Questions about how to define a singular Canadian identity have abounded in cultural contexts for decades. A nation as diversely peopled as its geographical expanses are wide, Canada has seemingly been located within dynamic cultural borderlands. Of this characterization, Cormack and Cosgrave argue “Canada is more than the various cultural, ethnic, and regional differences to be found within the country; it also involves a meditation of those differences…collected into an identity – ‘Canadian’” (10).
Regardless, Canadian identity certainly has two recognizable, although perhaps overly essentialized, features: the nation’s proclivity for comedy and its dedication to open-minded politics. Concerning the former, much of the world knows Canada by way of its pop-cultural contributions, particularly the export of comedians who often star in feature films (John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Jim Carrey, the Second City Toronto Stage's cast, et. al.) and the distribution of Can-Com television shows to audiences outside Canada (Kids in the Hall, SCTV, Kenny vs. Spenny, The Tom Green Show, Corner Gas, etc.). Taggart and Torrens write that “If anything, we [Canadians], for sure, are funny.” Regarding the latter, Canada is often viewed in the imaginaries of non-Canadians as being progressive. From truth and reconciliation projects to the recent ban on conversion therapy, Canada is known the world over for centering human experiences. After all, “O Canada” once included the line, “let us know how to be a people of brothers” (see Harris).
Recently, a passel of Can-Coms has entered the worldwide market through streaming services, notably Trailer Park Boys, Letterkenny, Kim’s Convenience, and Schitt’s Creek. Building from the Canadian features of comedy and progressivism, these newer comedies showcase a powerful queer-worldmaking or “a bottom-up engagement with the everyday” queer ways of knowing and being (Morris and Nakayama, v). Shows set in lower-income or rural Canadian spaces such as Trailer Park Boys and Letterkenny, both scripted around uneducated, rough-hewn, oftentimes criminal, and uncouth characters, nonetheless fuse progressive queer politics and comedy into productive presentations of LGBTQIA2S peoples. Anne writes of these shows, “queerness isn’t played for a joke [here], though sometimes it plays into it. It’s never the butt of the joke” (Anne; see also Williams). These shows feature bisexuality, homosexuality, pansexuality, and transgender identities and relationships in affirming ways. Kim’s Convenience, revolving around a cis-het South Korean couple and their first generation adult children running a convenience store in Toronto, also broaches topics such as the importance of Pride Week to queer folks and understandings of transgender identities.
The show Schitt’s Creek, written and co-directed by openly gay auteur Daniel Levy, represents the sine qua non example of Can-Coms that center queer world making. The series follows the formerly-wealthy Rose family (father Johnny played by Eugene Levy, mother Moira performed by Catherina O’Hara, son David portrayed by Daniel Levy, and daughter Alexis played by Annie Murphy) as they lose their worldly possessions and get displaced from New York City to the small, rural town of Schitt’s Creek (Ontario). Macro storylines involve the Roses interacting disastrously (at least at first) with the "less sophisticated" inhabitants of the town such as a gauche mayor (Roland), awkward hotel clerk (Stevie), and a slew of other colourful characters. With plans to ultimately leave the town, the Roses instead end up settling into a bucolic life in Schitt’s Creek, discovering in the process, that family and community matter vastly more than wealth.
What makes Schitt’s Creek so affirming of queer world making are both how the queer characters are represented and how their relationships play out throughout the six seasons leading to the series finale on 7 April 2020. For instance, David is scripted as openly pansexual, and functions as a “queer character granted the permission to be himself without the typical burdens of representation for the sake of checking a box” (Larocque). Rather, his is a transformational character whose queer life is central to the script, not an additive figure to a normative plot such as queer characters in American comedies Modern Family and Will and Grace. David’s relationships are very much visible in dialogue and in physicality. For instance, his explanation of pansexuality to his best friend Stevie (a cis-het woman) is tenderly humorous and is memorable thanks to a resplendent metaphor of wine varietals (“The Wine Not the Label” video). Here, he educates a cis-het character who is otherwise lost during the conversation. David also dates Jake, who tries to enter into a poly relationship with David and Stevie ("Let’s All Be With Us” video). Again, visibility is at the forefront of these queer moments.
