What happens when the family that has everything loses it all and is forced to start over… in a town called Schitt’s Creek… without a paddle. That’s the premise of Schitt’s Creek, the slow-simmering sleeper hit created by Eugene Levy and his son, Daniel, which is now in Season Five. The quirky comedy has caught on thanks to word-of-mouth praise and easy bingeability (previous seasons are available on Netflix, with most episodes clocking in around 22 minutes). But its popularity is rooted in the fact that Schitt’s Creek is so much more than its plot (and admittedly off-putting name). It’s clever and cutting but also endearing, with a warm and goofy spirit that operates completely outside of the bubble of the news cycle.
A Canadian production that premiered in 2015 and airs in the U.S. on Pop, Schitt’s Creek tells the story of the Rose family. Its patriarch is Johnny (straight-man-for-life Eugene Levy), who built an empire from running a successful video store chain but lost everything as a result of a business manager scamming the IRS on taxes. As government agents storm the Roses’ mansion to repossess all of their belongings, the family — mother Moira (Catherine O’Hara), son David (Daniel) and daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy) — attempt to grab everything they can. The one thing the feds don’t want: a small town called Schitt’s Creek that Johnny bought as a joke for David in 1991. So, the Roses move into a one-story motel there with the hopes of resuscitating their lives. Now in Schitt’s Creek, the family must contend with the town’s scuzzy mayor Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott), motel clerk Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire) and café waitress Twyla (Eugene’s real-life daughter Sarah).
Thanks to Eugene and O’Hara’s years of playing unwitting, over-the-top eccentrics in Christopher Guest movies, Schitt’s Creek has a similarly left-of-center vibe. Within that world, each of the actors has been able to fully develop his or her character’s idiosyncrasies. Johnny always wears suits and reacts to things, typically, by raising his caterpillar eyebrows ever so slightly. O’Hara has made a marvel out of Moira, a retired soap-opera actress who keeps half a dozen wigs pinned to the motel-room wall and, as she puts it in one episode, speaks with an unplaceable accent, hitting the Ts in words (like “bet-ter“). Daniel’s portrayal of David has him huff and brood comically whenever anything gross happens at the hotel, and his wardrobe of always-black-and-white clothing looks perfectly pretentious. And Murphy, who might well be the series’ breakout star, twists her face, trots around with her hands in front of her like a bunny and musters the perfect vocal fry to conjure Alexis’ essence.
Even the supporting characters are well-rounded. The funniest is Emily Hampshire, whose motel clerk Stevie is so deadpan you don’t know when she’s kidding. In the first episode, when David asks for the motel’s business center, she replies without missing a beat, “Yes… You can find it right outside the doors to your left, right beside the hammam spa. Would you like me to book you a treatment while you’re at it?” And Chris Elliott does a brilliant Chris Elliott throughout the series (“That’s right, I’m the mayor. If you’re looking for an ass to kiss, it’s mine.”). But beyond the top-line actors, they’ve created a mini-universe including Alexis’ boyfriends, David’s love interests, the choir Moira joins (in the latest episode, as they rehearse a Nine Inch Nails melody, she reminds one member to sing “I want to kiss you like an animal”) and the town council, which includes the pushy mechanic Bob and the town’s only real-estate agent, Ray.
Grounded in its setup and the actors’ sure-footed performances, Schitt’s Creek has been able to advance the storyline without venturing into the absurd. Even though its four central characters are seemingly trapped in this town, the show doesn’t feel repetitive or one-note. Each member of the family grows, and within a few seasons they’re appreciating the simpler things life has to offer. By Season Four, Alexis blossoms from a vapid con who does community service in high heels into a warm, kind-hearted person who wants to better herself and her community. The same goes for David, who actually goes out and gets a job. Johnny pushes himself to get back in the business world, and Moira uses her cultural savoir faire to turn herself into a linchpin of the local “society” scene.
Through it all there are so many offbeat gags that hook you in. Johnny pleads with Roland to remove the town’s welcome sign that makes it look like a man is having sex with a woman. Moira is over the moon about being offered a role in movie — The Crows Have Eyes 2, which shoots in Bosnia. David runs away and winds up on an Amish farm. It’s all awkward enough to be funny and uncomfortable enough to feel real.
Somehow, the show never prompts you to question why the grown-up kids still opt to live with their parents… in Schitt’s Creek… in a motel. They’re simply fated to it — they don’t know anything else — and it’s just believable enough that you want to see what happens to them next. And because they start off as spoiled brats, you never feel sorry for them until they reach the point where you can see them change. Then you start rooting for them as they fall in love, get ahead and become model citizens. Ultimately, this is a show with heart and a clear moral: Even Roses can grow in Schitt’s.
New episodes of Schitt’s Creek air Tuesdays on CBC and stream via CBC Gem. In the U.S., the series airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Pop and is also available through the channel’s streaming service.