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My Queer Life According to Schitt’s Creek

In a mostly-repressed earlier era in my family’s collective life (the mid-1990s), my parents experienced some professional-financial reversals and decamped from relative suburban splendor in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a small apartment in my mother’s hometown of Houston, Texas.  I, a recent college graduate generally failing to launch due to depression, unclear career aspirations and unsettled sexuality, moved in with them. 

Houston is no rural Canadian backwater, and my people have never been fabulously rich, but this personal history has snapped to mind for me during my recent (and belated, yes) binging of everyone’s favorite show, Schitt’s Creek. I’ve always associated my time in Houston, when I was coming out and meeting the person who is still my partner, with what seemed to me an embarrassing ineptitude. But this is not what I see there now.  Looking back through the lens of Schitt’s Creek, I’ve come to see that period as a gratifyingly unremarkable period of queer life, when I somehow managed to find my way through the mists of my own perfectionism to the life-saving, life-making emotional breakthrough that my relationship so manifestly was and is. This simple, completely unsought, reframing has proven a surprisingly joyous gift in dark times.

As most of you already know Schitt’s Creek is a collaboration between Eugene Levy and his son, Daniel, that follows the exploits of the suddenly impoverished Rose family who had purchased the eponymous town as a gag, thus guaranteeing in comedy logic that fortune would land them there.

The family includes the long-married former video store tycoon Johnny (Eugene Levy) and the former soap star Moira (Catherine O’Hara), and their two 30-ish adult children David (Daniel Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy). Over six seasons, the Roses pull themselves together. The show probes the emotional depths and hilarity of each character’s journey, but its cultural investments clearly lie with David and his surprisingly grounded boyfriend, Patrick.  Their relationship feels monumental to both characters, but very pointedly is no big deal to any of the Roses or their new neighbors.   

As someone with a relatively complicated history of fucking up and a relatively simple history of being both Jewish and queer, this show speaks to me on a possibly embarrassing number of levels. For while I was, David-and-Alexis-like, living as a chronological adult under my parents’ distracted, financially-reduced roof, I was also, Patrick-like, pursuing my current partner of 26 years with only the vaguest sense of what I would do if I were to discover that she actually felt the same way.

David Rose’s sexuality emerges clearly by the middle of the first season—he is pansexual, a decade or two past having come out to his family, and “into the wine, not the label.” The show’s multi-season coming-out arc focuses rather on the specificity of Patrick’s experience as the latecomer who discovers his sexuality as he sorts out his crush on David. 

And it’s here where Schitt’s Creek catches and holds my attention. In interviews, Daniel Levy, who is out and gay, is incredibly clear about what he was after with the initial approach to Patrick’s character: “I wanted to depict the fragility of those early days of realizing your sexuality.” The last few episodes of show’s third season capture this emotional landscape with jarring perfection. Under the glare of this show’s weird X-ray vision, I realize that I had somehow never bothered to process my own coming-out experience.

I watched the “Grad Night” episode that ends the third season, in which David finally initiates a kiss in Patrick’s car after an impromptu first date initiated by Patrick on David’s birthday, probably 30 times before finally insisting my wife watch it to help me to figure out why I was (OK, am) so consistently bowled over by it.  “Oh right,” she said, “I remember rushing out of your car when we went to dinner on your birthday [in 1994] because I could tell you wanted to kiss me and I didn’t know what to do.”

We finally cleared the air and started our relationship about two months later.  But it does say something either about the lingering privacy of closety crushes or about our efficiency at handling each other’s emotional baggage (or both) that the moment in the show that has moved me most turns out to conjure an elegant romantic starting point that only she remembers almost occurring for us on that particular night, and that we hadn’t discussed it over all the intervening years before watching the show together.

This belated synchronizing of memories around something essentially generic—don’t we all kiss in cars?—points I think toward a major part of the show’s cultural contribution.  Queer folk still don’t really get to do regular things in regular emotional registers on regular TV.  And we certainly don’t often get to see the very specific emotional register of car kissing when everyone in the car is also trying to figure out whether everyone in the car is gay.

The pleasure of queer inclusion in such contexts is another thing that Levy clearly knows, and the show makes a point of having David and Patrick kiss a lot beyond that moment of initiation. As a fan of kissing, I appreciate this.

But what I appreciate at least as much is the way show tracks the growth of David and Patrick’s relationship with a more idiosyncratic vocabulary of public affection built on managing and comically mismanaging the noticeable, if not exactly yawning, height difference between Dan Levy and Noah Reid.

