Schitt’s Creek has a pretty unpitiable premise.
Wealthy couple, Johnny and Moira Rose, find themselves broke after Mr. Rose’s business manager makes off with their fortune. The Roses and their two thirty-something children, David and Alexis, are then forced to relocate to the nowhere town of Schitt’s Creek, given it’s the only property the IRS left them. The pilot episode finds the family moving into the Schitt’s Creek motel and attempting to acclimate to the pace of this presumably backwater town.
Initially, I was hesitant to tune in. I don’t find watching the uber rich struggle to do mundane tasks funny. You can only hear so many versions of the how-much-could-a-banana-cost line before it hits you that Jeff Bezos definitely has no idea how much a banana costs. Financial illiteracy in this age just isn’t cute. I’m not sure it ever was (particularly in Trump’s America) and the disconnected rich person act is just too close to reality to be real fodder for comedy.
While Schitt’s Creek does have an element of schadenfreude, the comedy of the show goes beyond the low hanging fruit of watching the wealthy sleep in a bed of their own making. The strength of the show is it’s ability write beyond that first joke.
The Roses spend a few beats bumbling around, not knowing what to do without business centers or oil baron boyfriends but they quickly find footholds. It’s evident that they’re made of sterner stuff. Viewers learn that before Schitt’s Creek, Alexis escaped from a Thai drug lord’s trunk, Moira fixed a wobbly table, and Johnny built a video empire. The Roses have talents; they’re not Trumps. This foundation gives them something of a fighting chance. It also makes them more likeable.
The Roses are, additionally, not set up to be villains. They’re the victims of white collar crime, not the perpetrators of it. If any, their crimes are spending $850 on a pair of pants and owning too much cashmere. Moira and Johnny quickly realize in the harsh light of Schitt’s Creek that they haven’t prepared their children for life. This self-awareness makes them worthy of at least some sympathy.
The Roses also appear to be cognizant of how much their identity was their wealth. In an early episode, David struggles to separate out clothes to sell to the thrift store. He admits to motel clerk Stevie, “These are my things. I hand-selected each of these things. They mean a lot to me.”
In that moment, the viewer is reminded that the Roses only have what they were allowed to keep. Everyone, regardless of their tax bracket, would be a little lost without their things.
“I am having a very hard time right now dealing with the idea that people think that my things are worthless or funky or fake,” David continues later, after trying to hock his clothes online. This is something universal, in that it touches upon the insecurities and struggles to define the self.
Overall, Schitt’s Creek does a tremendous job humanizing all its characters, not just the Roses. Everyone in the town is allowed to be more than just a punchline about the rich or poor. With its rural setting, Schitt’s Creek could’ve used small town as shorthand for simpleton. However, while the residents may be portrayed as less cosmopolitan, there is no sense that they’re worse off.
There are a few charmingly clueless townsfolk but none of them are reduced to mere a joke. The town’s major, Roland Schitt, has a wispy mullet and a penchant for eating with his fingers but he’s also a loving husband and giving friend. Stevie, with her Target jeans and flawless sarcasm, matches David gibe for gibe.
The Roses quickly earn the viewer’s favor with proof of their own depth. The germaphobic, possible-megalomaniac Moira neglects to care for her flu-stricken daughter, but eventually rallies to her aid. In subbing in at the front desk, Johnny proves both his business savvy as well as his stupidity. There’s a lot of character growth and depth in Schitt’s Creek but not in a way that makes the show about redemption.
Part of the genius of Eugene and Dan Levy’s writing is their ability to add layers beneath their character’s couture and well-moisturized surfaces. They do this without coming across as cliche by balancing the good behavior with the bad.
The Roses also don’t emerge utterly changed after each season. They maintain the elements of their personality that make them Roses. Similarly, the people of the town may learn a thing or two but they maintain their own identities. No one is steamrolled for the sake of plot. Everyone is deserving of dimension and written in a way that resembles real life and that is the success of the series.