'The little engine that could': Schitt's Creek continues to rise in popularity

CBC's Schitt's Creek returns for its fifth season. For the cast of the riches-to-rags comedy - whose audience continues to grow - they say they are grateful for the success they've seen.

Season 5 emphasizes LGBT representation and rich characters, as the show's audience expands

Premiering Tuesday on CBC and the CBC Gem streaming service, Schitt's Creek has drawn praise at home and abroad. (CBC)

Eugene Levy used to regard the Canadian television sketch comedy show SCTV as a career-high. Now, that distinction goes to Schitt's Creek.

As the CBC riches-to-rags comedy returns for its fifth season this week amid an explosion of international attention, the Hamilton-born comedy star says "the awareness factor has really been percolating in the past year" for the series he co-created with his actor-son, Daniel Levy.

The two also star as father and son, alongside fellow SCTV alum Catherine O'Hara as the mother and Annie Murphy as the daughter of the vainglorious Rose family, who lost their fortune due to back taxes and have to live in a motel in the small town they own, Schitt's Creek.

The cast of the television show Schitt's Creek, (left to right) Annie Murphy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and Daniel Levy who play the Rose's, a family who lost their fortune and were forced to relocate to a small town they own. (CBC/Canadian Press)

"When I was doing SCTV, we thought that was kind of the end-all and be-all," Eugene Levy, a two-time Emmy Award winner, said in a recent phone interview.

"We were young, not making a lot of money, working 20-hour days and loving every second of it. It was just the most fun, and probably up until Schitt's Creek, was the greatest experience I've had in my career.

"But this show, truly ... to be a part of something this rich is pretty exceptional. Once again, loving every second of it."

Premiering Tuesday on CBC and the CBC Gem streaming service, Schitt's Creek has drawn the kind of praise that would even please O'Hara's attention-hungry actress character, Moira.

"Eugene says it's 'The little engine that could, finally reaching the train station,"' said O'Hara, an Emmy winner who hails from Toronto.

In the past few weeks alone, the 11-time Canadian Screen Award winner has been nominated for a Critics' Choice Award for best comedy series (the awards show takes place Sunday), been featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and various U.S. morning programs, and earned laudatory reviews in major American publications, including Vogue, Variety and The New York Times.

The series has also spawned a live show, Schitt's Creek: Up Close & Personal, which has sold out several cities already and hits Toronto on Feb. 25.

O'Hara chalked up the growing recognition to the show's presence on Netflix (it also airs on Pop TV in the U.S.) and the "love and respect" Daniel Levy puts into the characters.

Emmy award-winning actor Catherine O'Hara pictured on set of Schitt's Creek. "Eugene says it's 'the little engine that could, finally reaching the train station,'" said O'Hara. (CBC/Canadian Press)

Daniel Levy, who is also the showrunner, said the attention feels a bit surreal.

"I think particularly because we're entering our fifth season and usually for most television shows, attention and viewership diminishes season after season," he said.

But he also noted they're the same hard-working, small operation they were in season 1, when residents of Goodwood, Ont., would bring baked goods to the local set and sit on lawn chairs watching them film.

"Recognition in the States is a wonderful thing, but oftentimes it's compared to or contrasted with recognition in Canada," Daniel Levy said.

"For me it's important to note that our Canadian fans have been there from the beginning and that we are by no means quantifying our success by way of American recognition."

Daniel Levy also notes audiences are also growing more emotionally attached to the Roses as the characters shed their superficiality and accept their humble lifestyle in the town run by Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott).

...at the end of the day I don't want to waste my time writing hateful people into my show. For me that is, I guess my sort of quiet protest.- Daniel Levy, Schitt's Creek

Schitt's Creek also appeals with an authenticity, he added, noting it doesn't play into expectations or let outside factors affect its very specific world.

Season 5 starts with Moira shooting a film in Bosnia and continues a love story involving Daniel Levy's fashion-plate character, David, who identifies as pansexual (someone who is open to all sexual orientations or gender identities).

Noah Reid plays his boyfriend, Patrick, who serenaded him last season in a scene the New York Times called "one of the most romantic, adorable moments on TV this year."

Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker, recently sparked a discussion about that storyline on Twitter when she questioned why the show lacks homophobic characters.

Daniel Levy, who is openly gay, said he's "trying to lead by example" by showing a family "accepting their son wholly and completely."

"I've just seen one too many queer stories that revolve around the opinions of other people — coloured by the opinions of straight people, homophobic people, bigoted people, intolerant people — and I didn't want to go there with this," he said.

"What we're able to show is a joyful relationship. I think at the end of the day I don't want to waste my time writing hateful people into my show. For me that is, I guess my sort of quiet protest. That's me showing the world that I want to live in, and I think it's important to show that world."

Season 5 of Schitt's Creek premieres on January 8th at 9PM ET or you can stream on CBC Gem. Watch the trailer below.