Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What's In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.
On the face of it, Schitt's Creek " the fictional North American small town created for the Canadian TV series of the same name " is as bland as it gets. It is not noticeably pretty. It is not swathed in a blanket of gloom, intrigue and tragedy that has come to mark the suburban locations of many criminal investigations on US TV programmes such as the recent Kate Winslet-starrer Mare of Easttown. No one here comes across as adventurous. No resident of Schitt's Creek seems to have done anything dramatic with their lives. In short, the place is little, non-descript and dull.
So dull that Connor, a character from Season 1 of Schitt's Creek, tells one of the protagonists, David Rose: "I'm a 16-year-old gay kid living in a town that makes me wanna throw up. The issue isn't me not fitting in, it's me not wanting to fit in." In these words dissing the area though, lies a clue to why the show's creators pointedly chose to invent a location that is this ordinary to all appearances: Connor is gay and his teacher is worried that he is struggling to click with his peers, which is why she asks David " who too belongs to the LGBT-plus community " to meet and counsel her student but, as the young man points out, he has no problem fitting in at all.
You see, Schitt's Creek gives the impression of being inert and unremarkable, but it is actually remarkably evolved though the narrative takes its time to let us know that.
I binge-watched this series in the past year somewhere between the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, months after the finale had been aired in India and internationally, and had been dissected, bisected, analysed and scrutinised by the media and public worldwide. In keeping with my standard practice, I had avoided reading about the show before I saw it, so only as Season 1 drew to a close did it strike me that Schitt's Creek truly is " to quote and add to the signboard at the town entrance " a place "where everyone fits in" and LGBT-phobia does not.
Town sign outside Schitt's Creek
When Firstpost asked if I would like to contribute to a series on the theme "What's In A Setting" revolving around film and TV entertainment, Schitt's Creek came to mind immediately. Location and setting are, after all, not just geographical, they are the sum total of the physical and socio-cultural topography of a locale in which a story is situated. In the case of Schitt's Creek, the sociology of the town is the essence of the show and its defining characteristic.
Schitt's Creek was co-created by actor Daniel/Dan Levy and his iconic actor father, Eugene Levy. Dan plays the script's David Rose while Eugene stars as David's father, the millionaire businessperson Johnny Rose. In the role of Johnny's wife Moira Rose who is a TV actor cum socialite, is the Canadian superstar Catherine O'Hara. The couple's other child, daughter Alexis Rose, is played by Annie Murphy.
When the Rose family's belongings are confiscated by the government as a penalty for tax fraud, they are left with just one asset: an obscure town called Schitt's Creek that Johnny had once jokingly bought as a birthday gift for David. Left without even a house, the Roses reluctantly shift to Schitt's Creek, and are compelled to take up residence at a crummy local motel.
Johnny and Moira Rose in their tacky motel room at Schitt's Creek: the setting is marked by its deliberately ordinary appearance
Every spot in this town is designed to contrast sharply with the Roses' earlier extravagant lifestyle " the unhygienic motel with its frayed carpets and leaking roof, the mess in Bob's Garage, the undistinctive Tropical CafÃ© with its amusingly oversized menu cards, the boring facades of buildings. The exterior shoots were largely, though not entirely, done in the village of Goodwood in Ontario, Canada. Photos of Goodwood on the Net indicate that it is a sleepy rural centre surrounded by picturesque countryside. Dan Levy has told the media that he and his colleagues considerably pared down Goodwood for their make-believe setting. The plainness achieved by the production team and the consequently inevitable sub-conscious lowering of viewer expectations from the inhabitants of such a place are why I was startled when the realisation crept up on me that Schitt's Creek's population is open-minded in a way that LGBT-plus persons in most societies can only dream of in reality.
In the initial years, the Levys did not reveal whether their story is based in the US or their homeland Canada. Eugene went so far as to tell the media that it did not belong to any country. Going by the multiple references to various cities by the characters, I had presumed they were in the US and I still stubbornly stand by my vote despite now knowing what Dan said in 2018 when he finally addressed the question that had been bothering fans since the premiere.
"For us, it was always important to create a sense of isolation, and pinning the location down wasn't ever part of the narrative of the show," he told BuzzFeed News that year. "So it does exist in this sort of isolated bubble."
But " yes, there's a "but" in there that warmed the hearts of Canadian viewers " "we are a Canadian show, so inherently it is a Canadian town," he added. "We've never spoken about it, so I don't like to necessarily pinpoint it anywhere. But for the sake of the hard copy, I guess it's set in Canada." The earlier ambiguity was no doubt intriguing, but this answer made not an inch of a difference to the plot or to the fact that this imaginary town would have been an oasis in a land filled with chauvinism whether it was in the US or Canada since neither country is free of LGBT-phobia.
