The Small Business Utopia of Schitt’s Creek

Schitt’s Creek offered its audience a vision of capitalism free of prejudice and exploitation. The absurdity of this fantasy was both the source of the show’s limitations and its brilliance.

The cast of Schitt’s Creek. (CBC)

Small business romanticism is one of the few forms that uncritical support for capitalism can take across the political spectrum. In the United States, mom-and-pops represent in the eyes of conservatives and liberals an ethical vision of market society free from exploitation. It is therefore no surprise that cultural depictions of idealized communities often rely on the trope of the self-sufficient small business owner, either as a protagonist or an ideal.

The success of Schitt’s Creek, which first aired in 2015, if measured in terms of awards, exceeds that of any other Canadian TV show. That success is partly owed to its ability to tap into and dramatize fantasies about small businesses. Last year, in its sixth and final season, Schitt’s Creek was the undisputed champion of the Hollywood establishment. It swept the Emmy comedy category — the only show to ever do so — and remains the only Canadian program in any category to win Outstanding Series.

Its triumphal final season, which aired during the first year of the coronavirus epidemic and coincided with the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, spoke to a collectively shared desire for a less odious image of capitalism. Last year was a traumatic time for many but especially for American liberals. Acknowledging the role that Schitt’s Creek played as a balm for cultural anxieties, star and cocreator Dan Levy remarked during his Emmy Award acceptance speech that his show was “at its core, about the transformational effects of love and acceptance. That is,” he went on to add, “something that we need more of now than we’ve ever needed before.”

Schitt’s Creek’s popularity doesn’t just reflect the show’s quality but speaks to the seductiveness of its fictional world. Commenters have justifiably described its portrayal of a friendly, culturally liberal community as “utopian.” Schitt’s Creek is utopian, too, in its depiction of an economy apparently without exploitation, run by independent professionals and small businesses — a Shangri-la of the petite bourgeoise.

Canadian Origins

Schitt’s Creek begins with tax authorities raiding the mansion of the wealthy Rose family. Unbeknownst to them, their accountant has fraudulently mismanaged their estate, which was built on a chain of video rental stores. “My very soul has been kidnapped!” proclaims the ever dramatic Moira (Catherine O’Hara) as her wig collection is repossessed. The newly impoverished family of four are forced to live in a motel in the small town of Schitt’s Creek.

Much of the show’s comedy derives from the clash between the urbane and spoiled Roses and the small-town locals. When the Roses attempt to buy a used car, Moira fears the salesman will pigeonhole them as rich and try to fleece them: “A humble backstory will disabuse this man of any notion that we are too patrician.”

O’Hara’s participation, along with that of fellow Canadian comedy legend Eugene Levy who plays her husband Johnny, was key to securing Schitt’s Creek’s production on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Canadian actors help qualify a production as officially “Canadian,” and the state broadcaster has a mandate to provide 60 percent Canadian content (affectionately known as “CanCon”). It is preferable, however, to fulfill these quotas with Canadian actors already famous in the more lucrative American market.

Schitt’s Creek is largely the creation of Dan Levy, Eugene’s son, who plays David Rose. Dan Levy had previously cohosted the reality TV commentary program The After Show on MTV Canada and had a brief stint as an actor on Degrassi: The Next Generation, a show which included among its cast the rapper Drake. Despite the significant reach and influence of the CBC, Levy has insisted on the marginality of the Canadian-produced program. “We operate in an isolated bubble up in Canada,” he told the New York Times in 2020.

This is, of course, hyperbole. If anything, Canada’s proximity to the United States makes it hypersensitive to what is en vogue south of the forty-ninth parallel. This sense of the marginality of Canadian culture perhaps explains why the show avoids Canadian cultural or geographical references. The effect of this elision is that Schitt’s Creek gives an eerie sense of being set nowhere in particular. The word utopia is, after all, a Greek neologism coined by the sixteenth-century philosopher Thomas More and literally translates as “no place.”

Small Business Utopianism

Schitt’s Creek, the town, is blissfully free of prejudice or chauvinisms of any stripe. When asked about the show’s portrayal of David’s homosexuality and the lack of any negative reaction to it in the small town, Dan Levy responded, “I have no patience for homophobia. . . . If you put something like that out of the equation, you’re saying that doesn’t exist and shouldn’t exist.”

