set visits

Leaving Schitt’s Creek

On set with the Roses, in a place that existed outside of any world, where people became better versions of themselves.

Dan Levy and Emily Hampshire in the penultimate episode of Schitt’s Creek. Photo: Courtesy of PopTV
Dan Levy and Emily Hampshire in the penultimate episode of Schitt’s Creek. Photo: Courtesy of PopTV
Dan Levy and Emily Hampshire in the penultimate episode of Schitt’s Creek. Photo: Courtesy of PopTV

The creators of Schitt’s Creek will never say where its fictional story takes place, but the real Rosebud Motel is on the side of a small highway in Canada’s Hockley Valley. The two-lane road gets enough traffic that local police have to close it off for each take. It’s a nuisance for the crew and locals, but on a bright, hot day in June, the second-to-last day of filming the show, even such annoyances started to feel nostalgic.

A few fans had gathered along the side of the highway, along with a reporter from the local Orangeville Register hoping to get some good photos. Every time the police released traffic between takes, cars slowed to a snail’s pace as they drove past. Several of them rolled down their windows, yelling, “We love you Schitt’s Creek!” and, because it was June, “Happy Pride!” After one group of loud fans drove past, Emily Hampshire, who plays the show’s motel manager Stevie, cracked, “Remember that time someone yelled, ‘Suck my dick?’ We’ve come a long way from season one.”

It’s true in more ways than one. When it started, Schitt’s Creek, created by Dan Levy and his father, Eugene Levy, was a little-known series on Pop TV, an obscure cable channel only recently retooled from its previous identity as the TV Guide Network. The first several episodes seem like something out of a different show entirely: An extraordinarily privileged family is defrauded by their business manager and forced to move into two small motel rooms in a rural town they once purchased as a joke. In the beginning, Johnny (Eugene), Moira (Catherine O’Hara), David (Dan), and Alexis Rose’s (Annie Murphy) humor is edged with cruelty — toward each other, the townspeople, and the former friends and colleagues who’ve abandoned them. The residents of Schitt’s Creek seemed buffoonish and unintelligent.

But in the intervening years, everything about Schitt’s Creek has grown warmer. The Rose family has become a bedrock of supportive love for one another and the community. After its release on Netflix, the show’s popularity boomed, spurring rampant meme-ification, a national variety-show tour that played to sellout crowds, and recognition on late-night shows, at the Emmys, and from David Rose’s personal touchstone Mariah Carey. In the middle of a national pandemic, it is the kind of show that gets cited on “what to binge-watch to make you feel better” lists. It may even have enough momentum to overtake a crowded comedy field at the Emmys this year.

When Levy was shooting the finale in June 2019, he did not know it would arrive at an unprecedented moment of global anxiety and grief. He was stressed, but for all the usual reasons a showrunner would be on the penultimate day of shooting a series. It was hot, bugs were biting, and his character was dressed in a skirt with a fairly high slit. It had already been a long day. They were in a rush to finish, and there were at least two short scenes he was worried he wouldn’t get. Each needed to hit the show’s trademark bull’s-eye between sweetness and silliness. That balance, Dan told me, sitting in his trailer during lunch that day on set, “is always a really precarious place to find yourself as a TV show.”

The morning was devoted to a scene that would appear early in the final season: Moira sits outside the Rosebud, clutching a lapful of her favorite wigs after rescuing them from a fire. It required a classic Schitt’s Creek balancing act. After escaping a legitimately life-threatening fire, Moira is distraught, and in the aftermath she decides to give up her dream of ever acting again.

On the page, it could read as devastating. In person, Catherine O’Hara performs it while wearing one of Moira’s beloved wigs and gently stroking a few others on her lap. O’Hara, Dan told me that day, had insisted that Moira’s wig for that scene should be worn backward. The resulting image is Moira sitting in a chair outside her motel-room home, reconsidering the entire trajectory of her life — all while wearing a wig that looks remarkably like a mophead stuck in a janitor’s bucket nearby.

“In the truest sense, it’s a drama that happens to be funny,” Dan explained. It’s a metastable emotional state that requires adjusting each beat — the season-five town production of Cabaret, for instance, could so easily have slipped into complete parody, but it still needed to result in character growth. It’s a challenge that appeared again later in the afternoon. The crew turned to a scene from episode 12, where Johnny, Roland (Chris Elliott), and Stevie arrive back at the motel after a meeting to secure funding for their franchise-expansion plan. The rest of the family and their friends wait by the motel impatiently, wondering how it went. This funding is Moira’s ticket out of the town, and she’s incredibly anxious. Roland’s wife, Jocelyn (Jenn Robertson), describes it as “playing Deal or No Deal but with the rest of our lives!”

In the first several takes, when the car pulled up at the motel, Eugene as Johnny got out with a solemn, dejected face. He played the moment as a joke, acting as though the team had failed. Then one of his thick black eyebrows slowly rose upward. His mouth tilted into a smile, and everyone cheered, relieved. But something felt off. This was information that would change all of their lives, and for a short second, Johnny was deliberately misleading them. Eugene’s slowly levitating eyebrow was fantastic, but it felt a touch cruel. The poignancy of the reveal needed to change.

