Personal Essay

Finding Queer Happy Endings in Schitt's Creek

The start of my journey (love that journey for me) as a queer person starts some sixteen years ago in a video store in Montreal. In my mind now I’ve renamed that video store Rose Video and nobody can tell me any different. In that video store my flatmate pointed to a DVD and said, ‘It’s supposed to be good, it’s about AIDS.’ That DVD was Tony Kushner’s seminal play turned HBO mini-series, Angels in America and for me it was the start of my journey as a queer academic, queer writer, and really the point at which I became the queer person I am today. 

So, what weirdness did my brain come up with looking at both side by side? how do even I link seminal, Brechtian Epic AIDS play and quirky Canadian comedy? good question... a huge part of what I (try) to do is look at the big picture. ‘Know your history’ is a huge part of how I look at queer culture. I started seeing Schitt’s Creek as a kind of tipping point in the queer cultural history we had to date. Only time will tell just how much of one, but for someone who has spent a career ‘joining the dots’ and teaching students to ‘know their history’ this felt like a truly exciting, and ok yes, nerdy moment, for me in the work I was trying to write. 

Because for me it’s about the through line, it’s how I understand myself in the world- culture, and who I relate to. But as a queer person, it’s not always easy to see. To use another ‘know your history’ example, it is the ‘I belong to a culture’ speech from The Normal Heart. And, if ever there was a man kicking down doors, it was Kramer- when he says, ‘I belong to a culture.' Ned’s speech begins ‘I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle….’ He goes on and adds ‘These are not invisible men’. The point being of course they were…in terms of their true identity, in terms of the stories we tell. He includes EM Forster- a man who stopped publishing his work when he started writing gay stories, he includes Auden, Byron, Tennessee Williams, all of whom hid their sexuality in plain sight. He says, ‘all through history we’ve been here.’ And that’s what I talk about when I talk about that ‘through line’ in Queer history. 

While representation might have increased- on TV perhaps more so than even in theatre and certainly in films- such as Black Mirror or Greys Anatomy continues to bring LGBTQ+ characters into a more ‘mainstream ‘non-queer show’ and in my moment of being stuck and ultimately in the book I made the comparison with Schitt’s Creek and what Dan Levy has said about the ongoing resistance to telling gay stories;

‘I know that in writer’s rooms across North America there are still conversations about how much is too much when it comes to intimacy between, in my case, two men. That’s an insane conversation to be having. Like, ‘How many times can we show them kissing on-air?’ (The Advocate, 2019)

That quote became the unlocking of what I wanted to say about the importance of the play I was writing about, and why that show had become so important to me in the process of writing it. That Angels was part of a through-line that led to this show I loved now-Levy said, he hopes audiences learn acceptance ‘by osmosis’ in that respect, in contrast to what he calls the ‘extreme tragedy’ of many Queer narratives, even today. That through line of history- in what I’d spent a decade working on, and the parallels to the way I was consuming queer stories became clear. 

Based on that, the personal through-line, the history we curate for ourselves, it took me several months to also have the revelation as to why during the most painful time of writing my book on the ‘definitive AIDS play of the 20th century’ that I went off at the deep end on Schitt’s Creek?

Happy Endings.

It’s a Happy Ending to a Queer story. That thing that 30-somethings Queer people didn’t grow up with. And that’s where my professional begins to intersect with the personal on why this show hit so hard. We grew up with legislation that meant we couldn’t talk about being Queer in school. We grew up in the wake of AIDS, we grew up with maybe two famous Queer people to look up to. So that’s why lots of us needed Dan Levy and his show too. For what’s inside the show, and what’s outside. 

So, on a personal level of my academic work this show meant a lot. It was, while I worked on the book of a play that changed my career, and my life, I was able to have the quiet revelation that, there was a hopeful future. On an academic level, yes, it’s part of the post-AIDS era storytelling, for British media too post- Section 28 (legislation that effectively banned talking about homosexuality in many settings) and part of an evolution to something more hopeful. 

So, in all that too, as a child of the 80s- Dan Levy and I are about the same age in fact- it felt like the story that had been missing from my (dare I venture our) lives all this time. For what the show means outside of itself too, lots of 30-somethings needed that. To see a gay man, as a writer and showrunner owning his Queer stories and fighting for them. Yes, following in the footsteps of others who had gone before, but also, more importantly paving the way for others to come after. To see that man unapologetically be out, and proud talking about his show. And I know for lots of us, the power of seeing his Dad by his side supporting that. The sheer hope in that, especially for anyone who didn’t grow up with that, was so powerful. 

