The Queer Review contributor Dr Emily Garside gives us a preview of her new book, Love That Journey For Me – The Queer Revolution of Schitt’s Creek, with extracts dealing with Cabaret and chosen family.
The year is 2020 and everyone on social media is communicating via David Rose GIFs. That’s how it felt, anyway. Lines from hit TV show Schitt’s Creek became catchphrases, ‘Ew, David’ was a fitting response to 2020’s endless lockdowns, sweaters in summer felt a sensible option, and many wondered if Moira Rose’s premiere dress was ‘too much’ for our first night out after the pandemic. Amidst it all, the audience was rooting for a gay love story as the central endgame love affair. It felt big, ground-breaking, on this scale. And it was all from a seemingly innocuous Canadian TV show that had mostly flown under the radar.
Schitt’s Creek had felt like TV’s best kept secret.
Then, with the world on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it became the show everyone was talking about, the happy tonic to the reality of the world. For me, it was a show that reached out at time I needed it. Notoriously late to every party, I pride myself on not being last to this one; I spent much of 2019 telling friends and colleagues to watch it. Having lost my job, it became one of those little slices of joy to escape into. As a scholar of queer culture, I started to lose myself in the queer narratives it told (also as a distraction from my academic work on… queer narratives). More importantly, I found lots of myself, and kinship, and hope I needed, in that show. I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with it (the season two finale), the moment I knew that as a queer, academic, and musicals nerd I needed to write about it (when Patrick gets the part of the Emcee in the town’s amateur production of Cabaret); but also the moments I felt most seen (David’s coming out) and most changed (Patrick’s coming out). And in what was a lonely year in many ways, it felt like I was adding some more members to my chosen family.
‘Don’t Tell Mama’: Moira Rose as auteur director
Moira’s story and the contextual compressions with the musical start in season five, episode seven ‘Whisper of Desire’, where the musical is introduced by Patrick mentioning his audition. Moira launches into an anecdote about her history with the show; from David’s reaction it is clearly a well-worn one, Moira as young ingénue actress finding herself as Sally Bowles. Charting the much-convoluted course of Moira’s career is difficult at the best of times, however if we assume this production was just before she met Johnny and her soap opera career began (something we assume was in motion by the time David was born in 1983), then this was either her breakout role, or another in the line of strange but obscure performances that make up her career. It’s probably safer to assume the latter, and the image perhaps of a second-rate tour of Cabaret around small towns of North America in the early 1980s seems fitting for Moira’s career trajectory.
Like Bob Fosse, Cabaret was Moira’s hat in the ring one last time, and it was one that worked. This dark, slightly strange film, in theory, shouldn’t have been a commercial hit, but it pulled Fosse from obscurity; for Moira, Cabaret represented what might have been a swan song of a different kind – her career relegated to small town amateur theatre, had another odd, dark film not equally altered her life in the form of The Crows movie.
It does lead to that kind of career revival, in part. In season six when we see her stand up to her old Sunrise Bay co-star and producer, we see her get validation and justice for what happened previously. For women in the entertainment industry, standing up to both oppressors and doubters is a big decision and a big risk. Although the accompanying success of The Crows is part of this, Moira’s taking charge of her career and her confidence actually starts with Cabaret.
It’s also a great re-reading of Cabaret to put Moira (and not forgetting Jocelyn who as assistant director also did a lot of the work) in charge of a musical that has been most famously directed by men, despite having a woman’s story at its core. Bob Fosse’s work was embedded within queerness – his work from Sweet Charity through Cabaret to Chicago would star queer icons from Shirley MacLaine, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera to, of course, Liza Minelli, but Fosse as a director, and a man, remained a hypermasculine, misogynistic, womanising figure according to Sam Wasson’s 2013 biography of the choreographer. And so, while Moira might seem more a Liza than Fosse at first glance, perhaps it is in fact the reverse – Moira is more than the camp icon: with the ability to be the auteur, she takes over the role Fosse once inhabited.
Reframing a musical traditionally directed by men and giving a woman the lead flips how we look at it – as yet, no high-profile production has been directed by a woman. Imagine a Cabaret directed by a woman, where the gaze through which we view Sally is not just the male gaze of her composers, and previous directors, but one that sees her strength. Within the show, and for Schitt’s Creek audiences then, in seeing Cabaret through Moira’s gaze – under the subsequent moulding of Dan Levy’s world – is a queer homecoming for the piece. In previous incarnations, the actresses who played Sally in male-directed productions were queer icons – Liza, Judi Dench, Molly Ringwald – and that is also reflected here in our director. Queerness and campness are at play; the result is a piece of theatre that delights and subverts in equal measure.
Johnny Rose and the chosen family
Johnny Rose is to a lot of viewers a father figure. Fundamentally, he is a good and honest man, and a caring father, but beyond the surface of his place in the show, many viewers have adopted him, and what he represents, into their own hearts. In his writing, and Eugene Levy’s performance lies something deeply powerful for those who, often for deeply personal reasons, turn to TV to find their own version of family.
Chosen family is a hugely important concept to queer people – so often a vital lifeline. Beyond Johnny and Moira as TV parents, the show indirectly talks about chosen family in the way the town becomes just that for the Rose family. None of them have ever had true friends before, and the way the town becomes so much more than that, is a parallel to how, for queer people, the ‘chosen family’ of their friends becomes as, sometimes more, important than their blood or originally adoptive or in-law relatives.
The show also has a very queer, inclusive, progressive attitude to what ‘family’ looks like. Whether that’s Jake’s sexually progressive outlook, Stevie’s casual romantic relationships, Jocelyn and Roland having another baby later in life or, crucially, David and Patrick choosing not to have children. Not having children – and David ‘not caring for children’ (as Moira puts it) – is a subtle, but vital note in the fabric of the show, and a statement on allowing people to choose their own life path. It’s a TV staple that marriage automatically equals kids, and not wanting kids is something to be questioned, almost feared. In fact, not wanting kids is perfectly acceptable; more so, it isn’t painted as a big deal.
The exchange where Patrick simply says ‘plans change’ in regards to his previous trajectory towards a nuclear family, feels like a revelation on a par with David’s ‘wine, not the label speech’ because it’s so rare to watch a TV show where the character who does want kids is the one who changes their plan. Perhaps small to others, as someone whose lack of desire for children has often been the source of derision, mockery or pity, I, and numerous others, can be grateful to Patrick for making us feel less freaks for not wanting them, for acknowledging that babies aren’t a condition of long-lasting love either.
Important too is that Patrick tells David he’d be a good father, because of his good heart, but doesn’t push it. David can still have a family, still be a father figure, much like his own dad is to others, he just doesn’t have to be a dad in a traditional sense to do that. And that is the essence of the chosen family.
Johnny loves his family deeply and openly, more openly than anyone else when we first meet them. Despite some notable shortcomings in parenting throughout their lives, it’s certain that providing and caring for his family was always a priority. It perhaps was misdirected into work and consequent riches for a while, and is a lesson in personal growth, but it was always there. Once they get to the town, Johnny is willing to do anything and everything to both support the family and try and solve their problems. The fact that he doesn’t always get it right only adds to his endearing appeal – we don’t need him to win every time, but he never stops trying when it comes to family.
By Dr Emily Gardside
Love that Journey for Me: The Queer Revolution of Schitt’s Creek by Emily Garside is published Wednesday June 30th 2021 and available from 404 Ink here.
Emily Garside will chat with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about her love for Schitt’s Creek and her new book on Friday July 2nd at 7pm BST / 2pm EST on Instagram Live, watch on @TheQueerReview or @EmiGarside.