Very early into the (first) nation-wide lockdown I established a routine for myself. Every morning, I would wake up while my parents were on their state sanctioned walk and use this solitude to watch films that had been tucked away in my Letterboxd watchlist. I powered through classics like Philadelphia Story and dipped into Studio Ghibli with Kiki’s Delivery Service. But one morning, I used this time to start a television show, one that my friends had persisted in recommending to me over the last six months: Schitt’s Creek.
Schitt’s Creek centres on the Rose family who lose their massive fortune after a business deal backfires. The family move to the small, unbecoming town by the name of Schitt’s Creek, that Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) had bought for his son, David (Daniel Levy), as a joke. Despite David’s passive aggression, there is a sweetness innate to Schitt’s Creek. The unusual troupe of side characters which populate this small-town, love and embrace these well-dressed interlopers with the same community spirit the Rose family have been so deftly dodging their whole lives. The predictable fish out of water trope conceals a world of earnest, awkward declarations of love that was the perfect blend of smart and bite sized, (long live the 20-minute comedy). Needless to say, I had finished all six seasons of the show within a matter of weeks.
Soon after, I re-watched the first two seasons of Succession and I was swiftly re-launched into a world of business intrigue that only serves to conceal a far more complicated landscape of family trauma.The showfollows the wealthy Roy family, loosely based on the real-life Murdoch family – owners of the media conglomerate News Corp. The Roy’s jostle one another in and out of power in a desperate attempt to secure control over their father’s vast media empire. Snide one-liners follow heart-breaking moments of relational reckoning, and the writers use this tonal variance to brilliantly balance sharp humour and gut-wrenchingdrama. This thrilling equation means that Succession lives somewhere between Arrested Development and King Lear.
On the surface, Succession and Schitt’s Creek are only connected by their sleek and stylish costumes and their investigation of wealthy families. Schitt’s Creek is a silly and small self-contained story that is only able to sprawl as far as the distance the mayor’s rusty old truck could cover in 22 minutes. On the other hand, Succession is prone to wrapping the Roy family up in Armani suits and mailing them to glamourous locations where they lounge on their mega-yacht in the Aegean Sea, pile into helicopters and wander into their Hamptons mansion – among other things. Furthermore, there is a sharpness that Succession wields which is only brandished in Schitt’s Creek when it is used to gently poke fun at the central family before wrapping them in a designer hug.
Still, both shows were an escape for me over the course of lockdown. Both place their families in scenarios where they cannot escape one another. In Schitt’s Creek,the Roses are confined to a cramped motel room, turning to one another out of a shared discomfort with the unfamiliar landscape of the town. In Succession, the extended periods of time they spend with one another is counted as the price of going into business with family; family dinners stretch into company meetings.
This proximity forces them to contend, benefit and pay attention to one another. A heartfelt message like this is somewhat surprising, considering the bulk of a show like Succession features the central characters blindly lobbying insults at one another in a series of crude verbal jousting matches. And yet, by the end of the first season, it is made abundantly clear that the Roy family’s crass bravado is a façade obscuring their irrevocable loneliness. They do not just return to their brooding and immoral father out of a desire to get rich, (well, richer than they already are,) they return out of a sense of belonging. Tragically tethered to the Roy name, any attempt to flee is undermined by the fact that they simply do not have anywhere else to go. Both the Roys and the Roses are entangled in their love and frustration for and with one another. Siblings and parents are caught levying retorts at one another, perpetually circling a self-constructed emotional baggage conveyor.
In a very narrow sense, both shows spoke directly to the predicament I was in; for the first time in a while I was living with my family with no discernible end in sight. I was arguing with my brother about who would run errands and I was answering questions like “will you be around for lunch? For dinner?” In many ways, I was forcibly familiarising myself with the shape of my early life. Succession and Schitt’s Creek depict fully grown families locked into limited spaces and provoking one another like teenagers. Alexis (Annie Murphy) and David Rose are in their late 20’s, yet they are still caught bickering about who ate whose yogurt, who left the room in a mess, who needs to clean the bathroom. Similarly, in one of the first episodes of Succession, a reasonable debate between Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) devolves into a physical brawl. The programmes are investigating the state of arrested development that so many university graduates were fleeing to in the early months of the pandemic.
I recognised the unique vocabulary quietly wedged in the relationship between siblings. When you are arguing with partners or best friends you can be pointed, specific in your fury, but when you argue with a sibling you wield your frustrations like a bludgeon. Blanket statements like “shut up” and “you’re an idiot” shroud over a lifetime of disagreements that range from serious to seriously ridiculous. Both shows hit their stride when they invest in long scenes where the siblings vie for relational power. The scenes where they are allowed to unleash their pettiness on one another works to relay the familiar truth that the people who annoy you the most are often those you are related to. You get older and wiser but when your brother irritates you, nothing feels more correct than Alexis Rose’s whiny drawl of “Daaaavid”, or Shiv Roy absentmindedly swearing under her breath.
Ultimately, both shows take a starkly different approach to family. The Roses are afforded a happy ending, by the last episode they have rediscovered their love for one another. In the final episode they part ways to pursue their own adventures; Alexis in New York, Johnny and Moira (Catherine O’Hara) in LA and David in Schitt’s Creek, newly buoyed by their connection with one another. Conversely, Succession paints a less encouraging picture of family. The Roys love one another, but they are ill equipped with the emotional literacy necessary to foster healthy relationships. Almost every conversation Roman, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Conor (Alan Ruck) and Shiv have ends with a snide comment, a verbal undoing. Any attempt to win their father, Logan’s (Brian Cox), approval is met with a swift “fuck off”.
Despite this tonal dissonance, there is a shared kernel of truth that both shows latch on to that felt supremely comforting. Schitt’s Creek and Succession are populated with seemingly successful adults, but in the face of solitude they are reduced to belligerent children. Indeed, we are all reduced to the silliest, most illogical versions of ourselves when we are confined to limited spaces with the people who raised us. Both shows seem to be invested in that reality and suggesting that underneath it all, most families, are kind of the same.
When I was first experiencing quarantine, incapable of grasping at the implications of this global pandemic and unsure of how long I would be home, these depictions of family were supremely comforting. I was familiar with the bickering, the sneering comments and I recognised what it felt like to navigate the most common arguments with your siblings like frequently traversed obstacle courses. Ironically, I turned to Schitt’s Creek and Succession out of a desire to escape, but now I cling to them because of the uncomfortable truths enshrined in both programmes.
Header image courtesy of CBC