In the 2015 premiere of “Schitt’s Creek,” a riches-to-rags comedy, the Rose family arrive in the tiny titular town wearing the designer clothes of their past life as protective gear. But over the show’s six seasons on Pop TV, viewers have seen the once wealthy Roses — Johnny (Eugene Levy) and Moira (Catherine O’Hara) and their adult children, David (Daniel Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy) — scrape their way from being penniless exiles in a town they’d bought as a joke to being elemental members of the community. They’ve found gratifying work, made real friends and fallen in love.
Most of all, they’ve formed a true family, having come to Schitt’s Creek as strangers to each other. In the end, “Schitt’s Creek” has turned out to be a show about love.
Created by father and son Eugene Levy and Daniel Levy as a co-production with CBC, “Schitt’s Creek” will have its series finale on April 7. To end the show at the peak of its popularity was their choice. After getting a two-season renewal at the close of Season 4, Daniel Levy began plotting the series’ conclusion. “I at no point wanted to compromise on quality or storytelling,” Levy says in an interview with Variety. “It just didn’t feel like it was worth the risk to take it any further.”
He always knew how he wanted to conclude the story, and had 28 episodes over two seasons to do so. “The goal was at the end of this show, this family will realize the value of love,” Levy says. “Money can temporarily bandage a lot of things. But they would never be able to buy the kind of closeness that they have by the end of the series.”
“Schitt’s Creek” retires as a striking emblem of a transitional period in television, when streaming services are upending the business with their deluge of content, refusal to report clear viewership tallies and gargantuan budgets. In this environment, ad-supported cable networks, Pop among them, are under increasing pressure to justify their existence. Indeed, at the end of February, Pop underwent layoffs as part of the consolidation of ViacomCBS, followed by a decision in early March to ax three of its scripted shows. The economic calamity caused by the coronavirus pandemic will surely increase basic cable’s burdens.
Yet “Schitt’s Creek” did break through — and will likely enter the pantheon of classic comedies. Its ratings have grown every season: According to Pop, 3.7 million viewers are watching Season 6 episodes when you count live and delayed viewing of multiple telecasts, and the channel’s digital platforms — up 60% over last season. And Pop used ”Schitt’s Creek” to launch its other remaining scripted show March 24, “One Day at a Time,” which the channel rescued after Netflix canceled it.
Despite Netflix being basic cable’s biggest threat, it was Pop’s deal with the streaming service in 2017 that brought a whole new audience to “Schitt’s Creek.” The Netflix effect was “enormous and immediate,” Eugene Levy says. “You could feel it wherever you went — on the street, at an airport, in a restaurant, more people were coming up saying, ‘Love the show!’”
Though Netflix would not comment for this story, a recent Nielsen streaming report obtained by Variety revealed the show’s popularity among the streamer’s acquired series. In the first week of March, “Schitt’s Creek” was the second-most-watched acquisition, behind only “The Office.”
It helps that the humor of “Schitt’s Creek” so thoroughly jibes with meme culture. Fans (and journalists) have made video compilations of Alexis saying, “David,” and David saying, “Oh, my God”; a ranking of Moira’s many wigs; animated GIFs of David’s and Alexis’ extreme facial expressions; explainers of Moira’s extensive vocabulary; and lists of Alexis’ oft-mentioned past adventures (“I didn’t go missing, David. The FBI knew where I was the entire time”). “Schitt’s Creek” is the perfect example of word-of-mouth success in an age when fan passion is a commodity and viral culture maximizes exposure. (The ardor has a downside during a pandemic: Recently, CBC and Daniel Levy had to ask tourists not to visit the town of Goodwood, Ontario, where some of the show’s exteriors were filmed. “Visiting right now is a threat to the residents’ health and safety,” Levy tweeted. “Thanks for understanding.”)
The audience’s attachment to the show is emotional, which means it has also inspired loving YouTube tributes, especially to David and his fiancé, Patrick (Noah Reid). That relationship began during the third season and solidified “Schitt’s Creek’s” heartfelt — but also activist — path. The town of Schitt’s Creek is an inclusive idyll for LGBTQ people, and that’s by design. “It’s just a world I believe Daniel wants to live in,” says O’Hara. “And I’d like to live there too!”
This avid fandom has yielded tangible results, not only in ratings but at last year’s Emmys, in which the dark horse earned four nominations — for comedy series, lead actor (Eugene Levy), lead actress (O’Hara) and contemporary costumes (Debra Hanson). Among the show’s followers are celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, Cameron Crowe and Nicole Kidman. Paul Rudd called O’Hara’s character “quite possibly the greatest creation since the Mars Rover”; Kelly Clarkson and Annie Murphy performed “A Little Bit Alexis” — the made-up theme song to Alexis’ single-season reality show — in a clip that’s received more than a million views. (Clarkson adapted the lyrics for her part in the duet as “A Whole Lotta Texas.”) With such a constituency, “Schitt’s Creek” will surely receive multiple Emmy nominations this year, even in this coronavirus-affected awards season — and perhaps even win one or two.
