Playback’s 2018 Show of the Year: Schitt’s Creek

Executive producers and stars Dan Levy and Eugene Levy reflect on a year that saw the half-hour comedy vault into the international spotlight.

schitts creek picWith our end of the year issue, Playback tries to capture big and meaningful stories that moved the bar in the industry in some way. Sometimes our show of the year is a splashy debut, but sometimes it is a show that has really hit its stride, and shown remarkable growth or sustainability. This year, that show is Schitt’s Creek, produced by Not a Real Company Productions and airing on CBC in Canada, Pop in the U.S. and Netflix globally.

Although it has run on both sides of the border on broadcast for its first four seasons, its debut on Netflix in the past year significantly extended its reach and vaulted it into the pop culture conversation. Suddenly, it was everywhere. And in addition to its star cast, unique storytelling and sharp chops, it continued to gain momentum on the business side as well, getting greenlit to a fifth season, Debmar-Mercury acquiring U.S. broadcast syndication rights and its first-ever Christmas special set to air in December.

Here, executive producers Eugene and Dan Levy (pictured right and left, respectively) discuss how 2018 shaped their show and their thoughts on the impact it has had.

eugene levy pic
Playback: Can you describe the show’s trajectory in 2018 and what changed?

Eugene Levy: 2018 was a pretty big year for the show in terms of awareness. It became very apparent to me that more people are watching the show, certainly south of the border, mainly because of Netflix. In terms of national viewership, [the Netflix deal] has pushed it into something that’s a bit more tangible. In Canada we had a rabid fanbase from the beginning, but it was going very much under the radar south of the border.

I’m noticing it when I travel, at airports, on the street, in restaurants. It used to be “well, you’ve got two normal feet I see”. You know, it was always reference to American Pie or Best in Show (the feet) and now 99.9% of everybody’s comments are about Schitt’s Creek. So I know that people are now starting to watch the show in a pretty major way.

Dan Levy: I think our show provides a safe space for people. Particularly in terms of the queer narrative within the show, it was a choice that I made before I even started  to not have homophobia, bigotry, intolerance play any part in this TV show, and as a result, what I hoped was that we’d be able to lead by example by showing how far-reaching and how impactful love can be when you’re able to love wholly and freely and without obstacle or bias.

Obviously that’s an idealized scenario, but one that is really hitting home with people this year because it’s hard to ignore what’s happening in America, in terms of the constant threat of people’s rights being jeopardized and the general dissatisfaction that a lot of people are experiencing, and pain and struggle. A TV show that aims to provide a safe, welcome space for 20 minutes out of people’s weeks, has proven to be a very welcome breath of fresh air for people.

What are the biggest challenges you face going forward? Getting to a fifth season is already a long run by today’s standards…  

EL: The big challenge is to keep the quality of the show up to where we would like it to be. So far that has been done. I think that’s the biggest challenge with any show  how long can you maintain the quality of the show, and when does the law of diminishing returns start to come into play. We’re not even close to that yet.

DL: For a lot of members of the queer community, Schitt’s Creek is exploring territory that doesn’t get to be explored a lot on television, which is queer scenes being addressed in a very normal way. It’s not being painted with a brush that’s dipped in “lesson” paint where we need to preach some kind of lesson. I think the nonchalance with which we approach sexuality on the show is really refreshing to a lot of our viewers, and I think has provided an interesting example for a lot of our younger queer viewers and to their families, who’re able to watch the show and realize that if Johnny and Moira Rose can accept their children without any question or concern or reservation, why are they having so much trouble doing it themselves? When I started I didn’t have that kind of awareness of how influential television can be, but it’s been quite a meaningful part of this whole process for me.

Can you talk about Schitt’s Creek‘s unique brand of comedy?

DL: I think our comedy comes from a place that’s rooted in character, honesty and truth, and it’s rarely at someone’s expense. That’s my favourite place to write from. Comedy that’s not mean, comedy that’s circumstantial, that is more observant than it is critical. I think it’s a slightly harder comedy to write, because people can perceive it as being a little bit softer, but if you stay true to your characters, you can really take them far beyond their own ideas of where their comfort zone lies. That’s where we’ve been able to really find our juiciest ideas. Kindness and comedy don’t often go hand in hand, but it’s certainly a place we love exploring, and I think we’ve had great success writing from that place.

The year was in part defined by the #MeToo movement, workplace culture and a continued push for more diverse representation in the media itself. What kind of impact have these issues had on your own team and workplace?

DL: As a team we have an absolute zero-tolerance policy for any kind of destructive behaviour, let alone harassment. If you think back even 10 years ago it was a different climate, it was a terrible climate for women who were experiencing these assaults and not being able to say anything. So what the #MeToo movement has done is crack open a world of necessary consequence for these predators.  I know it’s naive to say it’s gotten a lot better, because I still have a lot of female friends who work in entertainment who continue to experience more passive forms of harassment on a day-to-day basis.

As producers, you have to have an extra eye out. You have to constantly be checking in with your team, you have to go above and beyond and make sure that you are doing everything you possibly can to create an environment where people feel comfortable and confident to do their jobs without any kind of fear of harassment.

EL: Without necessarily waving giant flags and banners, our show has been all about inclusiveness. Our little town of Schitt’s Creek is, in it’s own quiet way, like a poster child for inclusiveness. We deal with gay, straight, black, white, male, female, LGBTQ, we deal with things in a very natural way in this town. It’s never really commented on, we just deal with people as people, and we deal with storylines as storylines, whether they’re romantic storylines that happen to be a gay storyline or a straight storyline, and they’re interwoven in such a natural, beautiful way that we don’t really comment on it, and yet a giant statement is made at the end of the day.

dan levy picIn an era when audiences seem to always want to move onto the next thing, what does it mean to be heading into season five?

DL: Usually shows get a big push off the top, and then you’re either a hit or you’re not. We have been given the freedom and the means to continue to tell our story now for five seasons. I think because the awareness is growing season after season, we have done the opposite, in the sense that we’ve only grown since our first season. The goal is to continue to keep people interested and excited and inspired, and continue to tell stories that resonate with people.

EL: It’s one thing coming in under the radar, and then kind of getting on the radar. That’s always a great thing for a show. I think it’s a much scarier proposition to come on with a big splash, right out of the gate being a number one show in the nation, and the kind of pressure that puts on a show is incredible. This is a much more natural… almost a much more Canadian way of producing a show. To come in in a quiet way, build your show and build your fan base over the years, and as long as everything is pointed up, and moving in a positive way that’s a wonderful way for a show to grow. I’d much prefer doing it that way than being shot out of the cannon and exploding in a red white and blue streamer.

What are some of the highlights of the year?

EL: There have been some great highlights. The David-Patrick storyline had two great shows that were high points: where Patrick sings at an open mic night, and David’s nervous about it, because he doesn’t want the attention, and of course the song was an amazing tune and it was one of the more touching moments in the season. And the follow-up episode where David lip syncs the Tina Turner version of “Simply the Best” [to David].

Also, we had an event about a month ago in L.A. with cast members. We sold out the 1,800 seats in the theatre quickly, and the response from the crowd was just electrifying. It’s hard to describe how wild and passionate the crowd was. That was a very clear indication the show is hitting depths with our fan base. It was pretty hard to believe that the fervour in our fans could reach that level.

Selections from this interview appear in Playback‘s Winter 2018/2019