The Little Sitcom That Could

Schitt’s Creek has amassed a cultish international following and launched a golden age in Canadian comedy. How a sweet, smart, low-budget show went supernova

One brisk evening last November, 1,200 people piled into the Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre in Atlanta. That night, the stars of the CBC sitcom Schitt’s Creek were holding a panel discussion ahead of their final season, beginning January 7, and the air was freighted with a feverish Beatlemania energy.

Audience members wore T-shirts and tuques emblazoned with popular quotes from the show. Several people brought homemade signs. Everywhere I looked, I saw women dressed as Moira Rose, Catherine O’Hara’s character, an absurdist Marie Antoinette in McQueen. They wore dramatic furs, brooches as big as dinner plates, feathered fascinators and blunt-cut wigs. As I approached the venue, a woman in her 60s skipped in step beside me. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god, I can’t believe I’m here!” she said, squeezing my shoulders. Her name was Linda Bryer, and she’d flown in from Selma, Texas, for the event. Bryer, who described herself as a “domestic engineer” and spoke with a thick Miss Ellie drawl, discovered Schitt’s Creek on Netflix a year ago and has watched it five times through already (there are five seasons). As she rattled on about her predictions for the upcoming season—“I do not think Alexis will stay with Ted!”—two young women interrupted and asked us to take a photo of them under the marquee. “I’m so excited,” one of them cried. “I’m wearing a Moira necklace!” She and Linda, who’d met all of 10 seconds earlier, began squealing at each other in a wordless froth: “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

The Schitt’s Creek roadshow packs theatres, like Kings in Brooklyn, with thousands of self-described Schittheads. The most diehard come in costume and emit a frenetic Beatlemania energy. Photo by Chad Anderson

When Schitt’s Creek premiered six years ago on CBC, no one could have predicted the fervent international fandom it would one day inspire. The show follows the formerly wealthy Rose family, who find themselves forced to move to Schitt’s Creek, a podunk town somewhere in middle Canada. The cast was promising—Eugene Levy and O’Hara reunited to play a couple onscreen for the fourth time—but the premise seemed schlocky, and the title was the kind of cringey pun your uncle might make at a Passover Seder. Within a few episodes, though, the show had bounced to life, powered by lovable characters, a geyser of blistering jokes and a toasty warmth that never tipped into schmaltz. In the States, Schitt’s Creek quietly aired on the fledgling Pop TV cable network, but got little fanfare (the New York Times called it “drab and underwritten”). For those first few years, it was a precious Canadian secret.

That started to change a couple of years ago, as our little wildling sitcom began to slip south of the wall that separates Canadian TV from American audiences. Suddenly, it exploded into a cultish sensation, the kind of show that inspires people in Atlanta and Nashville and Denver to drop $150 for the chance to see the cast appear on stage, shooting the…you know. BuzzFeed and Vulture and Vox were publishing gushy, GIF-laden listicles about how Schitt’s Creek is the best series you’re not watching, and TV Guide—which still exists!—named it the best show on television. Some 23,000 self-described Schittheads now belong to a Facebook fan club where they rank Moira’s outfits, swap memes and debate plot points with the punctiliousness of a grad school seminar. There are multiple posts from fans who say the show has helped them through cancer, bereavement, suicidal thoughts. “To see the depth of characters revealed layer by layer from one episode to the next, to watch the four of them discover humour, joy, pain, loss, humiliation, compassion, I can’t begin to explain how this show…helped me to tackle some of the most painful days I’ve ever lived,” wrote Michael S. Williams, a 50-year-old superfan, in October. Schitt’s has famous fans, too: Jennifer Lawrence once accosted O’Hara at an event to tell her how much she loved the show, and Paul Rudd has said that Moira Rose “is quite possibly the greatest creation since the Mars rovers.” Recently, the series’ scrappy success has graduated to prestige recognition: in 2019, Schitt’s Creek was nominated for four Emmys, a People’s Choice Award and, a first for a Canadian production, a Critics’ Choice Award.

