10:30 am EDT, January 16, 2019

How the healing power of ‘Schitt’s Creek’ helped me to find my paddle

I can’t tell you exactly how Schitt’s Creek is going to change your life — I can only tell you how it changed mine. But it’s a compelling case for the power of comedy nevertheless.

The fifth season of Schitt’s Creek debuts tonight on Pop, and if you’re not up to date on the charming Canadian comedy that has crept into millions of hearts over the past year, it’s time to fix that.

Seriously. If you haven’t yet accepted Schitt’s Creek as your personal lord and savior, it’s time to take the rest of the week off and immediately consume all 1,144 minutes currently at your fingertips via streaming (if you’re not a Netflix subscriber, it’s available on the Pop app for zero dollars) in order to stay on top of the show’s brand new season as it airs week-to-week in North America on the CBC and Pop.

Extreme times call for extreme measures, I know. It’s okay. It’s worth it. I’ve even written you a note.

“To whom it may concern,

Think back to the decade that was 2018. As required by law in the field of entertainment journalism, we here at Hypable offered up many end-of-year best-of listacles in December, including, of course, a rundown of our staff’s most favored individual television episodes from the past twelve months.

My personal pick was “Somewhere Else,” the season 2 finale of The Good Place. This was a fine choice, an honest choice – The Good Place is a profoundly important show, both to me personally and to the world at large, and this surprising and moving episode was a very literal game-changer for the scope of the series. I wept silently and uncontrollably all the way through it when it aired back in February. This was a very legitimate and meaningful option in order to fulfill the required brief.

It was also a total cop-out.

It’s not really in my nature to pit any artistic endeavors – let alone two wonderfully life-affirming character-driven properties like these – against each other, but I actually selected “Somewhere Else” because I couldn’t handle narrowing down my choice to one single episode of my new favorite show of all time, Schitt’s Creek.

The idea of choosing just one instalment of Schitt’s Creek’s excellent fourth season would be – to quote Glee in its heyday, apologies all – my very own Sophie’s Choice, and that’s not even taking into consideration the impact that the entire series had on me this year, after I picked it up in June and watched it in full in just under a week, and then cycled through it again and again and again for the rest of the year.

Crafted by Canadian entertainment royalty, the show is the creation and first collaboration between Daniel Levy (who both acts and showruns) and his famous father Eugene. It stars the senior Levy alongside his long-time partner in comedic crime (and recent Order of Canada recipient) Catherine O’Hara as Johnny and Moira Rose, and the younger Levy and Annie Murphy as David and Alexis, the couple’s adult children. (Daniel’s sister Sarah is also a featured character on the show, though not a member of the Rose clan.)

The Roses are a ridiculously wealthy family left destitute when their business manager commits fraud. Faced with homelessness, the Roses take refuge in a small town called Schitt’s Creek, which they technically own – Johnny once bought David the deed as a joke gift. Schitt’s Creek, deemed valueless, is the only asset the government allowed the family to retain, which should paint a picture of what awaits them there – the indefinite use of two free rooms at the local motel, for starters!

The show has been lauded and awarded in its home country, where it’s aired on the CBC (that nation’s equivalent of your BBCs and PBSs) since 2015. But I – like many others, it would seem – only discovered Schitt’s Creek last year. 2018 was the year that Schitt’s Creek truly blossomed in terms of international acclaim, and its growth in popularity as American audiences, particularly, fell in love with the town and its inhabitants, can be tangibly felt.

The show was given not only a substantial live tour Stateside, where sold out crowds (including yours truly, who is flying from Sydney to New York to do so – if you ever read this, Dan Levy, please can I have an interview and/or a hug?) will sit in the presence of the Creek cast and hear their stories, but also an impressive Critic’s Choice Award nomination for Best Comedy Series – the first Canadian show to ever get recognized thusly.

Schitt’s Creek sadly lost out to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but Levy Sr and O’Hara delighted viewers in their segment as presenters – including for one of those surprising ties.

Their groundbreaking nomination of course goes hand in hand with the fact that journalists at every major US outlet — from Vulture to Vogue, BuzzFeed to The New York Times, — became enamoured with the series, and dedicated column space to it, cornering every type of readership imaginable.

I’m not nearly educated enough in the field of trend analysis to truly theorize about why the show is suddenly garnering so much global attention, but for fans and critics alike, it seems to be a matter of good old-fashioned word of mouth – as soon as someone watches Schitt’s Creek and realizes just how quietly brilliant it is, they want to make sure everyone they know and love gets to have the same experience.

