They were asking for it with their puntastically crude title. Schitt’s Creek, co-created by Eugene Levy and his son Daniel and premiering tonight on the new American network Pop, garnered pre-release attention for the very fact that Eugene was able to convince CBC Television to OK a project named “shit.” This gumption — and the idea of Levy enthusiastically championing the title in a professional setting — made the whole project seem potentially hilarious and absolutely worth tracking. Add to that the fact that it was loosely inspired by the bizarre news story of Kim Basinger’s purchase of an entire town in Georgia, and that Levy (whose nerdy diction and balletically expressive eyebrows have dazzled in Christopher Guest movies for decades) would be starring alongside the brilliant, chameleonic Catherine O’Hara (making this their third onscreen marriage after Best in Show and A Mighty Wind), and the whole fecal stream seemed brimming with promise.
Unfortunately, you have to wade through a lot of Schitt to find it. I suppose we can’t say we weren’t warned. Caught somewhere between a smart Occupy-era revenge fantasy and an episode of The Simple Life, Schitt’s Creek begins with a cacophonous scene in which the Rose family — Levy’s patriarch character, video-store mogul Johnny Rose and O’Hara’s Moira Rose, a soap star — get kicked out of their mansion, their assortment of wealth-signifying, sparkling possessions seized. The idea of immediately being thrust into the falling of an empire sounds like riveting television, but as the Rose family chases after and squawks at the swarm of men dismantling their home, we see at once where the humor fails: while it aims to be a well-choreographed introduction to these characters in a moment of crisis, they come across as shrill, hollow caricatures, in a way that is decidedly un-funny.
Part of the problem is the writing, but as much as I hate to say it, the acting also deserves its share of the blame. Levy and O’Hara, as Cookie and Gerry Fleck and Mitch and Micky, have proven themselves a nuanced comedic duo, but here they appear vacated, and not just in the sense of their characters’ unsustainable superficiality; their affectations seem more actorly than comedic. So how, you might ask, after just this first scene, will we endure another 20 minutes, let alone another season, of this soundtrack of broadly “upper-crust” characters whining their way through the template of a fish-out-of-water plot line?
Turns out it doesn’t become more endurable, though it does continue to unfold: the only option for the characters, once they’re stripped of the commodities that gave them their sense of invincibility and forced off the edge of their McMount Olympus, is to move to the middle-of-nowhere town Johnny once bought his son as a joke. The town is called Schitt’s Creek, named after its mayoral dynasty, the Schitt family (the current Mayor of Schitt is played by comedian Chris Elliott). Here, the Roses are subjected to a parade of petty annoyances (a leak! bad diner food! a man with a potbelly — Mayor Schitt himself — schitting in their under-aerated motel room!) that would surely make any stereotypically wealthy family’s 2D skin crawl. Moira finds herself teaching a classroom of elementary school students her sadistic form of method acting; Johnny has to negotiate with Schitt to get the town’s incestuous, anal sex-suggestive “Welcome” sign taken down so he can sell and abandon Schitt’s Creek; their son David attempts a job as a supermarket clerk and gears up to sell his high fashion to the Salvation Army; and their daughter, Alexis (Annie Murphy) finds herself painfully attracted to a young Schitt.
The show has the framework for what could have been a meticulous magnifier of the growing divide between the classes (a problem in Canada, where the show is shot, as well as the States). It’s even been mentioned that it revives the formats of shows like Green Acres and, inversely, The Beverly Hillbillies (again, The Simple Life also comes to mind). But the wealth gap has grown since any of those shows existed, so this could have been an even greater chance at underscoring dysfunctional dichotomies. Almost to its credit, Schitt’s Creek does clearly attempt to critique the upper class: with the exception of Schitt, the rural characters are portrayed as relatively grounded, realistic individuals who could exist in any single-camera series. The focal characters (the wealthy Roses), however, are written and portrayed so broadly and tritely as to beg for a multi-cam format. Though this is where the writers try to pin their social criticism, it’s actually what torpedoes the show’s political aims.
It’s one thing to depict characters coming from two different worlds, rendering communication difficult. And the idea for the future of the show is likely that, with time, the Roses will adapt to some extent and grudgingly put down roots. But the urban and rural characters seem to also belong to two different television traditions entirely, and that seems a harder gap to bridge. And instead of catalyzing an interesting reaction in one another, the two performance styles — as well as the characters — merely seem to repel each other.
It isn’t until the fourth episode, when Alexis, for a very brief moment, genuinely self-deprecates about how spoiled she is to the Schitt she’s falling for that we remember the Roses are supposed to be humans with desires apart from expensive skin creams and roomfuls of wigs. This rare moment of self-awareness is utterly jarring: I’d gotten so used to these characters’ lack of interiority that it was as strange as watching a Rodeo Drive mannequin come to life and earnestly profess its privilege, only to quickly sink back into its Balenciaga-or-whatever-bedecked nothingness.
The show could, and might, improve itself by going in one of two directions: the urbanite snobs could follow the rural characters into a realm of subtlety and depth, or, like 30 Rock after its identity-confused first season, it could fully embrace the absurdity of its premise and get a whole lot weirder. I just hope, for everyone’s sake, that it doesn’t stay where it is, stuck as it seems in two fast-congealing dung plashets.