The most robust queer relationship exists between David and his eventual husband Patrick. As this curation's opening clip indicates, their relationship is not seen as odd or out of place. Transgressive, no doubt, the couple nonetheless demonstrates how love and romance, sex and intimacy, honesty and vulnerability, are constitutional to the human condition. David and Patrick are never the punchline for the people of Schitt’s Creek. For example, when Patrick serenades David at the opening of their store Rose Apothecary, the townspeople are touched (“Simply the Best” video). Their love is not questioned, much like a cis-het relationship would not be doubted in a rural town. In fact, the Roses must escape the “fakeness” of disingenuous people in upper class Manhattan to find themselves in rural Ontario. “The residents of Schitt’s Creek, a small town in the middle of nowhere, are the opposite. They bring [the Roses] back to reality,” writes filmmaker Jason Karman (quoted in Larocque). As with unpolished characters in Trailer Park Boys and Letterkenny, it is ironic that stereotypically “backwards” townsfolk in Schitt’s Creek not just accept, but also celebrate queerness. The undercurrent is that if small, back-acre towns can affirm queer world making, it is possible for those offscreen to do the same regardless of their own sexuality, gender identity, gender expression, or other subjectivities.
I close with the notion of education because this has long been the watchword for the constructive queer world making fostered by Schitt’s Creek. Television critics have heralded the show for teaching that not all queer relationships end in tragedy or garner redemption in sex (Velazquez). Others have extolled the ways Schitt’s Creek uses humour to teach the everydayness of queer life, rather than making it laughable (Dommu). Still others treasure the way the characters and plotlines teach and inspire queer folks, particularly youth. Queer kids, writes Craig, are “using media to navigate the world around them. Shows like Schitt’s Creek are really [affirming them] in a way that is powerful.”
Following the series finale on 7 April 2020, the cast and crew hosted an after-show during which Daniel Levy received a letter from a group of mothers parenting LGBTQIA2S youth. They wrote, “You have created new ways for queer viewers to see themselves represented, and in its own way, that is just as important as the battles we are still fighting. Therefore, the work you have all done on Schitt’s Creek has encouraged us greatly and given us hope about the future for our kids. We sincerely believe that shows like Schitt’s Creek will serve as a catalyst to help change the world into a kinder, safer more loving place for all LGBTQ people to live.” (“Mama Bear” video). The letter was an apogee of Schitt's Creek's impact on its audience.
Care and empowerment will remain the legacies of one of Canada’s most enduringly queer Can-Coms. And, the dual frames of comedy and progressivism – tied culturally to Canadian identity – help permit such gifts.
Valerie Anne, “’Letterkenny’ is the Surprisingly Queer Comedy You’ve Been Sleeping On,” Autostraddle, 10 January 2019. https://www.autostraddle.com/letterkenny-is-the-surprisingly-queer-canadian-comedy-youve-been-sleeping-on-445550/
Shelley Craig, “Interview” in Brianna Sharpe, “How ‘Schitt’s Creek’ is a Role Model for Queer Families,” Huffington Post, 27 January 2020. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/schitts-creek-queer lgbtg_ca_5e29b4edc5b6779e9c2ecae1
Rose Dommu, “Catherine O’Hara Hopes ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Inspires Queer Representation,” Out Magazine, 20 December 2019. https://www.out.com/television/2019/12/20/catherine-ohara-hopes-schitts-creek-inspires-queer-representation
Patricia Cormack and James F. Cosgrave, Desiring Canada: CBC Contests, Hockey Violence, and Other Stately Pleasures (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2013).
Robert Harris, Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of Canada’s National Anthem (Toronto, ON: McLelland and Stewart, 2017).
Jason Karman, “Interview” in J.P. Larocque, “Schitt’s Creek and the Joy of Being Different,” Flare, 7 April 2020. https://www.flare.com/tv-movies/schitts-creek-queerness-dan-levy-david-rose/
J.P. Larocque, “Schitt’s Creek and the Joy of Being Different,” Flare, 7 April 2020. https://www.flare.com/tv-movies/schitts-creek-queerness-dan-levy-david-rose/
Thomas K. Nakayama and Charles E. Morris III., “Worldmaking and Everyday Intervention,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2:1 (2014), v-viii.
Jeremy Taggart and Jonathan Torrens, Canadianity: Tales from the True North Strong and Freezing (Toronto, ON: Harper Collins, 2018).
Alex Valezquez, “How ‘Schitt’s Creek’ is Helping Usher in the Era of the Gay Rom-Com,” Shondaland, 10 April 2019. https://www.shondaland.com/watch/a27100922/schitts-creek-era-gay-romcom/
Ian Williams, “How ‘Trailer Park Boys’ Regularly Punctures Sexual Norms,” Paste Magazine, 23 January 2017. https://www.pastemagazine.com/comedy/trailer-park-boys/how-trailer-park-boys-regularly-punctures-sexual-n/