Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek made waves in 2020 when its final season shone some much-needed brightness on audiences weathering the first chapters of the COVID-19 pandemic. With Pride Month underway, Emily Garside considers Schitt’s Creek’s refreshingly optimistic depiction of gay love and acceptance in the first chapter from her book Love That Journey For Me: The Queer Revolution of Schitt’s Creek along with an introduction on her motivations for writing the book.
This story changed me; I think it saved me a little bit too. The reason for writing this book was twofold: to embrace sentimentality and to embrace extreme nerdiness.
This book came about because I quoted Dan Levy to make an argument about Angels in America in another book. If you know me, weirdly, that probably makes perfect sense. If you don’t, procrastination aside, it was about connecting the dots of Queer cultural legacy; a kind of ‘know your history’ linking the stories I’m particularly nerdy about. What Schitt’s Creek did was offer a refreshing take on both TV comedy, with its quirky but heart-warming humour, while also offering a new stop on the road of Queer storytelling- and a still-too-rare happy ending. It’s not the only happy ending out there, but something about the particular mixing together of romcom sensibilities, off-beat comedy, and a kind of writing-back to queer stories of the past, both ignited my nerd brain and my heart.
There’s so much more than what ended up in this book that I could point to in terms of legacy – links to stories of the past. But beyond that, perhaps more importantly than that, I know without a doubt that this show got me through a lot. Not just in the watching of it, in the stories it told, but in having something to look forward to, particularly in its final season, in a year when most of us had nothing to look forward to. For a while, Schitt’s Creek provided a much-needed escape.
And that escape was, to me, profoundly important. I know people mock it – say it’s ‘only TV’ – and while part of me hopes those people never need stories as badly as I did, that they don’t become familiar with the deep craving to feel seen in something, another part of me hopes they can experience the magic of something which truly speaks to them because – whatever it is, whatever form it takes – it always changes things.
The ‘Happy Ending’ of the show is of the kind we all need sometimes. Though each of us can feel lost at certain points in life, as both David and Patrick do themselves at times in the show, the promise that sometimes it does work out, that we can all find our ‘town without prejudice’, is cheering.
As a scholar of Queer Culture, and as someone who has spent their life examining how we tell Queer stories, the actual happy ending felt huge. It’s something I consider on an academic level in the extract below, but even on a personal level, having something happy to embrace as a Queer person – instead of the constant grief and trauma-driven stories we’re usually so used to – makes it feel revelatory. I love a romcom, I love comedy…. But it took me until my 30s to feel like I had one made for me.
I wanted to write this book to indulge all the nerdy points that occurred to me watching the series. I wanted to write this book to express a bit of what it meant to me as a Queer viewer. It got me through the darkest of times, it excited me again as a writer and academic, and it made me feel less alone. Really, it gave me the town where everyone fits in.
A town without prejudice
Schitt’s Creek is the world Dan Levy wants to live in. That’s how Catherine O’Hara described it in an interview with The Guardian, adding, ‘And I do too.’ The idea is simple: what if these characters were able to exist somewhere free from the wider prejudices of the world? That Schitt’s Creek (the town) is a place where prejudice practically doesn’t exist is a brilliant instance of how Schitt’s Creek (the show) managed to lead by example and ask, simply: what if the world looked like this instead? Stories about homophobia, along with other forms of prejudice, have been needed to right the wrongs of previous TV and film narratives, whether deliberately homophobic or because it was culturally acceptable, covertly or overtly. Storylines challenging that have been a vital part of queer visibility, but perhaps the next evolution on that journey is to start imagining what stories might be told if we simply take homophobia out of the equation. Considering some examples, we can look back to the ‘90s, when shows like Friends held running jokes that Chandler must be gay due to his mannerisms and his upbringing, or we see insinuations that Ross has ‘turned’ his wife gay. We also see Ross being upset that his son enjoys playing with a Barbie over a generic, more ‘manly’ doll, or we see him confused and conflicted when Rachel, the mother of his child, wants to hire a male nanny. The Simpsons made a lazy homophobic joke in Homer taking Bart to steel mill The Anvil to show him what ‘real men’ look like, then finding it populated by Village People lookalikes. Or ‘progressive’ shows like Sex and the City making light around the tired jibe that bisexuals don’t really exist. Later, How I Met Your Mother ends up constantly fetishizes lesbian relationships for Barney’s entertainment, or uses it as a running joke about friends Lily and Robin. Even ‘90s classic American Pie, starring our own Eugene Levy, has its homophobic moments that were deemed acceptable and funny at the time. Shows that carry more representation aren’t completely free of fault either, such as Glee which fell back on clichés and problematic tropes like invalidating bisexuality. Even Will and Grace, which made huge strides for representation, constantly made jokes at the expense of lesbian characters.