They were running out of daylight, though, and they’d already had to cut two small establishing shots from the day’s schedule. To further complicate things, the scene involved driving Johnny’s car into the motel driveway, so every time they reset, the crew had to radio waiting police to block off the road, eating up additional minutes. (“Well, at least it’s an easy day,” Dan remarked to a nearby crew member, his frustration just beneath the surface.) Dan walked over to his father between takes and spoke to him briefly. Eugene nodded.

The final cut of the episode uses one of the later takes, after the brief chat between Eugene and his son. Johnny exits the car quickly, and he pauses briefly, just a few heartbeats of quiet before he nods in relief and pride. Now, he’s withheld this information from them not as a prank, but as a way to ensure they can celebrate when they’re all together. It’s less funny, but it’s more tender where it matters.

There’s an irresistible tie between the sentimentality that appears onscreen and the creative minds behind the scenes. Schitt’s Creek is a family production; Eugene’s brother Fred is also an executive producer, and Dan’s sister, Sarah, is an actor on the show. It’s easy to imagine how draining it might be to work with your immediate family so intensely, day in and day out, for years. It’s something the Levys have been asked about regularly, since the early days of the show. The answers — on late-night talk shows, in panels and profiles — tend to circle around the same few anecdotes. (Eugene does not like getting his hair wet, and Dan made him do it early in the show.) On set, it’s clear they respect one another. Eugene is a proud stage parent, and well into the later seasons of Schitt’s Creek, he was still in the habit of watching the monitors when he wasn’t onscreen, mouthing along with his childrens’ dialogue. “He’s like a dance mom,” Dan told me. “He can’t help it. I’m not a parent, so I can’t understand that level of enthusiasm for your kids.”

Dan Levy on the final days of production. Photo: Courtesy of PopTV

It’s easy to see how Eugene and Dan can work together so smoothly. They operate on different wavelengths. Dan is the showrunner, and he spends much of the day with his eyes darting from task to task: on the placement of props, or adjusting a line reading. Frequently, his eyes fell on me, aware of being watched (and not particularly enjoying the sensation). Eugene was more focused on the long, rolling sensation of saying farewell to the show than on any single logistical obstacle. Where Dan stressed the details of finishing, Eugene was emotional about it all — tearing up a little when he saw some prop posters that read “Team Rosebud!”; giving a heartfelt, ad hoc thank-you speech to a member of the crew who everyone suddenly realized would not be back for the last day.

I suspect some elements of their dynamic — Eugene’s even-keeled pride in his children, Dan’s obsession with detail — have always been there. “Eugene told this story once about Dan as a 5-year-old kid seeing Eugene dressed up for an event,” said Noah Reid, who plays Dan’s now-husband, Patrick. “Eugene was wearing a blazer and a button-up shirt, and then like jeans and leather sneakers or something, and 5-year-old Dan looked his father up and down and said, ‘From here up, yes. From here down? Yuck.’”

“Will you give a speech tomorrow?” I asked Dan, as he sat in his trailer. “No?” he said, pulling a face. “Everyone knows how I feel. I’ll be a blubbering mess all day. I leave that to [Eugene]; he’s far more composed. I’m more of an email guy.”

Over its six-season run, Schitt’s Creek attained the kind of cultural status held only by nonprofit organizations or Mr. Rogers. It’s the kind of show that elicits essays about how its depiction of queer love has changed peoples’ lives. Even as the Roses continue to be absurd, they quietly grew into lovable, welcoming beacons of acceptance and compassion. They saw each other’s flaws, and sincerely celebrated each other’s achievements. 

There’s an uncanny fantasy to Schitt’s Creek in this time of pandemic, when people are cut off from the wider world and forced to live in inescapably close contact with their families and their own minds. Schitt’s Creek takes place nowhere, but more importantly, it exists as a place outside any world. There are almost no politics. There’s money, and there’s stress about money, but there is no mention of race, no homophobia, and no traditional partisan ideology. There is classism in Schitt’s Creek, but its edges and contours have been shaved and reshaped. Snobbery comes hand in hand with goofiness. Exclusionary aesthetics often get punctured when someone points out how useless they are. The politics of Schitt’s Creek are the same as the Rose family’s wardrobe: They are pieces brought in from a former life that still shape how these people want to be seen in the world, but they have absolutely no relevance in their current circumstances. They’re vestigial organs no one wants to let go of.

The town of Schitt’s Creek is more like the island on Lost or the self-improvement labs of The Good Place than it is any real-world location. It’s Jane Austen–esque in its insularity. Like her novels, the small circumscribed world means all the narrative pressure is directed inward — on the self, on personal insight, on moral growth. This is part of the politics-free fantasy: This idea that it’s a place mostly free from external prejudice. It’s a blank slate. “If you could be extracted from your life for three-plus years and have your values completely reprogrammed so you realize what’s most important, and then placed back in the life that you had,” Levy said, “wouldn’t we all love that? To have that kind of break, where we put all ego and expectations aside, and really work on ourselves and realize what’s important? That was always the intention.”

In the end, David and Patrick decide to stay in Schitt’s Creek, but the rest of the family chooses to leave. “The experience acted as a means for growth,” Levy added, “and we reward that with a way out.”

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