Jocelyn Schitt with Alexis, Moira and David Rose and Patrick Brewer outside the motel
Dan, who, incidentally, publicly identifies as gay, was clear from the start that there would be no prejudice against LGBT-plus persons in this town. He is quoted on vulture.com explaining this decision at a 2018 event called the Vulture Festival in Los Angeles. "I have no patience for homophobia," the actor said. "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."
Obviously this aspect of Schitt's Creek makes it, in a sense, a fantasy since injustice against LGBT-plus persons is present across continents, which might explain why a town had to be imagined from scratch by Dan. (Spoiler ahead in this sentence) In the world we live in, it would be natural to expect that David Rose, a pansexual character, would face at least some bias from narrow-minded townsfolk and that this bias would be an overriding factor in his life since his financial compulsion to be there precludes the possibility of him moving to a populous big city where an individual might have the liberty to filter homophobes out of his life. (Spoiler alert ends) By excluding LGBT-phobia entirely from their storyline, however, the Levys presented viewers with a peek into a paradisiacal realm of what-might-be.
David's romance with a character called Patrick Brewer, who is introduced in a later season, can be enjoyed to the fullest extent because the two are surrounded by all-round acceptance from the Schitt's Creek community in precisely the casual way they accept cis-gendered heterosexual men and women in love as a matter of routine. The absence of anti-gay bias in the town of Schitt's Creek allows a viewer to see the potential beauty of a society where all love is nurtured and every sort of couple embraced.
David Rose and Patrick Brewer are in love in a town "where everyone fits in"
As a result, after Season 1, I found myself no longer caring that Schitt's Creek has hardly any attractive nooks and crannies in sight. Certainly I enjoyed the occasional, very occasional, respite provided by a little-known eye-catching site in the vicinity " such as the waterway where Moira and Johnny decide to go skinny-dipping one day, or the scenic corner where Patrick takes David hiking at a crucial turning point in their relationship " but the minimal spectacle on the show became irrelevant to me as a viewer in the face of the groundbreaking conceptualisation of a town in which LGBT-phobia just does not exist.
Moira and Johnny Rose ponder over the possibility of skinny dipping at one of the few pretty spots shown on the show
I grew up in an India where the LGBT-plus community was by and large invisible in the public discourse. The first memory I have of a high-profile discussion on sexual orientation was when Deepa Mehta's Fire came under fire from fundamentalists in the late 1990s. The first time I ever personally met an individual who was openly gay and came out to me in a one-on-one interaction, I was in my 20s and a working journalist. Something about the meeting with that gentleman changed me. My limited awareness about the community caused me to re-examine my fledgling youthful definition of feminism and expand it to engage with all marginalised groups, including those I was ignorant about. I had to work hard to educate myself back then, because conversations about the community were not easy to find in the mainstream. I gradually became aware that although most of contemporary India was unwilling to acknowledge the very existence of LGBT-plus persons, there was a thriving underground movement of support groups, helplines, websites and networking opportunities across the country, operating away from prying, prejudiced eyes. I wrote about this in India Today magazine in an article headlined "Action Stations" published in April 2000.
In subsequent years, that underground movement exploded overground. Today, pride marches are routine in India, homosexuality is no longer criminalised in the country as it was then, and though LGBT-phobia and oppression are still very much around, the virtual public invisibility has ended.
So why am I giving you a precis of my journey as a journalist, a feminist and a human being in an article about Schitt's Creek? Because this series and the otherwise unexciting town from which it takes its title, shook my proud conviction that I am a confirmed LGBT-plus ally. (*insert emoji with mortified smile here*)
David Rose in the lobby with motel manager Stevie Budd who becomes his friend in time
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) In Episode 9 of Schitt's Creek Season 1, David sleeps with a woman. I was taken aback because until that moment I had assumed he is gay. Ummm, yes, me, the flag-waving LGBT-rights campaigner within my circle of friends and relatives, who has for two decades demanded to know what anyone means when they derisively say "so and so looks so gay!" Pause. No, I thought to myself, I could not have arrived at such a conclusion without concrete information thrown my way as a viewer. Pause. I remember turning to the friend with whom I was watching Episode 9 and saying, "But didn't he earlier talk about having¦ boyfriends?"
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) Having rewatched the first eight episodes of Schitt's Creek, I can now vouch for the fact that David had not mentioned a sexual preference for men until then. It was all in my mind, I suspect because of his body language. In Episode 10, I realised I was not alone: till that point, most of the real-world audience and the fictional woman with whom David had sex were also labouring under the notion that he is gay. Her dialogue with him after their sexual encounter must rank as one of the best pieces of writing in global television history.