The show uses a number of the standard stratagems for having the two characters sit and stand in various attitudes in order to gaze at each other from different angles as their relationship gets established. But my favorite aspects of this negotiation are those (all in Seasons 4 and 5, I think) that suggest that, while Noah Reid may be several inches shorter than Dan Levy, Patrick seems convinced that he and David are the same size. 

There are the moments when Patrick places his hands on David’s waist when you’d expect them to be higher or lower, looking less like he is hugging David than like he slow-dancing with a tree. Then there are the times when you’d actually expect him to have his arm around David’s waist, but instead it is around his shoulders with his elbow jutting up in the air, making him look somehow both like a wrestler performing a hold and like he is being worn by David as a complicated scarf.

As the arguable, um, chihuahua, in my own relationship, I relate to this deeply.  What Patrick clearly is expressing as supportive (waist) or protective (shoulders) looks a little bit goofy, even though the emotion behind it is both abundantly clear and delightfully unclouded by the kind of internalized (and actual) homophobia that can make even the most graceful expressions of public affection feel awkward or dangerous.

This is television, so Noah Reid could stand on a box if they didn’t want to use Patrick’s size.  Making the differences in their bodies visible is, I think, part of the show’s commitment to letting relationship imbalances of all kinds play for humor rather than tragedies of marginalization.  This is certainly the case for Jocelyn Schitt’s googly eyes for her dirtbag husband, Roland, and Johnny Rose’s straight-faced concern for Moira’s wig maintenance protocols.

It is even the case for the Moira’s tendency to combine compliments to Johnny with batshit ethnic qualifiers (“Aren’t you a Sephardic Mr. Clean!” or “Very dapper, Mr. Rose! Like the maestro of a Lebanese orchestra!”). These may indicate a prehistory of judgment or rejection behind their Jewish-Gentile marriage, but they are ultimately more loving than insulting.

In the case of David and Patrick, and given the dearth of funny but not laughable gay relationships on TV, this exploration of imbalances is clearly more of a sustained inquiry: how do queer couples look together? How do they act in public? Of course, queer people know that, to certain straight people, queer relationships will always “look wrong.” So, another one of the show’s achievements is to blow right through that non-problem and get into deeper, realer explorations of compatibility and mutual accommodation.

Patrick is small but stalwart.  David is tall but is always leaning, slouching, as if trying to be smaller. Patrick is both unfailingly honest about his emotions and kind of a closet case.  David is very out but somehow both loudly irrational and emotionally tentative. In comedy terms, Patrick’s main job is to act as the gay straight man (sorry!) anchoring David’s antic fussiness. In relationship terms, Patrick does the routine maintenance (he knows David’s ludicrous coffee order and how he likes his hamburgers), but David, whose self-absorption is never actually as total as it threatens to be, shows surprising emotional intelligence in moments of crisis.

These threads come together for me near the end of season five, when Patrick proposes to David on an ill-advised hike that ends with David having to piggy-back a slightly injured Patrick up a mountain.  At this particular turning point in their relationship, the scene fulfills a double inevitability: Patrick will (emotionally) sweep David off his feet with a marriage proposal, but the perpetually non-weightbearing David, in one last comic glance at Patrick’s relatively small size, will have to (physically) carry him there.

Interestingly, this physical dynamic shifts in the sixth and final season as David and Patrick plan their wedding. As their mutual comfort is more firmly established, their physical presentation is likewise locked in.  In public, David stands taller but tends to lean on Patrick’s shoulder. In the increasingly common domestic scenes of the two characters talking in bed, Patrick sits up high, and David snuggles down low.

This pre-nuptial domestic turn in the final season also seems to me to capture something specific about queer intimacy as an emotional and social achievement that a queer wedding seems more likely to celebrate than precipitate. If straight weddings tend to be organized as the public unions of clans that they residually are, queer weddings both in this show and in my experience are rather celebrations of non-kin communities built and familial acceptance perhaps more conditionally extracted.

Saying this makes me feel in a way like the graying Gen-Xer that I am, whose relationship history has tracked the DOMA to Obergefell arc quite closely.  But if Schitt’s Creek careful handling of queer relationships reveals anything, it is that this history bears retelling and reenacting as new intergenerational misunderstandings around romantic configurations and gender expression continue to reveal themselves. It bears retelling as entertainment, as consolation and, more likely, as both at once.

Martha Schoolman has already gone back to writing about abolitionist pamphlets.

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