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Emmys 2020: Why the awards couldn't resist 'Schitt's Creek'

The series made Emmy history by sweeping every single major comedy award, from Outstanding Comedy Series to all four acting trophies

Catherine O'Hara being handed the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for 'Schitt's Creek'. Photo by AFP
Catherine O'Hara being handed the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for 'Schitt's Creek'. Photo by AFP

It seems fitting that the Emmy Awards—in a year that has seen a cancellation of the Olympics—chose to go ahead with a televised ceremony. 2020 has seen us burrow into our television screens like never before, for comfort and reassurance, for reruns and long-overdue binges, for movies we had always meant to catch up on and those we’d otherwise have watched on a larger screen, for news that looks like bad reality TV and for talk shows where guests video-call from their bedrooms. The idiot box has held us together in unexpected, necessary fashion.

Thus the 72nd Emmy Awards, where host Jimmy Kimmel made wisecracks to an empty auditorium. As an idea that sounds tedious, even tragic—“What could possibly go right?" Kimmel joked—but watching nominees video-call in from living rooms and watch-parties created intimate relatability. We were all Sarah Snook making Emmy trophies out of tinfoil, we were all Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington willing this nightmare year to end, we were all Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow just happening to live together.

In keeping with this love-in, the television academy seemed unwilling to rock the boat. Awards went in expected directions: Succession (Disney+ Hotstar) won Outstanding Drama Series, while Watchmen (Disney+ Hotstar) won for Limited Series. It was, however, in the Comedy categories—the categories that perhaps matter more than ever as we hunt desperately for the next thing to make us smile—that something magical happened.

A little Canadian series made Emmy history by sweeping every single major award, from Outstanding Comedy Series to all four acting trophies, its victories a testament that you, me and the Emmy voters are united in our need for comforting television. This historic sweep for Schitt’s Creek signals our need to tell ourselves that we do indeed love love.

The Canadian series (streaming in India on Netflix) starring comic legends Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, and created by Levy with his son Dan, starts off as simple—and, honestly, as sitcom—as can be. The absurdly pampered and privileged Rose family has lost their millions and is forced to live in a ramshackle town, the titular ‘Schitt’s Creek’, a town that the father literally bought for his son because he was tickled by the name. The show is, predictably, about these elitist name-droppers becoming better people and belonging to this scruffy community.

On paper, it’s the most obvious premise. What wasn’t obvious was the way the show pushed at its boundaries, creating not only characters like the pansexual David Rose (played by Dan Levy, who has just become the first person to win Emmys for acting, producing, writing and directing in the same night) but building an on-screen world strikingly free of homophobia and bigotry. The town of the show is not a town without judgement—people in the show often look askance at many of the Rose family pretensions—but it is a town where nobody raises an eyebrow at a gay relationship. Not a single person.

It is a simple but powerful political statement to depict this idyll—one that feels surreally far from where most of us are watching—where people celebrate fluidity and diversity and otherness in the most natural way. It is never specified where this town is. Everything about it feels ordinary, and its progressiveness is not a stance; these people are the way they are because they don’t know how else to exist. They don’t know any worse.

The Roses themselves are anything but ordinary. Moira Rose (the great Catherine O’Hara, clad explosively in couture dresses and a startling range of beloved wigs) is a comically articulate soap-opera actress in denial about her current lack of celebrity. Her husband Johnny, played by the bushy-browed Eugene Levy, is a self-important businessman trying to make the most of a bad situation, forever flummoxed by the town, his family or his own overambitious decisions. Their daughter Alexis, played by Annie Murphy, is a flaky heiress who misses an alarmingly hedonistic life but is now growing up. And David, dear dear David, is an unlikely entrepreneur who sits at home at 5 in the afternoon wearing a sweatshirt that looks like someone clipped the wings off a Victoria’s Secret angel.

I could write about these guys on and on. I have, really. When I first recommended Schitt’s Creek in this column back in 2017, I did it because of the phenomenal O’Hara, and because of David’s straightforward fluidity. When India decriminalized homosexuality two years ago, I celebrated the show again for giving us the most romantic relationship on TV. Now, typing out my two hundredth column, I find myself beaming at the thought of Moira Rose.

One part woman, two parts Met Gala, Moira spellbindingly—and unmistakably—bestows heart to the series. I will remember her calling a character “cool" and making it feel like a knighthood, I will remember moments when she chose family and friends over film and fashion, I will remember her abstruse vocabulary and the way she says “baby", and I will remember how she cried when her children found love. It is poetic for O’Hara to win an Emmy for playing a woman who described herself as a “12-time Daytime Emmy attending actress". That the actress got to dress as the Pope and cut a truly spectacular figure as the archest of bishops, is even better.

Schitt’s Creek is a duvet, warm and cosy and sheltering. It transported us to a kinder, safer, better place, while reminding us how we’re only a couple of decisions away from living there. Given how much time we spend with it, TV is family. It feels only right that a show that brings families closer, a show made by a father and a son, wins every prize in sight. Johnny bought a town for David because of a silly pun, and look where that led. Never underestimate the power of a dad-joke.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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