Why does Schitt’s Creek take a season to get ‘good’?

Schitt’s Creek is a CBC sitcom written by father and son team Eugene and Daniel Levy. You’ll either find it funny or you won’t — I think it’s the funniest thing on Netflix at the moment.

That said, I agree with all the reviewers who’ve said something like this:

Season 1 is decent, but Season 2 is where it really takes off.

NYT, Margaret Lyons

From a writing point of view, it’s interesting to consider why this show took an entire season to really get funny.

CHARACTER HUMOUR TAKES TIME

Like all sitcoms, but possibly more than most, Schitt’s Creek is a comedy which relies heavily on character humour.

What is character humour?

Comedic character acting on personality traits

In order for this to work, the audience needs to think in terms of stereotypes or, more kindly, in terms of archetypes. Alternatively, the audience has to know (or feel they know) a character so well that they are able to think, “How very typical of [Character].”

— Founding editor of The Onion

When writers make use of stock comedy characters, it takes no time at all for the audience to ‘know’ them.

  • The dumb blonde
  • The rich bitch with delusions of grandeur
  • The player
  • The schemer
  • The normal guy
  • The petty, vindictive guy
  • The redneck

Schitt’s Creek does make use of these tropes:

  • Moira is the rich bitch who pines for her heyday as a soap actress
  • Alexis is the dumb blonde
  • Roland Schitt is the redneck

Part of the reason why Schitt’s Creek took an entire season to rev up is because these familiar character tropes have an unfamiliar twist on them. We’re now dealing with archetypes rather than stereotypes.

Because this is a fish-out-of-water comedy, the rich bitch is unable to act as she normally does. The dumb blonde isn’t so much ‘dumb’ as unable to hear what anyone else is really saying because she’s been brought up in a completely superficial environment where appearance is everything. This puts her at a huge social disadvantage, in a place where social niceties don’t count for anything. Roland appears to be a redneck, complete with the mullet and the cheap tastes, but he is also the mayor of the town.

Where Schitt’s Creek shines is in its addition of some new comedic archetypes.

David Rose in particular is a new type of comedic character for TV:

They quietly introduced a pansexual character and no one laughed at him. Well, not because of his sexuality, at least.

Kimberley Truesdale

Gay comic characters began with Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served back in 1972. Since then we’ve seen all sorts of coverage of gay characters — some of it still funny, some of it cringingly not. Comedy is now entering a new phase, thank goodness, where sexual orientation is no longer the entire content of the joke. David’s dating life is a cause for much awkwardness, but not because of his orientation — it is funny only because relationships in general can be awkward, especially in a small town when you live in close quarters with your natal family.

David’s sexual orientation was kept as a reveal for the audience part way through Season One. Once we understood this part of him he became more empathetic, and so did his horrible family, who had already accepted him for who he is despite their many, many flaws. Once we saw the family’s strengths as well as its weaknesses, they became instantly more familiar, which helps the character comedy to work.

Then there’s David’s father. Johnny Rose is marvellously accepting of difference, but to the point where he goes several steps too far. (This goes hand in hand with his acceptance of Moira’s eccentricity. Who else would put up with that woman?) Season Two was able to make the most of this dynamic between Johnny and David in particular, because David is quite private and easily embarrassed, a lot, which counterpoints against his determinedly ‘open minded’ father. In short, David Rose is a new kind of comedic trope, and the relationship between David and his father is a new kind of comedic duo. I think this combo is brilliant, and probably works so well because the actor/writers are themselves a father and son team.

I would argue that precisely because this type of character comedy feels so new, it took a while for the characters to work at full comic capacity.

THE STORYWORLD DIVERSIFIES

In Season One, the Rose family spends a lot of time in their motel rooms. This makes sense within the world of the story — they are not happy to be in Schitt’s Creek, and everyone but the eternally rosy Mr Rose (a comically symbolic name) falls into a depressive slump, unwilling to get out amongst it. But by Season Two Moira, David and Alexis have gotten to know some locals and the writers have found many opportunities to get them away from the motel rooms. The motel is now just a base. This feels less claustrophobic for the audience.

In Season Two, David found a job at tacky Blouse Barn; Alexis is employed as a well-meaning but inevitably diva receptionist at the vet; Moira accidentally found herself elected to council and sings with the local choir; and David Rose is using the local mechanic’s spare desk to brainstorm ideas for his next business. Every single one of these arenas make for excellent fish out of water comedy. Whereas Season One relied heavily upon the big picture fish-out-of-water trope — a mega wealthy family is forced to move to a small, rural town — the comedy doesn’t really work until that large umbrella is crosscut and condensed. By Season Two, each member of the Rose family is sent on a circular journey through essentially the same area (Schitt’s Creek), and the fish-out-of-water jokes both intensify and diversify. Each member of the Rose family is a different kind of ‘fish’.

The local eatery is another very important part of the storyworld, as it is in many, many ongoing TV shows across all genres. This allows yet another arena for the entitled members of the Rose family to interact with regular townsfolk who — importantly — function as the straight people rather than as the butt of the jokes.

THE CONCEPT OF SCHITT’S CREEK IS HIGHLY EXTENSIBLE

Schitt’s Creek is satire which makes fun of rich people and their sense of entitlement, and is perhaps a woke evolution on a show such as My Name Is Earl (2005-2009). My Name Is Earl relied more heavily on classist tropes. These unalloyed stereotypes slid on past because the writers gave its underdogs the last laugh. That’s something the Schitt’s Creek writers do better, though it will be interesting to see how it holds up across decades.

That aside, My Name Is Earl had such a high concept that it could never really last past two good seasons, tops. The karma concept of Earl ultimately proved far too limiting for its writing team. After they’d done the meta season they had nothing else in the tank.

Schitt’s Creek is another high concept comedy — a rich family loses its fortune and is forced to move to the shitty town they purchased as a joke. But here’s the difference: The fish-out-of-water jokes can continue until each member of the Rose family are fully settled into their new lives, and even then, the joke will be that they have become what they initially despised. (Comedy  has a lot in common with horror.) Schitt’s Creek is now up to Season Five and still going strong.

The writers will be facing a big storytelling challenge now that each member of the Rose family is happily in a relationship, because that ostensibly cuts out the entire category of dating humour. It will be interesting to see what they do with that.