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Friday, January 24, 2020

The Rise of Schitt’s Creek

Schitt’s Creek has enjoyed a steady if unlikely rise. It’s been the rare series to see its audience grow every season — between its first and fourth seasons, the show’s ratings on Pop more than doubled.

By: New York Times | Toronto | Updated: January 11, 2020 8:38:25 am
schitts creek Schitt’s Creek is co-created by Dan and Eugene Levy, who also star on the show.

Written by Lara Zarum

“You take such good care of your hands,” Daniel Levy marveled as he waited for the director to call “action.”

It was the last day of spring, and the last week of filming for the sixth and final season of “Schitt’s Creek,” which premieres Tuesday on Pop. During a lull between takes, Levy, one of the show’s creators and stars, admired his scene partner’s nails. “I’m a little obsessed,” said the actress, Genelle Williams, who was playing a chef.

His response was swift: “So we all should be!”

Levy wears many hats: showrunner, actor, writer, editor, costume designer. Later that day, during a break on set — a glass-walled cafe ringed by trees in Toronto’s East End, which was standing in for a catering business — he sat scrolling through his phone, putting together a playlist for the show’s wrap party the next night. Levy’s music selection was both an annual tradition and a welcome distraction from the end of an era.

“It’s hectic,” he said, “which has actually helped a lot.”

The Roses, the formerly wealthy, fish-out-of-water family at the heart of “Schitt’s Creek,” are notoriously allergic to sentiment. But the people who play them — Daniel Levy (David), Annie Murphy (Alexis), Catherine O’Hara (Moira, the imperious matriarch) and Eugene Levy (the paterfamilias, Johnny) — were less so as the show neared its end. A weepy read-through of the final two episodes left O’Hara looking “like Alice Cooper,” she said. Others found themselves breaking down more randomly.

“Annie and I just text each other out of the blue,” Daniel Levy said. “‘So I cried today at the grocery store. How are you?’”

But even though “Schitt’s Creek” is wrapping up just as it has achieved something like mainstream success, the stars and creators remain convinced that it’s the right time to say goodbye.

“Isn’t that the perfect way to go?” Eugene Levy said. “We’re on an upward trajectory, and we will be still on an upward trajectory when this series actually wraps.”

Sweet but never saccharine, the show has tracked the evolution of the Roses — who arrived in Schitt’s Creek full of disdain, with nothing but the couture on their backs — as they’ve been absorbed into the tiny town in the boonies. “Schitt’s Creek” premiered in 2015 on Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Canada and Pop TV in the United States, but it wasn’t until it landed on Netflix in 2017 that U.S. viewers began to catch on.

Thanks to a daffy charm — a winning combination of its characters’ caustic wit and the show’s fundamental warmth — and enthusiastic word-of-mouth support, the series rose from humble origins to the pinnacle of TV acclaim. In July 2019, a few months after the creators announced its next season would be its last, “Schitt’s Creek” was nominated for four Emmys, including best comedy.

O’Hara and Eugene Levy — Daniel’s father on-screen and off — were already familiar faces when “Schitt’s Creek” premiered. But the show’s success has been a launchpad for the younger Levy, who signed a three-year overall deal with ABC Studios in 2019.

Murphy, mostly unknown before “Schitt’s Creek,” said the sitcom also has changed her life. “The show has opened a lot of doors,” she said, “and I’m trying to look at the future not as a daunting bleak abyss of hell, but an exciting adventure.”

schitts creek tv show Annie Murphy said the sitcom has changed her life.

The final season is the most ambitious yet, Daniel Levy said. The Roses have finally settled in the town they never thought they’d call home — in fact, they’re thriving both professionally and in their relationships. But will their achievements propel them beyond Schitt’s Creek?

Levy began thinking about an ending some time in Season 3. When Pop gave the show a two-season extension after Season 4, that struck him as a good opportunity to map out the conclusion he had in mind and go out on a high note.

“From start to finish our show will be exactly what it was intended to be,” he said. “The biggest mistake you can make in TV is shifting the focus away from characters and the storytelling to servicing audience expectations. The audience is there because you’ve done something right.”

A Family Story

Levy says the show’s distance from the Hollywood hoopla gives him a certain level of freedom as a storyteller. “We operate very much in an isolated bubble up in Canada,” he said.

Inspired by a curiosity about the lives of the ultrawealthy — and the time Kim Basinger bought a small town in Georgia in the late 1980s — he created “Schitt’s Creek” with his father and shopped it around to U.S. cable and broadcast networks, which all passed. Eventually they cobbled together funding — first they made a deal with the CBC, then Europe’s ITV Studios came on as distributor and, finally, Pop rounded out the budget. The arrangement left the Levys with an unusual degree of creative control.

Eugene Levy was in the writers’ room for the first couple seasons, but by Season 3, he began to step back and cede authority to his son.

“His instincts were really sharp on story, and his scripting was getting very strong,” Eugene recalled, sitting outside the cafe in one of Johnny’s sleek suits and a pair of his own running shoes. “Quite frankly I was relieved, because I didn’t really want to spend 12 hours in a writers’ room.”