This is especially true for the LGBT community, who are always rightfully wary of how safe and welcoming a property might be for them. So the fact that season 4 saw Dan Levy’s romantically dysfunctional pansexual character David enter a very healthy and adorable same-sex relationship has certainly contributed to the uptick in Gay Twitter conversation surrounding Schitt’s Creek this year – a massive point of entry for many who may have been introduced to the show via popular gifs and videos (particularly of the pair’s memorable musical moments) on social media.

Shockingly, my own introduction the show was not a “sounds gay, I’m in” situation – which, as a center-of-the-Kinsey-scale bisexual, is admittedly my standard curiosity piquer for such things. I was suggested Schitt’s Creek back in May by a couple of Canadian actors who work on another show that I cover, and who dubbed it most well done series that they’d ever seen.

I was fairly skeptical – the name alone made me expect something, I don’t know, Dukes of Hazzard-y, toilet humor, perhaps – but I trusted the folks who recommended it, and then I think I saw in passing that there was an openly pansexual character (okay, so it was a little bit sounds gay I’m in… that tracks, honestly) and that all four complete seasons were available on Australian Netflix.

(There aren’t many times when Australia beats the USA for access to popular media – it’s pretty much just getting Marvel movies a couple of days early due to time zones – but season 4 of Schitt’s Creek was licensed faster and more fully for many international Netflix libraries than it was for the US, where it airs on basic cable. This may have contributed to the show’s slow-then-fast rise in American media last year.)

And so, in need of something to binge-watch solo, something digestible in small doses, something probably not traumatizing, something that could help me keep track of the passage of time during my daily 3-hour middle-of-the-afternoon baths, off I went.

You see, I was not doing well last year, in a number of ways. Generalized anxiety combined with a shock-to-the-system day job redundancy left me in a lifestyle with no structure and no resilience to create some, and this led to periods of depression and dissociation.

This instability tripled when I started suffering terrifying neurological symptoms – vertigo, tinnitus, and dementia, which presented as memory loss, confusion, cognitive processing, even dropping words in the middle of sentences, as well as increased inability to regulate my moods. Stuck in a rut doesn’t do the scenario justice. I was buried under an avalanche at the bottom of a canyon.

These issues turned out to be the result of a severe B12 deficiency (caused by another medication inhibiting the body’s ability to extract this needed vitamin from food) but were in play for several months before this final diagnosis.

I do not exaggerate when I say that I thought I was going crazy. I was incapacitated by my own mind, and as the gaps in memory and logic became more apparent, there was naturally a cyclical increase in how scared, sad and stressed I felt. Everything felt helpless and hopeless – one might say I was up the proverbial without a paddle.

And Schitt’s Creek, as odd as it might seem, rescued me. I began to measure time in episodes, which helped to rebuild the structure that I needed and couldn’t retain, by giving me 22-minute blocks to count (like I mentioned, in the bathtub – more than three episodes, and I had to get out) but this tactic in and of itself wouldn’t have achieved anything if what was presented on screen didn’t capture my heart and mind so completely, and actually act as a mood stabilizer and mental respite.

We’re currently seeing a resurgence in participatory storytelling, like gaming, DnD, audio dramas, even television itself (looking at you, Bandersnatch) where you must rely on your choices, your imagination or both in order to fully experience the story. Some seem to love this level of involvement, but it’s not for me even on a good day.

To me, the best thing about traditional TV and film is that it sweeps you away – it’s given to you as an observer as a full piece to be immersed in on a number of sensory levels. (Theater is even better for this.) At this stage of my illness, even the act of turning book pages – let alone processing the words – was impossible without my mind simply wandering off. I might find myself four hours later staring at a wall with one pant leg on, and one off.

I needed both escapism and grounding from something that involved very little cognitive discipline – something I couldn’t help but focus on because I was being spoon-fed a story that I was invested in.

Films felt both too long and too short – too much to take in all at once with no chance to continue the tale tomorrow. But good television – a serialized story to dip back into over the course of days or weeks – is, was and always will be a powerful tool for me. It’s akin to spending time with my friends and picking up where we left off – the best possible mix of the familiar and the new. And what wonderful friends were waiting for me in Schitt’s Creek.

The effect that these refreshing interludes into the motel rooms of the Rose family had on my moods – helpless joy, mostly, but sometimes merely being conscious of feeling something rather than nothing – combined with the practical ability to keep track of time once more, allowed me to pull together some scraps of strength and actually follow up with my doctors about what the hell was happening to me. I was able to explain my decline better and get it checked out in different ways.

This time around, blood tests proved that a lack of B12 – vital for the nerves to work properly, including the connections in the brain, get this tested, people – was the culprit and I was given a number of infusions, allowing me to slowly reclaim my mind when I truly must have given myself over to that state being my future. I say “must” because I can’t consciously recall what any of those sensations felt like, but it must have been terrible – all accounts from others say I was an absolute nightmare.