Eugene Levy and O’Hara might have been sold as the show’s headliners, but they were just Trojan horses. Schitt’s Creek belongs, in every conceivable way, to Dan Levy, Eugene’s 36-year-old son, who co-created the show with his dad and took over as showrunner in season two. Every joke, every musical cue, every costume is imprinted with his bristly, big-hearted sensibility. Dan also co-stars as David, the Rose family’s feckless adult son. He’s ingenious in the role, gently opening David up to vulnerability and intimacy without sanding down any of his catty edges. His finest moment comes in the fourth season, when David’s townie boyfriend, serenades him with an acoustic version of Tina Turner’s “The Best.” David goes through a lifetime of emotions in those two minutes, from embarrassed to blustering to lovestruck, trying to suppress a bashful grin. It’s a lovely piece of television.

The oh-so-sweet serenade from season four, episode six. All show photos courtesy of CBC

That song has become an unofficial anthem for all the Schittheads out there. In the moments leading up to the cast’s entrance at their show in Atlanta, the song’s signature synths began blaring over the sound system, and the crowd exploded into paroxysms of joy. By the time the chorus hit, every person in the room was belting along, drowning out Tina’s voice entirely. A couple of minutes later, Dan and Eugene Levy walked onstage to a chorus of ballistic screams. From behind the rims of his signature black frames, Dan looked around the room and shook his head, incredulous. “This is fucking wild,” he said.

Dan Levy’s name may be synonymous with Schitt’s Creek, but he owes his career to The Hills. The mystifyingly popular reality show, about a clique of rich best friends who seem to hate each other, was the apotheosis of mid-2000s culture—it embodied pre-recession consumption, celebutante antics, the cult of fame for fame’s sake. In 2006, Levy snagged a job co-hosting The Hills’ after-show with Jessi Cruickshank on MTV Canada. Soon, their bitchy banter was as much of a draw as the series itself. One time, O’Hara, who hadn’t seen Dan since he was a kid, landed on The After Show while flipping channels. “I’m looking at him thinking, Wow, that kid looks like Eugene Levy, without knowing it was Daniel,” she says. Over the next few years, Levy became a ubiquitous Toronto personality, popping up on Olympics broadcasts and Degrassi episodes. He was known around town as Eugene Levy’s witty son, the guy with wiggly eyebrows and a fondness for horn-rims. Not anymore.

A father-son moment from season one. At first, Eugene Levy was terrified of working with his son. “What if he doesn’t have it?”

For Dan, the Hills gig would prove to be as much a creative accelerant as a professional one. The women on The Hills seemed to live inside a glittery Glinda bubble, a sphere of excess and privilege and cushiony isolation. They were anthropological curiosities, with rules and vocabulary as foreign to viewers as those of a first-contact tribe in the Amazon. Levy spent four years as The Hills’ de facto Margaret Mead, scrutinizing their exotic way of life. A few years later, he’d added more reality shows to his field of study, including Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the Real Housewives franchise. What would happen to these people, he wondered, if someone took their money away? In an economic landscape where the gulf between billionaires and everyone else was gaping, where social media was fuelling rage and rebellion against the plutocratic classes, the schadenfreudic possibilities were endless.

When Dan approached his father and asked him to collaborate on a show centred around the idea of a family who lost everything, Eugene was shocked: Dan had always refused his dad’s help with his career, even declining offers to run lines with him when he performed in high school plays. But Dan was looking to replicate the character-driven comedy of his dad’s film collaborations with Christopher Guest, movies like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, and he couldn’t resist going straight to the source. One day, Dan sent Eugene an article about Kim Basinger, who’d bought a backwater town in Georgia for $20 million with the hope of transforming it into a filming destination (Basinger later sold it for a mere $1 million). Suddenly, the gears locked into place, and a premise was born. At the centre would be the Rose family, a quartet of odious one-percenters who’d built their fortune running a chain of Blockbuster-esque video rental stores, only to lose everything to a crooked business manager and take up residence in Schitt’s Creek, the town they’d once bought as a joke.

