prioritised, and imperfection isn't immediately filtered out but slowly corrected. What drew me, and what I suspect will draw you to the series, is that unlike other sweetcoms, the universe that Schitt's Creek envisions – an equivalent of the best-case scenario – is not entirely unrealistic and altogether possible. Throughout the course of the show, the makers never explicitly spell out the exact location of Schitt’s Creek, mythologising it as a sort of utopia town open for all. That’s precisely what this criminally underrated show is invested in becoming – a wholesome reminder that it takes an entire town to help each one of us to mature into the versions of better, kinder versions of ourselves.

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