Television

Has Snarky 'Schitt's Creek' Become Television's Sweetest Sitcom?

Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy in promo photo for Schitt's Creek: S4 (CBC)

Season 4 brings a thorough and heartening reinvigoration of the rom-com format, revealing the big heart that beats beneath the clown costume.

Schitt's Creek: S4
Eugene Levy, Dan Levy

CBC

Jan 2015 -

Other

When a colossal act of financial mismanagement wipes away the Rose family's video rental fortune, their assets are seized and they are left destitute, friendless, and the subject of significant scandal. Desperate for some security, the family retreat to the only asset that the government hasn't taken: the rural town of Schitt's Creek, which was bought as an elaborate joke. It's not so funny when the ex-soap star Moira (Catherine O'Hara), business tycoon Johnny (Eugene Levy), their spoiled son David (Dan Levy) and air-head socialite Alexis (Annie Murphy) are faced with living in a motel in the middle of nowhere.

At the end of season 3 David had struck up a surprising relationship with his business partner Patrick (Noah Reid) and was building a bespoke business, Alexis had discovered her passion for PR and recently graduated, Johnny had committed himself to making the motel more successful, and Moira had settled within the computer, entering local government.

When Schitt's Creek premiered it was a pretty instant delight; a raucous mix of loose-limbed slapstick and one-liners that practically guaranteed a good-time for each episode. Whilst the upside of that was that the show was a reliable joke machine, it also meant that it could feel a little like a live-action cartoon, a skit pushed to its extremes. There's nothing wrong with being an all-out comedy, but it was always possible to see the show straining to be something more; there was always an interest in examining who, exactly, the protagonists were when their identities had been so thoroughly shaken. Whilst the show has never felt laborious, it was possible to see the writers mental arithmetic as they tried to work out how seriously they should take the characters.

Happily, with the latest season, its fourth, Schitt's Creek has found the perfect balance. With a charming romantic subplot for David and Patrick, a startling character arc for Alexis, and some truly inspired comedic set-pieces for Moira and Johnny, the show has grown into itself. It's deeper and richer now, and funnier for it. It's also a thorough and heartening reinvigoration of the rom-com format, revealing the big heart that beats beneath the clown costume.

Part of what makes Schitt's Creek resonate is the way it acknowledges the fear that can come with falling in love with somebody, especially for those who aren't used to being loved. David is an interesting romantic lead because the show is not coy about showing how uncomfortable he is in occupying that role. It's a testament to the writing that the painfulness of David's previous relationships is clear, and informs his romance with Patrick, but adds to the momentum of David's development rather than bogging it down. In general, the show is excellent at dropping in exposition that enriches the characters without making it feel like heavy-lifting. For a show that traffics in broad comedy, the character beats seem organic; even at their most eccentric. In the finalé, Patrick, desperate to let David know how invested he is in their relationship, calls David his "Mariah Carey"; a line that has romantic weight despite its oddness, because it fits in so neatly with what the audience has discovered about David.

For Schitt's Creek, new love is a balancing act between revealing your hopes for yourself and keeping them hidden for fear that they will get damaged, so it makes sense that Patrick would have to learn David's language to reassure him of the safety of their commitment. Rom-coms are a dicey proposition for television because, at some point, will-they-won't-they has to become they-have-or-they-haven't. It's why most film romantic comedies end where they do. It's easier to make a kiss at the top of the empire state building romantic than to imbue the everyday negotiations of love with the same kind of luster. Schitt's Creek does a solid job of making small relationship markers swoon-worthy. Further, an acoustic version of the Tina Turner hit "Simply the Best" has surprising emotional power because it reveals how much the characters have learned about each other and how much they respect the baggage they are bringing to the relationship -- it's small in scale, but big in impact.

Schitt's Creek: S4, "The Gesture"

What makes David and Patrick's romantic throughline so refreshing, other than the show's commitment to showing sexuality as an evolving thing, is that the writers understand the most compelling romantic obstacles are internal. So much of David's struggle to be loved is framed within his battle to love himself; though that transition isn't as mawkish as it sounds. Schitt's Creek doesn't loses sight of the fact that entering into a relationship is a series of negotiations with yourself and the person you are falling in love with.