(Repeat: Spoiler alert, although I am not naming the woman for the benefit of those who have not yet watched Schitt's Creek)
X: So, just to be clear¦ Uh, I'm a red wine drinker.
David: That's fine.
X: Okay, cool. But, uh, I only drink red wine.
X: And up until last night, I was under the impression that you too only drank red wine. But I guess I was wrong?
David: I see where you're going with this. Ummm, I do drink red wine. But I also drink white wine.
David: And I've been known to sample the occasional rosÃ©. And a couple of summers back I tried a Merlot that used to be a Chardonnay¦
David: ¦which got a bit complicated.
X: Okay, yeah, so you're just really open to all wines.
David: I like the wine and not the label. Does that make sense?
There can be no better way than this to explain pansexuality to the uninitiated.
(Spoiler alert ends)
Since Dan Levy intentionally over-emphasised David's body language and eccentric wardrobe with the specific intention of getting the audience to later question themselves, and since David himself did not judge X, my friend A who is a huge Schitt's Creek fan in addition to being an out and proud gay man has told me to let myself off the hook and not be embarrassed that I fell for the show's ploy.
Maybe I will take A's advice, maybe I can continue to consider myself an LGBT-plus ally, but the amazing thing about Schitt's Creek is how it reminds us gently and kindly that our education, introspection and self-sensitisation are never complete. And one of the important devices it employs to do this is its location in a small town filled with people whose collective liberalism puts snooty urbanites in the shade.
This brings me to an aspect of Schitt's Creek that takes me back to something my late mother often told us when we were little. Mum disliked the expression "small-town mentality" and explained that regressive thinking is not a factor of the place you are born in but your innate attitudes and exposure. A person in a big city who has never mingled with those beyond their immediate circle and who has never been exposed to those outside that city, is no less likely to be conservative, she said, than someone who is deemed to be conservative simply because they were born and brought up in a small town, never left there and never met anyone from elsewhere.
I did not need to look far for proof. Mum spent her early years in the villages of Puthencavu and Edanadu in Alappuzha district and in Kozhikode city. She left Kerala for the first time in her late teens. She was one of the most progressive human beings I have ever met. She was married to a man who spent his entire childhood in a tiny hamlet called Paippad in Kottayam district, and I can tell you that he " my Dad " was her closest feminist ally. I have always, therefore, been averse to the phrase "small-town mentality" bred from the superiority complex rampant in urban areas including Delhi where I was born and raised.
The town of Schitt's Creek, which refuses to live down to pre-conceived notions of snobbish city-dwellers, harks back to Mum's life-long stand against pre-judging any individual's worldview. It also compelled me and millions of viewers across the globe (as evidenced by social media debates) to confront our continuing social conditioning with regard to traditional notions of the masculine, the feminine and effeminacy, even as we constantly fight this conditioning.
(Alert: Please skip to the end of this section)
The unselfconscious liberalism of this seemingly lacklustre town is exemplified by an exchange between Johnny Rose and the unsophisticated, weird, eccentric mayor, Roland Schitt (played by Chris Elliott), over a meal of pork at a Hawaiian-themed party in the same episode that deploys the "red wine / white wine" metaphor.
Johnny: My son is pansexual. Roland, while devouring the meat on his plate: Uh huh. I've heard of that. I know what that is. That's, uh, that cookware fetish. Johnny: No.
Roland: Mm hmmm. Johnny: No, no.
Roland: No, I read about that.
Johnny: No, he loves everyone. Men, women, women who become men, men who become women. I'm his father and I always wanted his life to be easy. But, you know, just¦ pick one gender and maybe everything would have been less¦ confusing? Roland: Well, you know, Johnny, when it comes to matters of the heart, we can't tell our kids who to love.
(Spoiler alert ends)
It's as simple as that.
"Who said that?" Roland asks, the second after he utters this sentence that causes Johnny's eyes to widen in surprise. Roland is high, so his confusion is believable, but the line also serves to emphasise Johnny's disbelief " mirroring viewer disbelief " that this crude fellow who possesses questionable social skills and has been written in a certain way to play into the urban viewers' confirmation bias against 'country bumpkins' is the one who just made that incredibly broad-minded statement.
Open minds, large hearts and small towns are not mutually exclusive. Over and above everything else that this fantastic series does, it echoes this lesson I learnt as a child from my mother.
(Schitt's Creek is available in India on Netflix)
Read more from the What's in a Setting series here.