Dan Levy is less attentive to the other way in which the world of Schitt’s Creek is an idealized one: it is seemingly free of economic exploitation. It’s not simply the case that economic activity is invisible, as it often is on screen. Rather, in Schitt’s Creek, the economy is key to the show’s depiction of the good life and the characters’ redemptive arcs.

Having fallen from the corporate heights of Rose Video, Johnny redeems himself by becoming manager and co-owner of the Rosebud Motel with Stevie (Emily Hampshire). Alexis, the Roses’ daughter (played by Annie Murphy) goes from self-obsessed party girl to self-employed publicist, helping her mother Moira secure a lucrative new acting contract. For his part, David Rose marries his business partner Patrick, co-owner of Rose Apothecary, a high-end local products boutique. Enterprise is so central to the world of Schitt’s Creek that business co-ownership is the measure of familial, friendly, and romantic relationships.

Ronnie the contractor, Ted the veterinarian, Twilla the waitress, Bob the garage owner — all these characters are, or eventually become, business owners.  When Stevie considers giving up her ownership of the motel to be a flight attendant at Larry Air, David sets her straight: “What other job is better than owning your own business?”

In turn, the depiction of employment flips the usual power dynamic between bosses and workers on its head. Exploitation becomes partnership in the utopian world of Schitt’s Creek. Roland bullies his way into a handyman job at the Rosebud Motel even though Johnny, the boss, doesn’t want him there. Before long, Roland is a co-owner in the expanding motel business. When, early in the series, David applies for a sales job at the Blouse Barn, he discovers that the store owner is looking for a “partner.” The equality of their positions means he can get away with insulting the boss during the interview: “Is the floor overcrowded? Yeah. Are the mannequins a little too busty? Absolutely. Does it smell like urinal cakes in here? Perhaps.”

Admittedly, the show does parody entrepreneurial scheming. The desperate Johnny Rose briefly hopes to open a franchise of Screamnastics, “a combination of screaming gymnastics . . . and extreme juicing.” Ray, a returning minor character, is the butt of many jokes because of his attempts to glean profit in everything from wedding photography and a licensing office to Christmas trees sold at “surge pricing.” Within the logic of the show, however, these enterprises are laughable not just because they are in poor taste but because they are not financially viable.

The Spirit of Schitt’s Creek Capitalism

Schitt’s Creek taps into popular mythologies about small business. Liberals and conservatives alike often idealize small business owners as hardworking and independent. This worldview might be particularly attractive to Dan Levy, the son of the well-to-do professional class who cocreated Schitt’s Creek with his father. Promoting small businesses on social media is one of Dan Levy’s preferred modes­ of activism.

For workers, however, small businesses often pay less, offer fewer benefits, and provide more dangerous workplaces than their larger counterparts. Mom-and-pop enterprises are the public-relations-friendly face for business writ large — they present workers fighting for higher wages or better conditions as opponents of well-meaning and hardworking families. Because they are more vulnerable to the ravages of the market than their larger competitors, small businesses are forced to ruthlessly exploit their staff.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels criticized a species of utopianism they called “petite bourgeois socialism.” Believing everyone can be a business owner, these utopians “wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” What these dreamers miss is that profit comes from exploitation, and competitive market dynamics force a business to increase exploitation or to risk failure. It’s no coincidence that there’s no competition in Schitt’s Creek. Depicting the realities of capitalism would shatter the utopian image that the Levys wish to present. Consequently, in Schitt’s Creek, Walmart and Amazon are notably absent.

The show’s small business utopia reveals much about Canadian self-conceptions. Many Canadians see their country as a smaller, friendlier version of the bigger, nastier nation south of the border. In the state-supported culture industry in which Schitt’s Creek was conceived, this is partly true. But the ideal of a cozier capitalism also charms American progressives whose economic imaginations are incapable of conceiving of systematic changes more dramatic than market regulation or anti-monopoly politics.

Schitt’s Creek’s appeal to American liberals clearly helped to make it a hit with critics and awards juries. Even so, the Levys’ self-parody sometimes plays off the contradictions between the show’s utopian ideals and capitalist realities. Volunteering at the reception desk of the motel, Moira declares: “We’re all pitching in these days. Like communists. Or nonunion actors.” With warmth and humor, Schitt’s Creek provides an entertaining fantasy of a better world. ​Its vision of a harmonious arcadia may lack class analysis, but its success lies in the honesty with which it depicts liberal fantasies.