Schitt’s Creek and The Humanity of Crisis

Why the show, now streaming on Netflix, is the most therapeutic pandemic watch
Schitt’s Creek and The Humanity of Crisis

Imagine standing at a subway platform. It's evening rush hour. The energy is nervous. A packed train arrives. Everyone enters, because everyone wants to reach home to feel the relief of reaching home at a decent hour. Everyone wants to be the first to feel. But if you think about it, there's no deadline. You can afford to wait till the crowd thins. And till the last train arrives, making the return journey unhurried and spacious – and on your own terms. Sure, you miss out on a timely dinner and conversation. Sure, you miss out on a fleeting sense of community. You miss the chaos, but you also savour the silence. When the train finally comes, it looks like it was made to transport you and only you to your destination. The train feels like your train. Something so big dares to belong to something so little. 

I'm the guy that waits. Waiting to experience something, I believe, is freeing that something from the specificity of time. Waiting to experience art is the act of embracing the serendipitous nature of art – and the transient nature of self. It allows art to escape the immediacy of culture and evoke an expression of singularity. Art then expands to fit our contractions. The weight of this wait truly holds in the case of popular television shows. I started watching Scrubs three years after it premiered. I started How I Met Your Mother the year Lily briefly left Marshall. I watched the first three seasons of Sherlock on the eve of its fourth season. I watched House of Cards, The Crown, The Office, Ozark, Succession and Big Little Lies two to four years after their first seasons.

By circumventing their time, I turned them into masks of my time. Rather than me being a phase of the shows' life cycles, they marked – and became – different phases of my adulthood. Scrubs happened not because I felt I had missed the discourse, but for me to grieve the demise of a grandparent who had once dreamt of me becoming a doctor. HIMYM helped me survive the death of a relationship and reacquaint myself with the thrills of single young dreamers in big cities. The Office got me when I was struggling to correlate ambition with my allergy for workspaces. Maybe the most remarkable thing about waiting – even if inadvertently – is that I eventually didn't choose to watch these shows. They chose to watch me. They sought me out personally, like nauseatingly popular college kids who thrive in big groups of admirers turning into unexpectedly tender off-campus heroes who secretly visit old-age homes to make strangers feel less lonely. When I speak of these shows, I speak of them as humans. I think about who I was when the show found me, not where I was when the show released. 

Maybe it's fitting then that, after stubbornly resisting well-meaning advice for five years, I binge-watched Schitt's Creek, all 80 episodes of it, over two rainy weeks in July, at the peak of a global pandemic. I started, gingerly, as a shallow prank on fate: What better time to respect a wryly titled comedy about tragedy? I ended, convinced that fate had instead pulled a deep prank on me. I had waited so long only so that, one day, when the future looked bleak and uncertain, the warm bleakness and soothing uncertainty of Schitt's Creek could be mine. I boarded a sparsely occupied train, and despite the torrid work week, the few tired souls in the compartment seem to be funny and good-natured and eccentric and kind. It was meant to be. 

Schitt's Creek is the name of a fictional small town that the wealthy Roses – Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy), Moira Rose (Catherine O'Hara) and their spoilt adult children David (Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy) – relocate to after their fortune disappears overnight. The town, which Johnny had once bought as a birthday gift joke for David, is their sole asset. Their new home: two adjacent rooms in a mouldy motel. The Roses wake up every morning wondering when, or if, they might leave the godforsaken town. A month becomes a year becomes three years; they soon have no choice but to stop hoping and start living. Curiously, they never move into a house in town even when they can afford to. The motel is a sign that the viewer is watching the transitory moments of life – the ones that pass when the camera isn't rolling, the commas and full-stops that join the longer and more literary sentences.

In many ways, at this point in 2020 we are the Roses, and our newly reduced worlds, the nowhere town of Schitt's Creek. We're all stuck in our own little motels. They're filled with people and mirrors we are not used to; some of us are forced to share space with our families, others are forced to confront their own company. We can't afford to escape this isolation, because isolation was once our favoured escape. Our motels, too, are on the outskirts of a strange town – only now, where we come from has ceased to matter and where we are going is a mystery. Like the Roses, we live on the fringes of civilization as guests because we expect to leave at any point. The freeway awaits us.