And don’t forget Gilmore Girls which did not actually allow camp receptionist Michel to be a gay character until its revived episodes in 2016. In their defence, the writers did try to make the character Sookie a lesbian before being denied by the network, indicating a blatant systemic homophobia in TV production. There are many more I could list.
Removing homophobic elements such as these from fictional narratives could free writers to tell other stories. If we imagine Schitt’s Creek falling foul to more tired, arguably homophobic tropes of the previous decades, we might have seen David moving to town and experiencing multiple encounters of homophobia; Patrick, who David is yet to meet and fall in love with, would realise his attraction to David despite living as a straight man, and his coming out could have been diverted, or dominated by him dealing with external judgement. Even Jake, who enjoys sexual encounters with both David and Stevie around the same time, may have spent more time fending off ignorant comments than deciding who his next ‘throuple’ might be. Thankfully, Schitt’s Creek is the antithesis of these narrative pitfalls.
Instead, we see queer love stories and hook-ups unfold without fear or consequences of prejudice; queer people are just seen as that: people. To watch David and Patrick clumsily develop a relationship and stumble through variously typical roadblocks on their way to marriage, the usual ups and downs of any relationship, shouldn’t feel quite such a television storyline revelation – yet it does.
For queer viewers, it’s a chance to see their stories told as normal stories, which – we already know – they are, but these queer romantic narratives are so often filtered through the eyes of writers and characters with prejudice, those simply blind to a non-heteronormative relationship. More importantly, queer viewers get to see a happy, relatively carefree version of a gay love story, something rarely seen in cultural portrayals. From ‘90s AIDS stories like Philadelphia that implied that gay stories sat as only warnings to tragic stories like Brokeback Mountain, or tragic endings for characters in TV like Willow and Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even queer-led shows like The L Word and Queer as Folk find themselves filled with tragic endings and early deaths for characters more frequently than in ‘straight TV’. Whatever you do, don’t be a queer character in a soap opera show – queer characters everywhere from Emmerdale to Days of Our Lives have met untimely, unhappy, and unnecessary ends. This isn’t to say that prejudice doesn’t exist in the Schitt’s Creek universe. A variety of vague references keep audiences aware that the show is a reflection of the real world, not a separate utopia. David’s stance on team sports, when he is forced to take part in the town’s amateur (and hilarious) baseball game – we are divided enough politically, for example, without further segregation through sport teams – feels like a succinct one-line summary of what could have been a heavy-handed political polemic. For the six years the show was on the air, it was a needed antidote to the often frightening political and societal shifts in our own world, beyond the town’s limits.
A clear indicator that Schitt’s Creek is an oasis within the wider world is seen as soon as episode two of the first season. When motel employee Stevie mentions a truck party to David and his sister Alexis, he replies, ‘No thanks, I’m not in the mood to be the victim of a hate crime tonight.’ David, whose sexuality is, at this point, unknown to the audience, automatically becomes defensive and scolds Stevie for this invitation, on the basis of his appearance, mannerisms, and his likely past unpleasant experiences because of them. What actually happens when he turns up is an awkward conversation with Twyla and David after they are offered a beer bong and they demonstrate a distinct lack of prowess in drinking it. Nobody else seems to notice his presence or care about his appearance. Rather than the homophobic slurs, or potential attacks he fears (which have likely happened to him numerous times before in David’s past) the townsfolk are more concerned with drinking than the newcomers at their party. It becomes clear that this middle-of-nowhere-town doesn’t have any prejudice, which makes a powerful point, both about how the world could be and the impact it has on people. By showing a hate-free, fun-filled truck party full of accepting, small-town revellers instead of queer suffering for the sake of narrative progression, Levy is leading by example.