Speaking of absolute nightmares, the character that immediately tossed me a rope and assisted me on my climb up that canyon wall was Dan Levy’s David, the elder Rose child.

Right from the jump, I could see that David was like me, in very specific ways, in ways that I’d never witnessed in a TV show before. And as I started to heal and separate out the various symptoms of the B12 disorder with the deeper and longer running troublesome “personality quirks” that my temporary dementia had exacerbated, those similarities became clearer, more validating, and more helpful in allowing me to communicate my own struggles.

I’m not talking about him being pan, though the entire handling of that is some of the greatest, most normalized LGBT storytelling I’ve ever seen – if there’s any justice in the world, “into the wine, not the label” will become queer shorthand for decades to come. What I’m actually talking about is his neurosis.

It would be easy to write David’s “preciousness” off as prissy, camp, spoiled – a product of his privilege or a stereotype. But to me it never read like that – it was quickly evident that it came from somewhere else. The situations that David cannot handle, his paranoia, his body language, his binge eating, his controlling needs despite being utterly insecure – I don’t know if Dan Levy drew those traits from himself, but he could have drawn them all from me.

Upon rewatching and already knowing the character’s journey, it’s actually apparent right from the very first scenes, but the season 1 episode “The Cabin” – in which David (who wants to be left alone to read his book) agrees to organize a games night party for Alexis, (who misses socializing) and freaks the fork out when people aren’t complying to his careful gameplay plans, then refuses to come back into the room because he’s so embarrassed by his outburst – broke my heart and lifted me up first time around, because I have never, ever felt so seen.

As gentle as it is acerbic, Schitt’s Creek joins the ranks of many lovely current shows helping to prove that when making television, you do not have to be dark in order to be deep. These kind of comedies are a balm in a very fragile world. Creek has sharp edges, sure, but it a really is a light show, frequently farcical and absurd, though it defies genre convention and follows no rules about what a “comedy” should look or feel like.

But what sets it apart from the pack is how it rarely, if ever, leans on exposition to prove any of its points. Its multi-layered brilliance and emotional resonance relies instead on a deep trust in the audience and a deep trust in their own storytelling, which is, in a dream world, exactly how television should work.

Schitt’s Creek never needs to spell things out – it knows that you can read. And there is no such thing as “surface level” on Schitt’s Creek. Every breath, every beat of every performance is fully actualized in a way that allows the audience to trace it all the way down to its core, and it’s a quality that you might not realize is missing from most comedies until you watch this one and experience how, well, real, it feels.

This combination is, in my opinion, what makes the show so powerful. The fact that these characters are easy to understand is not a sign of Schitt’s Creek’s simplicity – rather, it’s the biggest proof of its complexity that you could possibly find. The actors and writers on Schitt’s Creek have created characters that show us – truly show us – the subtle, full-bodied sum of their entire histories in even the smallest of moments.

A good friend of mine who’s worked in TV as both a critic and in production – most recently, as a matter of fact, on one of Creek’s fellow nominees for the Critics’ Choice Best Comedy trophy – just watched this show and said to me, when complimenting Creek’s character development as the best and most rewarding currently on television, “They’re treating these characters like they’ve got 20 seasons with them.”

I completely agree, but I also think they’re treating these characters like we’ve already had 20 years with them – that we know the sum of all of their parts. We don’t need to be told. We’re just meant to see them, for all that they are.

It’s for this reason that I know – I know, you understand? – that David allows himself to be handled or deescalated, which Emily Hampshire’s Stevie does brilliantly in “The Cabin,” cementing their role as each other’s first ever best friend. In fact, he more than allows, he craves it. He needs it to be free of his own neurotic loop.

Because from my experience, people with these anxieties want to be deescalated. The deeper issues apparent in David, about his need for precision and operate in a certain way for a certain reason, his inability to relax into fun, his being paralyzed by embarrassment and shame – I know that all I want is to not be backed into a corner by those emotional demands, even when I’m incapable of escaping their clutches.

Levy employs every trick in the book aside from heavy-handed exposition to paint David, in writing and performance, as obsessively controlling but not at all dominant. His bossy behavior is not truly about getting his own way for the sake of it, even though it’d be easy to read it that way at a glance.

A lot of people believe that those two qualities, being controlling and being dominant, go hand in hand, that someone who needs to control also wants to be “in charge,” in an egocentric way. I find that there’s a huge difference between those two attitudes, because having neurotic control issues actually controls you, negatively.

Instead, it’s actually that David believes there is a omniscient Right way for things to go, that his brain shorts out about that being disrupted (ahem, plungers) and that represents an entirely different sort of wiring to someone wanting to get His Way. David doesn’t decide what’s “correct” – he just knows it, a gift from the gods of OCD, and it dictates his choices and his comfort almost completely.