Comedy legend Carol Burnett tells Variety she has watched the show from the beginning because she’s known O’Hara and Eugene Levy since their “SCTV” days. “I laugh out loud,” she says. “By myself!” She cites performances by Chris Elliott as the town’s nutty but sensitive mayor, Roland Schitt; Jennifer Robertson as Jocelyn, his stalwart wife; and Emily Hampshire’s Stevie, the owner of the motel where the Roses live, who has become David’s sarcastic, yearning best friend. Burnett calls the cast a “true rep company,” in which “they let everybody score a touchdown.”
And how does Burnett feel about “Schitt’s Creek” coming to an end?
“I’m blue!” she says. “But it’ll always be there. I may go back and watch it all over again!”
When Daniel Levy was doing theater in high school in Toronto, he refused his famous dad’s help. “I don’t want you to have any influence on what I do, because I have to work harder being your son,” he would say to him. In his late teens and early 20s, he struggled with “social anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, and all of those strange angsty things that come with imminent adulthood,” he says. “And I knew that I had to do something about it, otherwise I probably would not become the person I wanted to be.”
He moved to London during college and worked as an assistant at a talent agency. He knew right away he didn’t want to be an agent. “But funnily enough, the experience of assisting in an agency — getting on the phones, making cold calls to people, answering the telephone from strangers, which was sort of my biggest fear at the time — really created a level of confidence that I needed.” After six months, he moved back to Toronto and learned that the nascent MTV Canada was holding auditions for VJs.
During the audition process, applicants were given $100 to spend however they wanted, and then had to explain what they’d bought. Levy, who was working in a video store at the time, paid his phone bill. Brad Schwartz, now the president of Pop but then the general manager of MTV Canada, witnessed Levy’s presentation, and says, “It was just the most charming, the most amazing, the most funny, the most self-deprecating.”
Levy was hired and found success at MTV, particularly while hosting “The Hills: The After Show,” a talk show that followed broadcasts of the zeitgeist phenomenon of reality series “The Hills.” According to Schwartz, Levy wouldn’t let marketing materials identify him as Eugene’s son. “He wanted to do it on his own,” he says. “It was cool.”
In 2011, after “The Hills” ended, Levy decided to leave MTV. He worried he wouldn’t find work but started brainstorming what to do next, and he had an idea — one that would involve his father. “I had made a name for myself, as small as it was, up in Canada,” he says. “But that made me feel OK with going to my dad with this idea. I knew that I had the ambition and passion and strength to hold my own in those conversations that we would have. So I went to him with this idea of a wealthy family losing their money and said, ‘Do you want to work on this with me?’ And he said yes.”
According to Eugene Levy, “I had always wanted to hear something like that, and then just completely obliterated it from my mind because I just assumed it was never gonna happen. So when it finally happened, it was a complete shock to the system. And a very delightful thing to hear.”
They worked on the pitch, with the idea that audiences — because of shows about flashy wealth like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” — would understand the world this family came from, and what it had lost. When Daniel recalled that Kim Basinger had bought a town in Georgia in 1989, that provided the final piece for the show’s setup: On “Schitt’s Creek,” Johnny bought the town for David because of its name, and it’s the only unseized asset they have, since it’s deemed worthless. The Levys produced a short pilot presentation in which O’Hara played Moira as a favor to Eugene, her longtime collaborator on “SCTV” and in the Christopher Guest movies (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show” and more) that he co-wrote.
When no U.S. networks bought the show, a friend of Eugene’s suggested they try Canadian broadcasters. CBC immediately ordered “Schitt’s Creek” straight to series, but the show needed more financial partners. U.K.-based ITV Studios came on board as its distributor, and set up meetings for the Levys with U.S. cable channels — one was with Daniel’s old MTV Canada boss Schwartz, who in 2013 had been hired to rebrand TV Guide Network, then owned by CBS and Lionsgate.
“And literally in the room, we were like, ‘We’re in — let’s do it,’” says Schwartz. He agreed to put up roughly a third of the budget. It was early 2014, and TVGN, to be rebranded as Pop TV, would launch “Schitt’s Creek” as its signature program in February 2015.
Convincing O’Hara to do the show took some doing, especially after Eugene Levy called her to say it would shoot in the summer. “Eugene, do you even know me?” O’Hara recalls saying over a lunch interview with him. “Because I have a cottage that I like to be at in the summer with my family.” He called her back to say it would shoot in the spring. The Levys and O’Hara sat down to envision Moira’s character, and she came loaded with material, mainly pictures of the British socialite Daphne Guinness. “She’s all black and white; she’s very avant-garde,” says O’Hara. “Really strong — a lot of it is like armor, the necklaces that she wears, and the heels. It’s just so great and strong and modern. It’s so not your typical half-hour-comedy wife.”
Levy remembers it well: “It was so exciting to hear this vision. And you could see Daniel just couldn’t write stuff down fast enough.” And then there was O’Hara’s idea for Moira’s accent, which is slightly British, slightly mid-Atlantic, with a pinch of Katharine Hepburn’s classic Hollywood cadence. She tried and failed to describe it to Levy … over email. “I was giving you nothing!” she says. “I was saying, ‘Eugene, I don’t want to sound like a human,’ basically.” O’Hara has since come up with a way to describe her elocution — as a composite of the family’s monied past: “What you’re getting when you hear her speak are oral mementos of her world travels!”