Levy knows that the queer viewer will recognise the very real, lived fear that David has, reflecting the experience of common prejudice many queer people are forced to tolerate. Even the visuals of the town stir up these connotations. Many a queer viewer will see the quirky town bar, the Wobbly Elm, and immediately feel a familiar tension, the kind that comes with going inside a very particular kind of straight venue. Any kind of Very Straight venue can have that effect, especially on someone who knows themselves to be ‘visibly queer’.
The Wobbly Elm is a subversion of TV’s village pub as a location. It looks like the type of place queer people could be fearful of entering; in fact, it hosts a gay bachelor party, and is where Ronnie – a middle-aged Black butch lesbian – picks up a date with a woman, while garage owner Bob doesn’t manage to; a great twist on the instinctual feeling that pubs such as these could hold hostility. It’s a simple and brilliantly strange utopia.
Although the main focus on prejudice, and its apparent absence from Schitt’s Creek, circles homophobia, it’s a town removed from, but not unaware of, wider prejudice too.
This is seen mainly in the Roses’ Jewish identity which is simply integrated into the fabric of the show – David and Alexis comment on their Bat/Bar Mitzvahs and Johnny talks unselfconsciously about Hebrew School. We’re made aware of this part of their identity, and much like the queer characters, it’s a significant part of their identity, but not the sole defining characteristic, nor a plot point.
Early on, Bob fears accidentally being seen as racist and asks if he’s allowed to say ‘Jewish’ (Johnny reassures him, yes, in that context, it’s not racist). There is a hefty dose of the real world; that Bob of Bob’s Garage, in a small town, might not be the most politically correct rings true, as does his genuine fear of offending. It also highlights that the people of the town aren’t blind to difference – of heritage, sexuality, or race – prejudice isn’t removed from this equation by pretence it doesn’t exist, but in the town’s refusal to respond negatively to normality.
They also play a realistic line in self-deprecating humour which makes the world of the show feel authentic. In a nice parallel several seasons apart, both Johnny and David use a need for kosher food (or in David’s case, wine) as a means to get out of an awkward social situation. Johnny to distract from a poker game not going his way, David to get out of what appears to be an orgy. Is this the first time on television kosher wine has been used as an excuse to get out of an orgy? Possibly. There’s also a low-key running joke around Johnny’s love of pork chops and a nudge to his less-than-kosher approach to religion. Or, David referring to himself as a ‘deeply embittered and mildly Hebraic looking elf’.
This form of humour is also seen in David in reference to sexuality or gender expression. Likewise, Moira and Alexis frequently mock David’s sexual misadventures, but in a fond, familial manner that siblings and parents might; it’s never directly about his sexuality, just his unfortunate choices. It’s the same for fashion – Stevie comments on his wearing a leather sweater in August, Patrick laughs along with his dad about David’s fashion choices; in (lovingly) mocking David’s clothing it’s always in the vein of his clothing being outlandish, never a negative comment relating to gender or sexuality. In fact, that side of David’s fashion sense is never commented on at all. Always walking a careful line between commentary that is realistic, but not crossing a line into, for example, negative commentary that could come from David’s occasional enjoyment in wearing a skirt, as many other TV shows could be prone to do. This town doesn’t engage with small-minded attitudes that exist elsewhere. Schitt’s Creek allows normal to simply be, and to not have to defend itself as such.
The contrast between the small-minded and the small-town is most clearly seen in the season two finale, when Moira and Johnny run into old friends at dinner. These ‘friends’, who they haven’t heard from since losing their fortune, spend most of the dinner mocking the hilariously-named town they drove through on the way, and complaining about the restaurant. Their taunts are snobbish and juvenile all at once – mocking the town name, pointing to the low-quality food and drink, and a thinly veiled disdain for Mayor Roland Schitt, and his wife Jocelyn. These former friends are a stark reminder of what the world outside the town is like: judgmental, cruel and ultimately selfish.