Because for the first time in TV, queerness felt…normal? But also, there were versions of normal, versions of myself in that show that I hadn’t thought about, hadn’t looked at until now. That absence of queer stories as a teen, as a twenty something caused the stories, and the people of Schitt’s Creek to hit me and hit me hard. Making this feel something like a ‘coming of age’ story for me, even in my 30s. 

The first time around, I felt like I had been seen for the first time in David’s ‘wine not the label’. 30-something years of trying to explain what pansexual meant to people, being told it didn’t exist even. And yet here he was existing, on TV with nobody caring. And with a handy little way to explain it using wine. But despite the above, in a really complicated way (as such things are) a little while after rejoicing in David’s ‘the wine not the label’ moment, something shifted in hearing Patrick talk about not knowing what ‘right felt like’. The revelation, that maybe I hadn’t realised some things about myself was a startling, but important one.  This is why we need more Queer stories, maybe I’d been resting on the narratives I had clutched at as a teenager, and it took someone else to explain something in a different way, to reflect it back on myself.

How this show influenced me as a queer academic, and as a queer writer is also hugely important, and links back to that video store in Montreal all those years ago. In that video store was the start of my understanding, being pulled into queer stories for the first time. With Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and a few months later Jonathan Larson’s Rent I had queer stories in my life for the first time. And they were beautiful stories that inspired me, shaped me and made me the writer I am, the academic I am, and yes, the person I am. But just like you don’t just ‘come out’ once, you don’t just have one story of your own. You need different stories, to keep pace with where you are in life, to fill in some blanks. Later, as a fully card-carrying queer ‘grown up’ Schitt’s Creek became the one I needed, at the time I next needed it. 

Because the show sent me crashing back personally to that time in Montreal, discovering queer stories for the first time. About a month after I found those stories, things started unravelling for myself, my dad died. 100s of miles away at home in the UK. So decades later, thanks to those stories I found back then, a fully fledged queer academic and writer, I watched Patrick Brewer come out to his parents and realised; that’s a story I’ll never have. I never got to come out and have my happy ending. And the fact that was a missing piece in my life didn’t occur to me until that moment. 

I knew I’d write about the show when they decided to put on a musical. But I knew I’d struggle, personally to write about the show when Patrick came out. These stories we love, we need to write about are tied up in our personal narratives. I love musicals because they’re where I found myself in a messed-up time of coming out and losing a parent. I broke my own heart 16 years later over someone else’s coming out story on TV because I realised I’d never have that. These stories are important in the lessons they teach us, and as queer people we shouldn’t have to wait so long between stories. That’s why I wanted to write the book, and that’s why in my mind, it’s tied to that through line, not just of queer stories, but personal ones as well. 

Because of that the ‘Happy Ending’ of the show is one that I think we all need sometimes. The moments we feel a bit lost like both David and Patrick did at some point- I’m still in my pre-Patrick David Rose phase. But that’s ok. Because what the show did was give me hope. The show gave me hope for the kind of ‘chosen family’ we end up seeking out as queer folks, and the idea that for some folks too that ‘real family’ exists in a more tolerant world.

While I might not have got Patrick’s coming out experience in real life, or David’s even, through the show I get to imagine a world where Johnny Rose or Clint Brewer are the kind of Dad life gave me. It might not be true, it might make me sad in a way, but also it also gives me hope. It reminds me those Dads do exist- that Eugene Levy exists in real life and talks so eloquently about supporting his gay son, that he helped his son create this story too gives hope to all of us who don’t have a Johnny or Eugene in our lives.

It gives us hope that we’ll be able to help build that world for other people. I wish I’d had this show as a teenager. But I’m glad I had it in my 30s too, because we need stories that reflect us at all points in our lives.

That’s why, to those who say it’s 'only TV', I say, part of me hopes you never needed those stories that badly, to feel seen that badly. But part of me hopes you do experience that one day, because finding something that speaks to you, whatever it is, always changes things.

My book ‘Love that Journey For Me: the Queer Revolution of Schitt’s Creek’ was the result of this long-ranging reflective process and can be bought from 404 Ink here.

Emily Garside

Emily Garside

Emily Garside is a writer of many kinds as well as a professional nerd. Emily has her PhD on theatrical responses to the AIDS crisis, and the evolution of LGBTQ theatre. She is a regular contributor for The Queer Review and has written for American Theatre, Slate, BBC and The Stage. She is also the author of 'Love that Journey for Me; The Queer Revolution of Schitt's Creek' (404 Ink).