The three subversive messages of 'Schitt's Creek'

Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Annie Murphy and Daniel Levy star in Pop TV's "Schitt's Creek," which earned four Emmy nominations.

Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D., is a bioethicist and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She is also an adjunct professor at Fordham University. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)In 'Schitt's Creek,' Daniel Levy gives us an example of what life in a small North American town could look like if people valued respect and kindness over money and power.

Elizabeth Yuko
Humans have long attempted to create the ideal society, from the Shakers beginning in the 18th century to the Oneida Community in the 19th century to California communes of the 1960s, though most have ultimately failed. Fictional utopias -- like ones conjured by Thomas More, Aldous Huxley and Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- are far more common, but also more far-fetched. And then there's Schitt's Creek, the acclaimed Canadian sitcom starring Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, whose sixth and final season premieres this week on PopTV and CBC.
The line from Thomas More to 'Schitt's Creek' is more direct than some might think. When creator Daniel Levy conceived of the fictional town at the center of his titular sitcom, he gifted us with a modern version of utopia. But wait, the avid watcher of the show may well ask: didn't David Rose, the character Daniel Levy portrays on the show, describe the town as a "vomit-soaked dump" in the pilot episode? Yes, he definitely did -- and that's part of why using Schitt's Creek as a model for an ideal society is so stealthy and effective.
    TV and film adaptations of dystopian literature has dominated recent popular culture, from Suzanne Collins' 'Hunger Games' trilogy, to Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale', to the upcoming HBO version of Emily St. John Mandel's 'Station Eleven.' Each is set in a future society that has devolved into a worse-case-scenario. In utopian fiction, on the other hand, the writer creates a world based on a set of ideals and values they deem important. Both utopian and dystopian fiction matters, as each can be used as a tool to prompt change by pointing out how things could go right -- or wrong -- in a society.
    If you're not familiar with the show (perhaps you were put off by the name), it's a classic fish-out-of-water sitcom in which the wealthy Rose family suddenly loses their fortune and home, and has no choice but to relocate to their only remaining asset: a rural town called Schitt's Creek, which the family purchased as a joke in 1991. Instead of their gilded mansion, the Roses must now make do with two rooms in a roadside motel and start their lives over in unfamiliar territory, far away from the swanky parties they used to throw with a variety of celebrities in attendance.
    'Schitt's Creek' premiered in early 2015 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and PopTV, and though it's been popular in Canada since the beginning, it took a while to catch on stateside. That changed in 2016 when it started streaming on Amazon Prime before moving to Netflix in 2017. This was around the same time, of course, that half of the country was coming to terms with life in Trump's America. And in our current divided, uncertain times, 'Schitt's Creek' -- specifically, the most recent seasons -- stands out as a modern utopia, prioritizing relationships over wealth, acceptance over hatred, and leisure and social time over an obsession with work.

    Among the values viewers can observe: Money can't buy happiness

    Let's get back to the Rose family: Johnny (Eugene Levy), Moira (Catherine O'Hara), David (Daniel Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy). The socialite clan did spend the entire first season trying to sell Schitt's Creek and flee their adopted home, but that makes sense, given that they are all accustomed -- and feel entitled --to the best of everything, and that kind of change in mentality doesn't happen overnight.
    The "riches to rags" storyline may have been the premise of the show, but that soon takes a backseat to the characters' moral development. Eventually, each member of the Rose family finds their way in the town: Johnny buys a stake in their motel home, Moira joins the town council, David opens Rose Apothecary and Alexis gets a real job, finishes high school and then starts her own boutique public relations agency. Not only do they settle into their new lives -- not just making do, but flourishing -- the Rose family also becomes kinder people in the process. They learn the value of helping others: something that likely would not have occurred to them prior to their economic reversal, all without glamorizing poverty.

    Small town doesn't mean small-minded

    In 2015, when 'Schitt's Creek' first aired, America was in the midst of a vicious, polarizing presidential campaign. Then-candidate Trump rallied supporters using his "Make America Great Again" slogan, calling for a return to the "real America" -- meaning small towns with "old-fashioned" values. In other words: if you were anything but a cisgender white man, you were out of luck, because any social, political or economic gains you've made over the past few decades should (and could) be erased.
    A byproduct of this mentality was, in some circles, the proliferation of a stereotype of small towns as all being conservative, judgmental or unwelcoming communities. Schitt's Creek stands in stark contrast to that perception. Yes, it has many of the positive components of small towns -- like a supportive community and knowing your neighbors -- but it doesn't come at the expense of its residents. For example, though Schitt's Creek is predominantly white, the characters of color like Ray (Rizwan Manji) and Ronnie (Karen Robinson) aren't treated as tokens.
    Even politics in Schitt's Creek are relatively gentle. The goings on of the town council and mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott), are routinely included in the narrative, and disagreements are handled in a civil way. When Moira ran for town council, she briefly faced an opponent in the mayor's wife, Jocelyn Schitt (Jennifer Robertson), though ultimately got the job when Jocelyn dropped out of the campaign.
    But the most visible -- and well-received by fans -- aspect of Schitt's Creek that bucks the negative perceptions of small towns is the romance between David (an out pansexual) and his fiancé Patrick (Noah Reid). Throughout the course of their relationship, it has been treated like any other romantic storyline. And unlike many other LGBTQ+ relationships on TV, David and Patrick aren't confronted with homophobia.
    According to Daniel Levy, the show does this intentionally, and homophobia will never infiltrate Schitt's Creek. "I have no patience for homophobia," he told the audience at 2018's Vulture Festival LA. "As a result, it's been amazing to take that into the show. We show love and tolerance. If you put something like that out of the equation, you're saying that doesn't exist and shouldn't exist."

    Leisure time for all

      The notion that if we only worked harder and earned more money, we'd be able to buy our way to more free time is pervasive in our culture. We're constantly being told that everyone is experiencing burnout and has no time for anything aside from work. Though that may be the case for a lot of us, in the fictional world of Schitt's Creek, people have a better understanding of work-life balance. Nearly all of the main characters have jobs -- in retail, politics, hospitality, and other services -- yet manage to maintain active social lives and make time for hobbies and meeting each other for meals in the town's only café. For a small town, Schitt's Creek has a wide variety of extracurriculars, including community theater, a choir, a baseball league, regular poker nights, a yearly turkey hunt, and even an annual festival to rid the town of asbestos. The cult of busyness doesn't seem to exist there, and it's refreshing.
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      Though, if we empathize with the Rose family in Season 1, we're supposed to view Schitt's Creek through their eyes as a "dump" and a "hellhole," as we get to know the town alongside Johnny, Moira, David and Alexis, it becomes apparent that it actually may be the ideal place to live.