Johnny tells them just how welcoming, kind and generous their new friends have been, pointing out how they shared ‘what little they have’ with his family. It’s at once a cruel reminder that in the ‘real world’, Johnny and his family have been abandoned by everyone they knew, as well as a reminder of what is possible with a shift to kindness. The key difference between their old friends and new ones is that the Schitts would never judge the Roses based on what they did or didn’t have, and the Roses are as welcome in their town as anyone. The influence of the town already clear on Johnny when he declares triumphantly, ‘It’s Schitt’s Creek.’ Instead of dinner with their old ‘friends’, they return to town and dance joyously in a barn with their family, and their new, real friends.
It’s a joy to see this town live exactly as they wish. We see this primarily through the story arcs of David and Patrick, whose queer love story has had such a profound impact on Schitt’s Creek viewership and potentially wider entertainment culture, but also on the other characters within the show. From the slightly eccentric town residents like Ray (the town’s estate agent/travel agent/photographer/Christ mas tree salesman and so much more), or Bob, living their quirky lives uninhibited, to the town being run by Roland Schitt, who clearly embraces a ‘go your own way’ attitude to both life and Mayoral duties. Everyone manages to follow their heart towards fulfilment, regardless of what the wider world might deem as ‘success’.
In career directions, the town inspires Mutt’s off-grid existence, Twyla choosing the café over more affluent opportunities, and Stevie choosing the motel over a life outside of the town. Even Ted, the town’s highly-educated vet, is a strangely delightful man embraced for his animal puns, and eventually pursuing his dreams of studying in the Galapagos. There’s no sense of anyone being told they’re wasting their potential, quite the opposite – by doing what makes them happy, they’re all fulfilling it.
It’s against this backdrop that the Roses thrive too. Alexis breaks free from her previous lifestyle of wild misadventures to return to high school, go to college and pursue a career path she loves. The safety of the town, free from judgment, allows her to do this. Sure, there is friendly sibling mockery at her first day at school, and during her lice outbreak, but there’s also genuine support and pride from her brother on her long-earned graduation. Taking Alexis away from the people whose only currency was judgment, seen clearly when her old friends also roll through town in season three, allows her to actually be who she can be and wants to be instead. And while Alexis will eventually leave, it’s the town itself that makes her the person able to do that, as the best person she could be.
Even Moira and Johnny find this. They are no longer ‘Johnny and Moira Rose’, judged by their home, awards, holidays, golf handicap. Here, they’re the same as everyone else (no matter how much Moira still tries to stand out through her outrageous finery). As much as their kids, they both need the time to figure out who they were – something lost along the way. It’s the town’s influence that lets them reconnect to their truest selves. Moira goes back to acting with the self-assurance to reclaim what was taken from her, Johnny starts a new business that comes from a place of true altruism, and this allows him to help his new friends.
For David, much of his character arc centres on his ability to find a functional relationship – and ultimately the love of his life – after the damage of his past. The narrative around David’s past relationships is that they generally were not good people, that he made repeated bad choices. When Moira talks to David about the impact Patrick has had on him, she talks of ‘drawing a line’ under his previous life of terrible relationships. It is the safety of the town that plays a big part in David’s growth, who is self-described ‘damaged goods’, to help him heal and find true happiness. At the end of the show, David’s decision on where his future lies too speaks to that positive influence; who wouldn’t, given the chance, ultimately choose safety where they feel most themselves? There is an important connection between his choice of Schitt’s Creek over their old home of New York, and that he tells Patrick in their wedding vows that he feels safe with him. Whether he knows it or not, the town, as much as Patrick, created that feeling – it wasn’t possible to have one without the other.
For Patrick, it is moving to the town that, in every sense, allows him to be who he really is. Whether you read it as his relocation, his meeting David as a revelation about his sexuality, or his coming to terms with it, the town and its safety plays a huge part. It asks the question, if Patrick had lived somewhere like that his whole life, would he have spent so long in a doomed relationship with ex-fiancée Rachel? Would he have had to wait so long to, as he puts it, ‘understand what right felt like’? Would he have found David had they met elsewhere? Patrick explains his reluctance to come out to his parents by how comfortable he’d gotten with David and his family in the town. The town has created this almost perfect oasis where someone like Patrick can quietly learn about, accept and act on his true sexuality.
And, most importantly, a lesson from both Patrick and David’s stories: when hate and fear are taken out of the equation, when you have a place of acceptance: love wins.
Love That Journey For Me by Emily Garside is available now via 404 Ink.