Welcome to Schitt’s Creek, from season one

At first, Eugene was terrified about working with his son. “When we first started this thing, I would wake up in a cold sweat thinking, Well, you know, what if he doesn’t have it?” he told me. “But he had some pretty good ideas.” To break the back of the show, the Levys did what Eugene used to do with Guest: they spent weeks writing out biographies for each character. Eugene, known for playing outlandish characters like the bucktoothed dog breeder with two left feet in Best in Show and Jim’s flappable dad in American Pie, was going to be the straight man for one of the first times in his career. Johnny Rose would be a suave schmoozemeister with a penchant for Hugo Boss suits, a sharp mind for business and the unenviable job of placating his deranged family members. Dan would play his son, David, a persnickety, pansexual hypebeast whose parents have bankrolled his hobby as a Chelsea gallerist.

No one except O’Hara could have played the role of Johnny’s batty wife, Moira, a pill-popping ex–soap star and self-made aristocrat who doesn’t know her daughter’s middle name or phone number. O’Hara first met Eugene Levy in 1974, when she auditioned for the Second City on Adelaide Street. She’d heard about the troupe from Gilda Radner, who was dating O’Hara’s brother at the time. She didn’t get in, so she took a job as a waitress for a few months until she was finally cast as Radner’s understudy. “I thought to myself, Wow, is this girl brilliant,” Eugene says. O’Hara, who was 19 at the time, took a deceptively simple approach: “I played every role as if I was insane,” she says. Over the years, Eugene and O’Hara co-starred in no fewer than seven movies—they even voiced husband-and-wife porcupines in 2006’s Over the Hedge. At first, she was reluctant to commit to a series, and turned down the part at least a dozen times. Eugene had already promised the role to another actor when Dan cajoled him into calling O’Hara one last time. She finally accepted in exchange for the option to back out after the pilot. “When the show was picked up, I said, ‘Ah, Eugene, you tricked me!’ ” O’Hara says. “I’m glad he did.”

Catherine O’Hara turned down the part of Moira Rose at least a dozen times before she finally agreed to do the pilot. The rest is history

The final casting challenge was for the role of Alexis, the family’s beautiful, self-absorbed daughter, a mid-aughts Us Weekly type who romances Greek shipping heirs, parties with Sienna Miller and once had her own cable reality series called A Little Bit Alexis (do yourself a favour and watch the clip on YouTube). Former Saturday Night Live star Abby Elliott was initially cast in the role. (The family ties run deep on this show—her father, the comic Chris Elliott, had already signed on to play the hillbilly mayor, Roland Schitt.) When Abby pulled out due to scheduling conflicts, the Levys auditioned hundreds of young women in Los Angeles before discovering Annie Murphy, a young actor from Ottawa with serendipitously squirmy brows. At the time of Murphy’s audition, her house had just burned down and she had $400 in her bank account. At first, she was just excited to meet Eugene Levy. “Then it turned out to be just Dan in the audition room. So that was my first disappointment,” she jokes. She spent hours watching old videos of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, who always carried their purses in the crook of their elbows, their hands hanging limply in front of them. Murphy exaggerated that gesture into a role-defining signature, her wrist bent at a 90-degree angle like a meerkat’s. Her line readings were bratty yet endearing, and she turned a loathsome character into someone you can root for. It’s not until you see Murphy in real life that you get a sense of how extensive her transformation is: she wears baggy clothes, messy buns and natural deodorant. Her real voice is about two octaves lower than Alexis’s purring vocal fry.

The unforgettable “A Little Bit Alexis” scene from season five

The Levys pitched the series to prestige American cable networks like HBO and Showtime, both of which passed. Then they took it to the CBC, which was trying to rebrand itself with a slate of edgier new shows. They’d seen how audiences had responded to single-camera, character-driven comedies like Parks and Recreation, The Office and Community, and trusted that the CBC’s viewers were ready for something new. “The Schitt’s Creek pilot came in, and immediately I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible,’ ” says Sally Catto, CBC’s general manager for programming. “Occasionally, you have moments when you just see the magic, and it was truly there.” The network’s only hesitation was the name—how would the pearl-clutching masses react? Dan and Eugene had to find people named “Schitt” in the phone book to convince the network brass it was a genuine surname.