The two weeks of Schitt's Creek revolutionized my perception of crisis. I woke up every morning feeling out of depth like the Roses. But I went to bed having learned a little more about how to lend tolerance the dignity of waiting. The show is replete with hidden survival kits. All of Johnny, Moira, David and Alexis have their individual meltdowns, but not once do they snap at each other. They are too busy discovering one another. The new living arrangement allows them to belatedly comprehend the essence of familyhood; the mutual respect is palpable. Even their selfishness is endearing; the townsfolk are too enamoured and entertained by them to be offended. As the Roses evolve and accept the burden of change, each of them manages to retain their core – Johnny's grand calm, Moira's melodramatic empathy, David's sentimental sarcasm, Alexis' blissful ignorance. They break free by being trapped together: The parents grow up, the children grow old. 

What Schitt's Creek suggests, through its modest mood and behavioral quirk, is that sweetness need not be sacrificed at the altar of sweat. There's a moving humanity to the show – to the way its characters respond, yearn, hesitate and love – that belies the darkness of the premise. Most of us feel like we've been pushed back a few years during this pandemic, both professionally and personally. But the thorny elegance of the Roses reminds us that to be pushed back is also to be given an opportunity to move forward via a different route: perhaps with more poise, perhaps with greater thought. It is entirely possible that the pitstop will do the work of a destination. It is distinctly probable that we will remember this unscheduled break – its simple but not simplistic people, its narrow streets and vacant parks, its new ways of eating and sleeping, and its promise of a tomorrow disguised as an endless today. Some of us, like Johnny and Moira, will reclaim our lost history. Others, like David and Alexis, will reinvent a lost future. 

Most importantly, the show gave me courage to reflect on a complicated aspect of my life. In the face of public crisis, Schitt's Creek felt like a private restoration of time. Across seasons, it becomes clear that the Roses are not in touch with any of their old friends and acquaintances. There's not an echo of the past: no texts, no phone calls, no emails or lawsuits. At first, it's likely a sense of shame – they've lost face and don't have the heart to look ordinary in the eyes of their powerful and prosperous friends. But in the last episode of Season 2, Johnny and Moira bump into the ghosts of their glory days at a fancy restaurant. It's the Roses' anniversary, and they graciously invite the couple to their table. But the banter feels unfamiliar. Midway through what becomes an awkward dinner, the Roses stop pretending to be the people they once were. Their front is futile, because their pain – of being forgotten by fairweather friends – is ripe. They tell off the snobbish couple, defending the town that welcomed them in times of strife. It's a winning, wonderfully acted moment – and one I've always wished my own family had the humbled composure to experience. 

I've had a largely middle-class upbringing. But there's been a pattern. My father landing high-profile jobs but not being able to keep them meant that we routinely flirted with the luxuries of wealth before being pushed back down the class ladder. The second we got used to a loftier lifestyle, it all came crumbling down. (I vividly remember "giving up" company houses, with my father repeatedly vowing to recapture the good life). This yo-yoing of economic identity turned the three of us into social cripples of sorts. The taste of richness made my parents believe that we were inherently upper-class citizens who only visited the shores of middle-classness as tourists. The higher we jumped, the lower the ground felt. 

Consequently, I've seen my mother turn into somewhat of a recluse. She visibly avoided making new friends – or even meeting old ones – because of the frequent status downgrades. She kept waiting to reclaim a position that would let her parade her privilege. The positions came without the permanence. I've seen her speak, with nostalgic pride, of the days she had multiple drivers and cooks. The delusions of grandeur most infected my father, who hid the present behind castles of the past, and who only appeared in public when he had a healthy bank account. Even today he maintains that he's only "in between" jobs, despite being out of work for seven straight years. This in turn meant that, like the Roses in the first two seasons, my parents treated our cozy homes as temporary houses: as makeshift motels in the journey back to civilization. We stayed more than we lived. We saved the best of ourselves for a destiny that never came. 

The Roses stopped battling their diminished status that night because Johnny remembered that he came from nothing before he came from affluence. He realized, over an anniversary dinner he worked hard to afford, that Schitt's Creek only felt like a fall because the rise was so long. When viewed from the perspective of his origins, the small town was as much a rise to grace as a fall from face. And not winning was by no means the same as losing. Constructing is by no means the same as collapsing, though it's often difficult to tell the difference.

Seeing Johnny and Moira acknowledge their fate – by forsaking blind faith – made me hopeful. I imagined my mother wearing her best clothes and berating her friends for deserting her. I imagined my father swallowing his pride and thanking our stars for having a roof over our heads. I imagined both of them inspiring each other with wisdom and wit. I imagined growing up in a space that has no room for resentment. I imagined making peace with pieces of the past. Most of all, I imagined the expiry of ego on a day my parents stop missing the mirage and start celebrating the desert. The sun is hot, but it's also a symbol of direction. And direction is the hallmark of last trains. Especially those built to transport the brave souls who wait.

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