In the TV show Schitt’s Creek – now showing on Netflix after a six year run on Canadian and U.S. television – the wealthy Rose family are left destitute when their business manager is charged with embezzlement. They end up moving to a small American town, called Schitt’s Creek, where they live in the local motel. Despite a rocky start to their new life, the Roses soon find the town’s folk accept them for who they are, rather than for how much money they might, or might not, have. This acceptance extends to the Rose’s bisexual son David, who finds love in Schitt’s Creek, when he couldn’t find it in New York.
I loved the show, but there was something about it that puzzled me. Why was this small American town so liberal and tolerant? In reality, rural America was a generous source of votes for Donald Trump. Election maps show a stark divide between liberal, densely populated cities and conservative, sparsely populated countryside. Social scientist, Jonathan Rodden of Stanford University has recently published a book, called Why Cities Lose, trying to explain this split. There are various theories – some going back into history: one idea suggests that people with personalities more open to new experience headed for the nineteenth century’s emerging industrial towns, while those of a more cautious, conservative bent tended to stay on the farm.
This urban rural divide has become increasingly deep in recent times, exacerbated by voting systems which give too much weight to physical size of voting area. The fact that liberal-voting city dwellers are packed into small areas, can give them less electoral clout compared to fewer rural voters spread out in larger spaces. This is a particular problem in the United States, where Democrat candidates can win with massive majorities in urban areas, but lose by slim margins in many rural locations. With a first past the post system, the result is fewer seats for Democrats than their individual votes would actually represent, which is how Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, even though more people voted for her. So you end up with a gulf between conservative people using electoral advantages to hold onto their world view, resentful of city dwellers becoming wealthy due to urban economic advantages, who in turn feel they are unfairly represented politically.
How to overcome this divide? Schitt’s Creek has a go by disguising a racially diverse, culturally tolerant city, as a small town. Despite frequent linking shots of out-of-the-way grain silos and quiet railway crossings, there is much of the nature of a densely packed city existence in Schitt’s Creek. The Rose family are thrown together physically, in two neighbouring motel rooms, when up until now they have led isolated lives in luxury apartments. They are also obliged to live and work closely with various different sorts of people around them.
So, is this city-like town just a delightful fantasy? Is it a way of escaping the painful realities that are dividing many countries, America especially? Partly I think the answer is yes, but it’s not quite as simple as that. After all, urban life has pitfalls. The economic advantages of a city can create great wealth, and there is nothing like money for cutting people off in an entitled bubble. The Roses are not bad people, but they did fall into the isolating money trap during their glory days. A small town is a good place to strip away the wall of wealthy sophistication, and get back to relating to people in a more real, down-to-earth way. Johnny Rose, former head of the massive Rose Video chain, takes an interest in the dilapidated motel that has become his home, and starts working with its manager to try to make improvements. This means cleaning rooms, and workin g on the reception desk. Johnny’s son, David, opens a shop where he learns that you have to welcome customers, rather than keeping them away in the interests of exclusivity. Johnny’s daughter, Alexis, finds herself in a real relationship with the local vet, in contrast to her wealthy life, which had her moving through a series of high-profile but empty liaisons. Johnny’s wife, Moira, once a TV soap star, finds herself working with locals in singing groups and amateur drama productions.
In the end, understanding and acceptance of others is the key, and Schitt’s Creek suggests that aspects of both city and rural life can help us with that. The trick is to combine the best, and limit the downsides, of both.
If you haven’t seen the show I won’t give away the outcome, other than to say that if the Roses learnt a few things living in Schitt’s Creek, I learnt a few things watching them. Bravo, Dan and Eugene Levy, and their great cast. You made a show for our times.