Schitt’s Creek launched in January 2015 to impressive ratings: 1.36 million Canadians—almost four per cent of the whole population—tuned in for the first episode. The show was praised as the smartest Canadian sitcom in years. Around the time Schitt’s Creek premiered, the network went on a commissioning binge, snatching up as many comedies as they could, hoping to bottle that magical mixture of heart and bite. After Schitt’s came a gold rush of Canadian TV comedy: Kim’s Convenience, Baroness von Sketch Show and Workin’ Moms.

In the States, the Levys landed at Pop, which was undergoing its own brand rejuvenation. Its newly appointed president, Brad Schwartz, was a native Torontonian who’d previously launched MTV Canada, where he’d been Dan’s boss. Schwartz loved the show, and even more than that, he loved the fact that the CBC was footing a chunk of the bill—a cost-effective perk for the nascent American network. When Pop rebranded in 2015, Schitt’s Creek was its first scripted series. Initially, the results weren’t promising. Even though Pop was installed in 80 million American households, only around 263,000 watched that first season of Schitt’s Creek. When O’Hara tried to watch, she couldn’t even find the channel.

But as the savvy pop culture historian knows all too well, in 2015 the business of television was in the midst of a radical overhaul, as streaming usurped traditional cable and algorithms replaced linear ratings. And so everything changed for Schitt’s Creek in 2017, when Netflix acquired the rights. The deal was a symbiotic triumph. For Netflix, the show had all the ingredients to be a staple: a sterling cast, smart writing, an uplifting vibe. Like Friends, Arrested Development or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s a series that goes down warm and easy, where you turn it on and suddenly it’s four hours later and a pop-up message is asking if you’re still watching. Schitt’s Creek finally had the platform it needed to find its people—139 million people, to be precise, and that’s not even counting those of us who piggyback on our parents’ accounts.

Tony Williams, a drag queen in Knoxville, Tennessee, has the cast’s faces tattooed, Mount Rushmore–style, across his calves
And Madi Lowe, an artist from Kamloops, B.C., sells taxidermied rats dressed like the Roses at craft fair booths

The move to Netflix was a kingmaking moment for a modest-budget, single-camera Canadian sitcom—the TV equivalent of an indie fashion designer discovering Meghan Markle had worn one of her dresses to Christmas at Sandringham. According to Vulture, by the end of season five, viewership on Pop’s platforms spiked to some 3.3 million per episode, an 1,100 per cent increase from season one. Suddenly, the cast got mobbed at airports and restaurants, and booked slots on Colbert and Seth Meyers and Ellen. “This is going to sound so braggy, but I had like 93 followers on Instagram and then the day we went to Netflix I got thousands of followers,” Murphy says. The show became a fixture on TV top-10 lists, and a cottage industry of merch, both official and fanmade, flourished. Viewers can now buy tuques and T-shirts and doormats inscribed with Alexis’s trademark, “Ew, David!” Ryan Brownhill, a manager at a minerals company in Colorado who attended the Atlanta event, bought one of the T-shirts for his 14-year-old daughter. “She does the voice perfectly,” he said. Schittheads scoop up mugs and hoodies that list the characters’ names—Johnny, Moira, David, Alexis—in black Helvetica script, or feature the logo for Rose Apothecary, David’s hipster business, which he describes as “a general store but also a very specific store.” And then there are the people who go from fan to fanatic. Madi Lowe, an artist from Kamloops, B.C., sells taxidermied rats dressed like the Roses at craft fair booths; Tony Williams, a drag queen in Knoxville, Tennessee, has the cast’s faces tattooed, Mount Rushmore–style, across his calves. The show’s exterior filming location, a town of 663 people called Goodwood, Ontario, has become a mecca for visiting Schittheads, who take weepy selfies outside the show’s iconic motel and tour the vineyard where Moira shot her fruit wine commercial. Last June, during the filming of the final season, hundreds of fans met up in Goodwood to visit the set one last time. They called it—what else?—Schittcon.