I have been there. And me, all I ever want is for control to be taken out of my hands so that I’m not trapped by my own behavior, but it’s nearly impossible for someone to possess that power to deescalate you because you just don’t trust to let it go safely – which is what makes David’s eventual relationship, with Noah Reid’s Patrick, someone who gently pushes back whenever necessary, such a perfect fit, and such a genuine inspiration.

Often, when David “demands” something and is very calmly told no or to handle it himself – especially by Patrick – he’s more than just relieved, he’s thrilled. It is very relatable, very moving and I’ve literally used some of their scenes to demonstrate my needs, in the moments of clarity when I can help my loved ones to understand my coding for less calm moments where I may say or do the opposite.

Has the show itself ever translated David’s behavior in as many words? No. A smattering. But I know, you know? Because that’s what Schitt’s Creek does. And it does this for every. single. character. They’ve even wrung sympathy from me for Chris Elliott’s grotty mayor Roland, the show’s most stressful character – but ultimately, like all the others, a good egg.

But it’s the Roses, of course, where the show blooms the brightest. Alexis’ brand of anxiety is just as deeply drawn, albeit in a very different way, as her relentless positivity, awkwardness and fear of confrontation sometimes combine to physically incapacitate her – I’ve told by close friends that others relate just as strongly and viscerally to her highs and lows as I do to David’s.

The pacing of Schitt’s Creek so far has been very slow and very careful – season 1, we spend with the family trying to escape the town and failing. Season 2 sees the family reluctantly begin to put down roots – integrating into the town’s social activities and generally attempting to improve their quality of life, concluding in a moving realization of how much they’ve changed and how much they appreciate the support they’ve received from their new neighbors.

Season 3 is a period of growth, as Alexis goes back to school, David develops a new business, Moira makes waves with the Town Council, and Johnny finally gets his groove back. And Season 4 reaches new heights of romantic fulfilment, friendship and family bonds, as Schitt’s Creek embraces the Rose family’s commitments to the community and one another – beautifully showcased all season as well as in the show’s first ever Christmas special this December.

Johnny and Moira, like their children, contain multitudes, from their self-made success and their relationship with their privilege to their enduring partnership as a couple and their disconnect with their children prior to their exile, and it is fascinating to witness the similarities and differences between parents and children, how David gets his debilitating pedantry from Johnny despite being, on paper, more similar to the high-strung Moira, and how Alexis’s predisposal to adaptability, spinning things in a positive light in order to stay on top, is much like the best (and also silliest) qualities of her mother.

The special, which marked Dan Levy’s directorial debut, centered around Johnny’s wish to revive the annual Rose family Christmas party and featured the show’s first actual flashback – a memory or a dream – of what the family’s life was like before that fateful day. It really hammered home just how extravagantly rich the family was, and just how unhappy – Moira drugged up, the children with no desire for connection, and Johnny left alone under the Christmas tree, brokenhearted and simply craving closeness, togetherness, in the wake of these parties.

It becomes clear that he was never truly jaded about his lavish life, which makes him all the more dearer, and this deeper dive into Johnny in turn enhances the show as a whole, as we are reminded of the enormity of their loss, and the blessings of their rebirth as a family.

Which is what makes season 5 such a hopeful and happy place for fans of the show. The Roses are no longer merely surviving. They are thriving. So it makes sense that the focus of season 5 so far is simply love, propelling the love between the characters in all sorts of different and inspiring ways.

The Rose parents have always been rock solid, but as Moira is apart from her husband for the longest period ever in nearly 40 years of marriage (while stretching her creative wings once more – the gravity given to her perspective on her acting career in episode 1 deserves its own article, frankly) the stories that surround their separation and reunion in episodes 5.01 “The Crowening” and 5.02 “Love Letters” are some of the most touching of the series, while Alexis and David each navigate insecurities in their relationships with Ted and Patrick, and come out stronger and sweeter.

The show remains ridiculously natural and naturally ridiculous, in how it leans into stereotypes while simultaneously subverting them, and it continuously reminds us that truly good-hearted people express themselves – and their love – in all sorts of ways.

The little town of Schitt’s Creek gave the Roses what they needed to become the best versions of themselves. It gave me what I needed for that purpose, too. Who knows what it might give you?

In conclusion, for the reasons outlined above, please grant your staffer/student/spouse the time off that they need in order to fully appreciate the best that television has to offer this January. You know what? Grant it to yourself as well. You deserve it.

“Best wishes and warmest regards.”

‘Schitt’s Creek’ returns with two episodes on January 16 at 10/9c on Pop

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