This is helped by a fantastic cast; in this case, Dan Levy is especially good at portraying a person who is capable of experiencing many emotions at the same time. Levy is masterful at suggesting an elasticity to David's emotions and a sense that the character has a broader emotional range than everyone else around him (and perhaps the broadest emotional range of any person in history). Frequently, he uses a half-smile-half-smirk to suggest a person who doesn't quite know how to unite his newfound interior feelings with the external character he has always played. It's a moving study in a person who is afraid to admit, to himself and others, what he wants and what he is prepared to risk to get it.

Pleasingly, David and Patrick's romance isn't the only emotional beat that the show expertly hits. In the earlier seasons, Alexis could sometimes feel more like a joke machine than a fully-fledged person, all quirk and projection, but the show drafts an emotional arc for the character that's consistently surprising and satisfying. Over the course of the last two seasons, Alexis decides on a degree, graduates, gets a job, shows acts of selflessness, and makes some pretty mature decisions about her romantic future. If these things sound like pretty ordinary markers of adulthood, that's because they are, and the show is not too in awe of Alexis's achievements, but it's a transformation that, like so many others parts of the show, feels empowering.

Schitt's Creek's emotional thesis statement may as well be "your life can change, but you have to be the one to change it" and that's heartening, because it sidesteps some of the more troubling aspects of transformation narratives, which often suggest that you should change for other people. Alexis's development feels authentic because it takes a long time and because it doesn't suggest easy answers; Alexis is shown stumbling into a version of her life that she likes enough to fight for but the show doesn't suggest that the route to that life is particularly easy.

Schitt Creek: S4, "Asbestos Fest"

Alexis has her own love story with the local vet Ted (a charming Dustin Milligan) but her willingness to admit her love for him is presented as a personal triumph as much as a romantic one, making it especially emotionally resonant. Annie Murphy puts in a lovely performance. With her high pitched voice and almost ludicrous vocal-fry, after watching the show you won't be able to hear the name David the same way again, it's keenly calibrated for maximum comedic impact without feeling like an Saturday Night Live character. Murphy is especially good at extrapolating Alexis's frustration that the world around her doesn't work the way that she thinks that it should; she has a way of making the most illogical things seem perfectly rational. It's refreshing to see a performer who seems as comfortable being the freewheelin' life of the party as she is a romantic lead.

The jewel onSchitt's Creek's crown, however, is undoubtedly Catherine O'Hara's fun, fearless treasure trove of a performance. It's no surprise to anyone that O'Hara is excellent, but here she has found a character that seems tailor-made to suit her enormous comedic gifts. As Moira, a former soap actress in search of a life that has the same dimensions as a television set, she renders throwaway jokes hilarious by virtue of her odd speech pattern and eccentric mix of exuberance and brittleness. Most movingly, O'Hara is able to articulate a person who understands, and helps to cultivate, her own cartoonishness. It's a rich character because O'Hara, and Moira, are in on their own joke, with O'Hara slyly revealing Moira's warmth and intellect when the character is in danger of becoming a caricature.

This season, more than any of the others, has been about wrestling your life away from the (perhaps negative) things that once defined it. It's a good look for Schitt's Creek. Some of the sharp enjoyable snark has been sanded down in favour of a more compassionate look at who these characters are and who they might become. That might be a disappointment to fans who clicked with Schitt's Creek's all out joke offensive in the early seasons, but it undoubtedly makes for a more satisfying and sure-footed collection of episodes. The writers' close attention to the emotional beats of the story doesn't result in a draining of the comedic energy, but does represent a sharpening of the show's overall vision of Schitt's Creek and its inhabitants.

In trying to please everyone, the latest season of Schitt's Creek succeeds in big and small ways. It's a pretty pitch-perfect example of what broad sitcoms can do and how well they can welcome an audience into their world. It's big-hearted entertainment without losing its whip-smart assessment of the character's foibles and, this season especially is committed to telling stories about how people can change when they land on a life that they didn't know they wanted. It's a rom-com that triumphs because it's actually romantic and undeniably funny; the characters may be up "Schitt's Creek", but by the last episode of season 4 they all have paddles to help them carry on.

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