Dan levy is a micromanager, in the best possible way. His phone is filled with consignment apps so he can buy designer wardrobe items without breaking the show’s tiny budget. He told GQ that he takes it upon himself to scuff up the set of the motel where the Rose family lives so it doesn’t look too pristine. While developing Schitt’s Creek, he assembled a Pinterest board full of inspirations for the small-town sets—the design of the town’s café mimics an old travel poster of the South Pacific, and the muted turquoise wall in the Rosebud Motel was inspired by a specific roadside motel circa 1955. “We’ve held shots for a long time because the shoes in Alexis’s closet weren’t the right shoes and the way their clothes were hanging was wrong,” Murphy says.

The show is partly shot in Goodwood, Ontario, which has become a mecca for visiting Schittheads who take weepy selfies outside the motel

What Dan has created is something both nostalgic and fresh, a show that comforts and challenges its viewers, often in the same scene. The scaffolding of the series is built around orthodox sitcom tropes: the fish-out-of-water story, the family learning to love each other, the riches-to-rags narrative. The womp-womp tuba cues sound like Curb Your Enthusiasm, the café feels a little like Central Perk, and the townies, like mulleted mayor Roland Schitt and his feather-banged wife, Jocelyn, evoke Corner Gas, for better or worse. Against these familiar backdrops, Dan drops the smartest writing we’ve ever seen in Canadian comedy. Schitt’s Creek is laugh-out-loud, spit-out-your-Diet-Coke funny, littered with sly pop culture references and virtuoso line readings and recurring character bits that reward long-time viewers.

Much of the show’s comedy relies on sophisticated sight gags, usually in the form of its now-iconic costumes. Alexis dresses every day as though she’s en route to Coachella, in floppy wide-brimmed panama hats and floaty floral minidresses. David’s wardrobe is an eye-rollingly pretentious collection of minimalist black pieces: slouchy Rick Owens sweaters and leather skirts over jeans. In one memorable scene, he petulantly runs away from Schitt’s Creek and takes refuge with an Amish family. When his parents find him, he’s sitting in a field, holding a pitchfork and wearing a gloriously stupid hoodie with a faux horse’s mane, like a Grant Wood painting as reimagined by Kylie Jenner. (Dan spent months tracking down that garment—it’s Helmut Lang—before he finally found it on eBay.)

Dan Levy spent months tracking down the faux-horse-mane Helmut Lang hoodie for the pitchfork scene in season two. He found it on eBay

The real peacock of the show, comedically as well as sartorially, is Moira, whose costumes earned Schitt’s Creek an Emmy nomination last fall. She favours futuristic statement pieces—bulky bib necklaces, pleather gowns, silk pyjamas under tweed vests and diamond brooches—and cherishes her collection of designer wigs, which she’s christened with names like Maureen and Madame Strawberry. The wigs were O’Hara’s idea. “I was inspired by a woman I knew who would disappear from dinner at her home and come back with a different wig on,” O’Hara says. “She would enter the room singing, ‘Hi, look what I’ve got!’ ” It’s high-yield comedy: anytime Moira enters a scene in red Little Orphan Annie curls and a Maleficent coat, or a waist-length brunette number tossed around her neck like a scarf, she gets laughs before even opening her mouth.

Moira’s epic wig collection was O’Hara’s idea. They have names like Maureen and Madame Strawberry

As with every element of production, Dan is intimately involved with Moira’s looks. “I’d get dressed and then Daniel would accessorize me. You don’t usually have a showrunner in wardrobe fittings, but he has such taste and such a sense of humour.” Moira’s aesthetic is inspired by the British socialite Daphne Guinness—O’Hara brought photos of her to early meetings with the Levys. “There’s an armour about the way she dresses. She has these steel neckpieces that hold her head up, and crazy high shoes, and she’s got legs and she shows them. I like to show my legs, too,” O’Hara says. “By looking at the characters’ clothes, you instantly know how they perceive themselves and how they want to be seen. For Moira, they remind her and everyone else of the life she led and the life she plans to lead again.” When O’Hara’s house had to be evacuated during the Getty fire in the fall, after scooping up her passport, family photos and valuables, she grabbed a rackful of Moira’s clothes, including a fringed cape and six-inch Givenchy heels.

