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Up ‘Schitt’s Creek’, without a paddle

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-04-2017 Raja Sen

Moira Rose isn’t thrilled at the thought of spending solo time with her daughter, Alexis. A former soap opera villain known for her slapping scenes, Moira has prepared a list of questions, conversation topics to get them through lunch. Alexis, equally unenthused about spending quality time with her mother, discovers said cheat sheet and pounces on it, following which she reads out a seemingly innocuous question: “What is your favourite season?” Moira, who misses her old life, sighs with rehearsed wistfulness and has her answer at the ready.

“Awards.”

The first two seasons of Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek are available on Netflix, and I suggest you add them to your list immediately. The premise is wafer-thin — an absurdly rich family falls on hard times and, for convoluted reasons, has to live in a small town — but the cast and the characters carry the show forth.

Moira might be penniless and, ridiculously enough, cloaked in a wardrobe that befits Cruella de Vil — or, at least, a trendy European Cruella — but she genuinely believes in her stardom and, beneath all her self-aggrandising and preening, wants to hold her family together. Alexis is a true airhead — one of those millennials who sounds like a valley girl because, like, just — but she cares about bettering herself in order to pull her own weight.

A sitcom really clicks beyond the gags when we begin to believe in the characters and their motivations, and this happens early on in Schitt’s Creek, one of those rare comedies that betters itself with nearly every episode. This it does in unexpected ways. Through unpredictable plotlines, certainly, but also through initially uncharacteristic deviations into more emotional narrative beats, while maintaining a consistent—and hilarious—tone. I was sold early on during my all-consuming binge, and by the time the Roses finally came into some money, I found myself completely invested, hoping they don’t squander it right away.

The series is created by Eugene Levy and his son Daniel, who play Johnny Rose and his son David. Annie Murphy plays David’s sister Alexis and Catherine O’Hara, who has starred alongside Eugene Levy so memorably in many a Christopher Guest film, plays his wife, Moira.

The most intriguing character, in fact, is one who initially appears the most clichéd. David, Moira’s son, is all high-fashion and serious snark, but he’s also fascinating: pansexual, tentatively romantic and intelligent. Despite his campy dialogue delivery, he’s seriously cool. That’s the best thing about Schitt’s Creek, the fact that the familiar-sounding premise—a rich family falling onto poor times, having to make do—is merely a jumping-off point, like the familiar-sounding character types. From the get go, this show and the people within it evolve and attempt to rise above themselves—sometimes in the most counterproductive ways.

The senior Levy, an always-wonderful comedic performer with those iconically bushy Scorsese-like eyebrows, plays the straight guy in a sea of screwballs. The once-proud patriarch, he bought the tragically named town of Schitt’s Creek as a gag, because of its name, and now struggles to live in it. Levy frequently wears a thunderstruck expression—pure incredulity, both at the townsfolk he now lives with and at his increasingly dotty family who never quite seem to see sense. Yet even this character is obscured as life in Schitt’s Creek goes on, with the initially reasonable Johnny Rose also showing the chinks in his well-tailored facade, his selfish and silly sides — and this is when the family sets him straight.

Beyond all this, there is one reason to watch the show, and her name is Catherine O’Hara. A gifted, gifted comedienne, O’Hara plays this bizarre part swathed in haughty couture, bedecked in weird wigs—and she does so with a brilliant fragility. Moira Rose is an utter loon: a narcissist oblivious to the world, a catastrophically unfit mother, a former actress with a grandly deluded sense of worth… yet O’Hara manages to breathe life into the caricature, and make her just brittle enough to ring true—or, more crucially, just sensitive enough to make her utter insensitivity appear real. No wonder she loves awards season.

Dive in at the soonest, say I. This isn’t just a story about fishes out of water but about how those fishes learn to ride a bicycle. Despite the sitcom exaggeration and the farce and the jokes, here is a show that lives on empathy. Schitt’s a piece of life — and vice versa.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.

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