“At this point,” Daniel said, “my family’s sort of like, ‘If we never talk about this show around the dinner table again, it’ll be too soon.’” (His sister, Sarah Levy, plays a waitress at the town’s restaurant.)

schitt's creek last season Dan Levy with his father Eugene Levy. (Photo: Dan Levy/Instagram)

“Schitt’s Creek” has enjoyed a steady if unlikely rise. It’s been the rare series to see its audience grow every season — between its first and fourth seasons, the show’s ratings on Pop more than doubled. Netflix rarely releases viewership numbers for individual shows, but according to Pop, more than 4 million people watched at least some of the fifth season on its channel.

The growth was in part thanks to a Webby Award-winning promotional strategy of flooding social media with “Schitt’s Creek” references and amplifying fan enthusiasm by having both the stars’ Twitter accounts and the show’s official one retweet and respond to user-generated GIFs and memes. (When the Emmy nominations were announced, the show tweeted a GIF of Moira declaring that her favorite season is “awards.”)

“Schitt’s Creek” also has been a beacon for LGBTQ viewers, thanks to its casually progressive depiction of a community devoid of homophobia and to the poignant love story between David and his business-partner-turned-fiancé.

“I want to feel like I’m putting something out into the world that’s of consequence,” Levy said. “It is a comedy, but there’s a bit of weight to it. In our own little way we’re taking a stand.”

Eugene Levy said that his son’s “sensibility has really carried the show into a lovely area of recognition, in terms of critical recognition, in terms of emotional recognition, what he’s done for the LGBTQ community.”

Going into the fifth season, the cast began to detect a shift in “Schitt’s Creek” awareness. Murphy noticed that more people were recognizing her in public. Eugene Levy found that fans who approached no longer wanted to joke about his infamous role in the 1999 teen sex comedy “American Pie,” or to remark that he doesn’t actually have two left feet, like his character in the 2000 Christopher Guest mockumentary “Best in Show.”

“It’s all ‘Schitt’s Creek’ related,” he said. “So I know the saturation level on the show is getting thicker.”

Fans and Farewells

“Schitt’s Creek” grew stronger as the Roses became more enmeshed in the show’s namesake town, which Johnny once bought for David as a joke. The humor comes from the contrast between the flamboyant Roses and the pragmatic townspeople, but that’s also where “Schitt’s Creek” found its heart. Moira joins the town’s singing group and directs a play; Alexis falls in love and goes back to school; David opens a posh general store; and Johnny partners with the motel’s sardonic receptionist, Stevie (Emily Hampshire), and takes over the inn.

“Over and above, the main thing about this show was how the Roses have developed as a family,” Eugene Levy said.

As O’Hara put it during a break in filming, “It’s like we’re aliens learning how to be humans.”

The production had moved to its second location of the day, a small recording studio where Moira had a gig performing voice-overs — a job secured by Alexis, who became her mother’s publicist in the fifth season. O’Hara and Murphy took their places in the recording booth.

“You look so professional, Alexis!” O’Hara exclaimed in her signature Moira accent — a mid-Atlantic patois in which certain syllables are inexplicably elongated and others abruptly cut off. “My bébé!”

Murphy was outfitted in a long-sleeve peasant dress and fringed suede boots. O’Hara wore a calf-length black, white and lime-green coat, matching gloves and a silver-gray wig from her character’s vast collection. Moira’s rotating set of wigs had been her idea, O’Hara said, but it was Levy and the show’s costume designer, Debra Hanson, who scoured the internet year-round for discounted couture and one-of-a-kind finds.

“We’re able to tell a story just through the clothes,” Levy said. “That means we don’t have to write bad, expositional dialogue about how I miss my old life. You see it every day.”

The resulting looks have earned both critical acclaim and fan worship. Murphy recalled that when the cast toured to several U.S. cities last year in a live show, many attendees came out in costume, mostly in Moira drag. “And lots of people with eyebrows taped to their faces,” she said, tributes to the Levy men’s famously bushy brows.

For Murphy, who lives in Toronto, the live tour was the first time she came face-to-face with legions of “Schitt’s Creek” viewers. “We knew that momentum was building,” she said, but being in a theater full of costumed devotees was something else. “Everyone who was there, they were there, and they were completely committed.”

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Yes, hello, we went to Las Vegas.

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A few days earlier, the production had finished shooting on location in the hamlet of Goodwood, Ontario, the site of the Schitt’s Creek restaurant, town hall, auto shop and David’s general store. On a Sunday afternoon in June, dozens of fans had gathered in Goodwood, about an hour outside Toronto, to bid farewell to “Schitt’s Creek” — an event billed as “SchittCon.”

Murphy said she and Daniel Levy were emotionally wrecked after leaving those sets. “As cheesy as it sounds,” she said, “they have come to be really familiar, happy places over the years.”

Back in his trailer, Daniel Levy had changed out of his costume — drop-crotch gray sweats and a black sweatshirt emblazoned with “ICON” in white block lettering — and into his own clothes, a gray crew neck and black jeans. His scenes finished for the day, he sat with an iced coffee sweating on the table before him and contemplated the end of “Schitt’s Creek.”

While he’s aware that the show is likely to receive more attention than ever before in its final season, he also knows that stunning twists and big narrative swings have never been the “Schitt’s Creek” style. Much like his on-screen alter ego, Levy no longer feels the pressure to prove himself. He’s learned that sometimes that simplest approach is best.

“What I wanted for our series finale was just a great [expletive] episode of TV,” he said. “I think that’s all people want. They don’t need a huge fireworks display. They just want to know that the characters are going to be OK.”

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