More than anyone else, O’Hara elevates her character beyond what’s written on the page. Her smartest move was creating an unidentifiable accent for Moira, a dialect of long vowels and exaggerated diphthongs and archaic verbiage that can only be described as a cross between a 1940s movie star and an alien trying to learn English on Duolingo. “After a glut of unasinous ideas put forth today, the room is suddenly bombilating with anticipation,” she says after a town hall meeting. There’s even a Tumblr devoted to her vocabulary: Schitt Moira Says. “There’s a bit of Madonna in there, a bit of Marilyn Monroe, a bit of Audrey Hepburn. I will proudly say that the accent is inconsistent. Eugene sometimes has to remind me to do it.”

A sneak peek from season six

The series’ heady humour is partly responsible for its success. The rest is all heart. Schitt’s Creek the show and Schitt’s Creek the town are both genuinely happy places to spend your time, where characters evolve while retaining their comedic edge, where dissociated families reconnect, where conflict is blissfully absent. When David falls in love with his business partner, Patrick, their relationship is uncomplicated by any external stumbling blocks; when Patrick comes out to his family and friends, they respond with love and acceptance. Dan has said it was a deliberate choice to create a world without homophobia or hatred, where two men can simply meet, fall in love and be happy. By refusing to engage, he’s shutting out the bigots entirely. “In these strange political times, the themes of self-improvement and kindness and empathy seem to resonate with people,” he says. “We all need a little lightness these days, and Schitt’s Creek has become a safe space, not only for our characters, but also for our viewers.” In the hellscape of 2020, that apoliticism is a radically political act. “I don’t think it was anyone’s agenda to affect people the way the show seems to have,” O’Hara says. “But we’ve heard the show has inspired young people to come out to their parents, and parents have written to say how the show helped them understand their kids.”

When I chatted with the Schittheads in the crowd in Atlanta, I expected them to gush about Moira’s wigs or David’s one-liners. But again and again, they kept coming back to how the show makes them feel. “One minute I could be laughing my ass off, and the next I’m crying,” said L. Paige Fenn, a photographer from Atlanta, who attended the show with her two best girlfriends, all wearing matching “Ew, David” tuques. “David and Patrick, I’m obsessed with them. I just can’t get over them.” This was a recurring theme. Kimberly Alfonso, an HR director for CBS, came to the event dressed in head-to-toe Moira drag. “The love story between David and Patrick has touched me in a way that no TV show has ever done,” she told me. “It touched me to my core—to my core.” Aside from the cast, the undisputed star of the evening was a 13-year-old girl from Tennessee named Lily Hall, who’d made a sign reading “CAN I GIVE DAN LEVY A HUG?” (He brought her up on stage and obliged.) She told me she’d watched the show from start to finish 17 times, and the trip to Atlanta had been an early Christmas present. Her mom had made her a replica horse-mane hoodie like the one David wore in the Amish field. She summed it all up: “The show makes me feel really, really happy,” she said, giggling.

Schitt’s Creek’s run might be just about over, but the show’s success is just beginning. Last month, it was acquired by Fox in a two-year syndication deal, and Dan recently signed a three-year contract with ABC Studios to develop and produce new scripted content (he spent some of his payday on a $4.13-million four-bedroom Spanish villa in the trendy Los Feliz neighbourhood of L.A.). Plus, we’ll always have Netflix. After all the Moiras had cleared out of the theatre, I went back to my hotel and opened my laptop. I should have gone straight to bed, but instead I fell down a Schitt’s Creek rabbit hole and watched five episodes. It was simply the best.

This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.