(Later, O’Hara’s vision for Moira would extend to her taking passes at scripts with the aid of “Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words,” which is, Daniel Levy says, a book of “very strange, complicated words to describe simple things.” He adds, “Catherine comes from a Second City background, and she knows what works for her.”)
They also needed to cast Alexis. Yes, she was a party girl, and yes, she was inspired by reality show caricatures — but she would eventually go deeper than that. Murphy noticed that the character description of Alexis cited Goldie Hawn as a reference. “A young Goldie Hawn was bubbly and bright,” Murphy says. “And maybe a bit frivolous, but she was also like a really cool, interesting, smart woman.” She auditioned with Levy’s David, and they clicked: “He felt like my older brother, and I knew how to push his buttons,” she says.
When “Schitt’s Creek” premiered, it was a hit on CBC, but its ratings on Pop were fractional. That didn’t matter to Schwartz, who was intent on building a brand. “We loved it,” he says. “And we put 80% of our marketing budget behind it. And then we did it again! It was our No. 1 show, and we just kept hammering it, because we knew we had something fantastic.”
In the beginning of Season 1, the writers occasionally received script notes from CBC, mostly of encouragement. Soon there was no interference. “We had so much freedom to just figure it out for ourselves, and I know that that is probably never going to happen again for me,” says Daniel Levy. “But what a way to cut your teeth.”
Daniel Levy became the showrunner in Season 3, and he wanted to introduce a romantic partner for David, who is pansexual. Patrick, David’s eventual fiancé, identifies as straight when they meet, and Levy approached the coming-out story carefully. “I just wanted to write something that I had experienced, and that friends of mine had experienced, and that people could relate to,” he says. Their relationship transformed the show, and Levy’s conception of Schitt’s-Creek-as-LGBTQ-utopia opened doors to its audience in a way few other television programs have. “I do feel like we’ve never ostracized people whose beliefs didn’t necessarily align with what we were doing,” Levy says. “We just showed how much better life can be if you put those beliefs aside and really let people grow and thrive. And so much love comes from it — so much joy and happiness and strength.”
Eugene Levy credits Daniel for this visionary aspect of “Schitt’s Creek.” “It’s had an amazing, amazing impact on people’s lives. The letters, the emails that we get from kids — I think the ‘Wine, Not the Label’ episode was a big thing in helping kids coming out to their parents,” he says, referring to a first-season episode in which David describes his fluid sexuality to Stevie.
The promotional campaign for the show’s final season included posters of David and Patrick kissing. There were two billboards on Sunset Boulevard featuring the kiss; later the poster was featured on bus stops in Canada. “I’ve been given a platform and an opportunity to put something like that out into the world, so why would I not?” Daniel Levy says. “I’ve never seen it before.”
Levy noticed that queer couples were taking pictures of themselves kissing in front of the billboards. He went with Reid, who plays his fiancé, to visit the one near La Cienega Boulevard. “It was gigantic. And it was quite emotional,” he says.
It’s been important for Levy to have a dialogue with the audience, he says, and when he signed with WME in January 2018, he proposed to the agency a “Schitt’s Creek” cast speaking tour — which became a hit. “Like, to sell out the Beacon Theatre, to see them on stools talking about the show,” Schwartz says. “I mean, I’ve seen Radiohead at the Beacon!”
The tour, which had to postpone its May dates amid coronavirus concerns, kept the cast members connected after shooting wrapped, and eventually will again. Which they seem to very much want. O’Hara tells the story of texting Murphy recently to congratulate her for getting the lead role on AMC’s new show ”Kevin Can F— Himself,” and about her performance in a “Schitt’s Creek” episode she’d just watched. Murphy responded saying she misses everyone, O’Hara says: “And in fact, I had a dream that night that I was crying to Annie that I wasn’t involved in her life anymore!”
Eugene Levy has had the chance to work with his kids for six years — daughter Sarah plays waitress Twyla on the show — and he’s watched Daniel become recognized as a major new talent in entertainment. “Very, very Steve Jobs-like,” he says. “He knows what he wants.”
Daniel Levy signed a three-year deal last fall with ABC Studios. “My list of ideas that I’ve been scratching down over the past six years while I’ve been doing this show includes anything from thrillers to dramas to other comedies to musicals,” he says.
He finished post-production on ”Schitt’s Creek” in December, and makes a nervous noise when asked about the series finale. “Hope you stick the landing!” he says. “I think we did. I feel very good about it.” Nor does he rule out more “Schitt’s Creek.” “I wish that this show could have gone on 100 seasons. But it’s quality over quantity,” he adds, then pauses.
“If an idea crosses my path that I feel is deserving of our cast’s time, then let’s do it. I don’t know what it could possibly be at this point,” he says. “But I would love to revisit these characters, and I would love to get to play with this cast again. I feel very proud of the work that we’ve done, and I wouldn’t want to do anything that compromises that.”