Stella Maxwell
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Schitt's Creek, Post-Melancholy Queerness, and Pandemic Escape

Schitts

"Netflix binge" has always been an intriguing — and yet foreign — concept to me, until the advent of this current pandemic. As a tenure track professor at an elite liberal arts college, the pressures of research, teaching, service, and public intellectual work have meant that I do not own a television at home and have not had time to immerse myself in popular culture for years. Yet the COVID-19 crisis and the global shutdowns it has caused brought my world to a near standstill and forced me to slow down dramatically. My privilege to remain safe and sound in the shut-in economy led me to Schitt's Creek, a six-season Canadian sitcom. Having just finished the last episode of this comedy series, I am now going through withdrawal symptoms, and am grateful for the laughs and tears that I experienced as a viewer.

Schitt's Creek has done tremendously well, earning numerous major recognitions, including three Primetime Emmy nominations. Father and son, Eugene and Dan Levy, produced and starred in this 80-episode sitcom that can now be streamed online. The Levys also starred in the show as father and son, Johnny and David Rose. They are joined by two other major protagonists: the wife, Moira Rose (Catherine O'Hara), and daughter, Alexis (Annie Murphy). The central premise of the show is that the parents and their adult children were super wealthy, only to lose all of their wealth in a scandal, and then had nowhere to go besides Schitt's Creek, a small town in the middle of nowhere. Johnny bought the town for David as a joke years ago, and as a result, the family moved there before they could plan an alternative life setup. As the show progresses, the Roses become part of the DNA of the town, building relationships with the locals, and the family members learn more about themselves and the world they inhabit.

While there are profound and meaningful themes that fleetingly emerge throughout the Rose family journey, involving class, gender, sexuality, and human interconnectedness, this show is not a resource to turn to for overtly intellectual, political, or cerebral material. In fact, there were many moments when I could feel my brain cells dying while watching, and that was exhilarating in its own way. Film and media can provide a welcome escape, especially in moments like this with a pandemic that has no end in sight. David and Alexis's high-pitched voices, narcissism, superficiality, and lack of self-awareness can at times be jarring, but I wouldn't have had this over-the-top representation any other way given its entertaining value. There are many moments in which the brother and sister grow, separately and together, that make them redeemable and that makes them highly sympathetic characters. After all, humans could not control the circumstances that we were born into, and none of us are perfect. Schitt's Creek reminds its millions of viewers and fans and that we are all works in progress.

Johnny is a quintessential patriarch: handsome, chivalrous, protecting his family. There is also a loyalty, grace, and tenderness that emerges as the narrative arch proceeds. His eyebrows are also superlative — and I could not get my eyes off of them. Moira is a fashionista whose outfits are spectacular. She is also obsessed with her many wigs that she refers to as her "girls," each of which is a different color, style, and has its own name, displayed prominently in the one room of the motel that she inhabits with Johnny, connected to the neighboring motel room that Alexis and David share. Moira's use of vocabulary is spectacular and eccentric, enriching the script. I was holding on to each and every word that came out of her mouth, enamored by the pithy, animated, and sophisticated expressions that further highlighted the humble surroundings of her new life with limited money in a small town.

The Levys beautifully and seamlessly integrated references to the Rose family’s Jewish background in the script. For instance, the ways they alluded to precious memories such as Alexis and David's bat and bar mitzvahs warmed my heart. These casual references normalized the existence of religious minorities in society. And the predominantly Christian town members of Schitt's Creek embraced the family with a level of acceptance that is commendable. At the same time, we see the complexity of Jewish identity in North America, such as the prevalence of secular Jews like David, who eats bacon openly without any issues, and the weight of the Rose's annual Christmas party. There are deeply uncomfortable exchanges that the Roses must endure with their neighbors because of the many differences between them, but everyone ultimately works through these challenges with a generosity of spirit.

Schitt's Creek is also a deeply queer show. David is pansexual, and in many ways stereotypically so — the worst nightmare of a homophobe or misogynist. But his new surroundings are largely void of homophobia and his queerness is a non-issue for the town. David finds love with Patrick (Noah Reid). I was delighted to learn that billboards for the final season were of the engaged couple kissing and that these were displayed prominently in public. The marketing worked — while I watched the first five seasons using my Netflix subscription, the sixth one could only be purchased on Amazon, and I finally caved.

Patrick's gayness in the series is represented uniquely as well, demonstrating the heterogeneity of LGBTQ individuals and communities. Most importantly, Schitt's Creek celebrates the personal infrastructure that David and Patrick build in the town, and their queerness is overwhelmingly perceived as positive by all the people around them. This was a welcome break from the pervasive melancholy that defines queer cinema. As a gay person myself, I know that pain and suffering are a near universal part of our experiences, and this is usually emphasized on screen. For young LGBTQ folks or anyone struggling to accept themselves due to difference, this sitcom allows us to imagine a world in which love, acceptance, joy, and affirmation are not only possible, but in fact the norm.

I have to admit that it's awkward to even utter the name of this series out loud, let alone as a professor in the midst of an unprecedented global catastrophe while speaking in laudatory terms about a silly-and-yet-poignant sitcom. But if I have learned anything in the midst of having to abruptly shift to online teaching, managing the emotional fragility of my students, and navigating concerns for my wellbeing in Philadelphia and the safety of my loved ones in Palestine and elsewhere, it's that laughter and lightheartedness are one form of remedy, even during the darkest of times. Schitt's Creek helped me get through this first stage of the pandemic — and kept any of my curmudgeonly instincts at bay.

Dr. Sa'ed Atshan is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He received his PhD from Harvard University. He is an LGBTQ human rights activist and author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020). 

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