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What do we want from the TV small town?

On Letterkenny, Schitt's Creek, and the ways we romanticize rural lives


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 20 2020

11 min read


I keep trying, and I just keep bouncing off of Schitt’s Creek.

The problem, I’m very aware, is more in my corner than the show’s. The series is so darn nice, and it’s full of such compassionate characters. But every time I make a concerted effort to get in to the show — no matter which season I choose to watch — I find myself a little listless and I drop out after a few episodes. (It is, fortunately, very easy to watch, as it’s made and performed by consummate professionals.)

I see why so many people love this show. Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy are two of our finest comedic actors, the ensemble of performers is perfectly chosen, and the ways the show provides positive representation for underrepresented communities (particularly via the romance of David and Patrick) is very welcome. This might be the only show on TV where pansexuality is treated as a thing that people might be, rather than an aberration. That is something TV needs more of.

It took seeing Letterkenny, a different Canadian comedy about a weirdo small town, for me to realize what was keeping me from wholly embracing Schitt’s Creek. Namely, both of these shows are reliant, to some degree, on feeling like you’ve been enveloped by the world they’re set in. If you want to fully enjoy Schitt’s Creek or Letterkenny, you really have to believe that you’ve moved to that little town, and these are the people you see every day. And I find it a lot easier to suspend disbelief to say that I live in Letterkenny.

The cast of Letterkenny (Hulu)

There’s a long tradition of what I guess I would call the “sweet” TV small town. It’s the place where we long to live, where everybody knows your name and your business but also is great at being supportive and loving of everyone who lives in town.

Maybe my favorite versions of this trope are Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show and Cicely on Northern Exposure. Both tiny towns are places where everybody has the “right” set of values (which depends entirely on the towns’ cultural contexts) and where conflicts arise but are usually mild. They’re towns defined by people who know their places and are more or less comfortable with them.

That sounds like I’m saying that these are shows about relatively unambitious people who are happy with their lot in life, and that’s not precisely true. But neither Mayberry nor Cicely is filled with anything that might be dubbed “a striver.”

There are people who rattle the bars of the status quo a bit, and Joel Fleischman certainly had a hell of a time trying to escape Cicely. But both towns are fundamentally loving and elastic almost to a fault. Cicely, for God’s sake, was founded by lesbians. These are places built by people who want only to make the world a better, more loving place.

Schitt’s Creek broadly falls in to this type of TV small town. When the Rose family moves to the town, they rather turn up their noses at the town they technically own, but, of course, the town wins them over in time. And you often see this idea in shows about more loving small towns: In time, the town wins over even the most stubborn of outsiders, who come to see its eccentricities as charming and learn to love the little hamlet’s oddball ways. But the social order of the town isn’t really challenged at all. The Roses are more than happy to shift their moral code and way of life, so long as the social strata of the town remain intact.

I don’t want to say that Letterkenny is a show about a town where people aren’t loving. From what we see, people in Letterkenny mostly seem to get along. But the show has a crudeness to it that suggests another, less taken path for the small-town show. In Letterkenny, the social strata is more or less frozen in place, too, but the characters bristle a bit at this, even as they know they can’t change it. Sure, they might fart in the social order’s face from time to time, but they know they can’t really change it.

Thus, the two shows subtly sell vaguely different ideas of the small town. In the Schitt’s Creek model, you change yourself to fit your surroundings, and they graciously encompass you in a way that makes the whole place more open to new experiences. In the Letterkenny model, the goal is to hold on to yourself in the face of overwhelming odds. The goal is to not change.

What I find interesting about this is that I tend to like shows about communities of people that make each other better as a general rule, but when it comes to small-town series, I much prefer the model where we see a handful of outsiders who stand up against the power structures of the town and insist on doing things their way. Letterkenny has queer characters, too, and the town of Letterkenny doesn’t really seem to mind that they’re queer. But they’re also nowhere near the core of the town’s power structures.

Though both shows possess all the progressive bona fides you’d expect from a series made in Canada in the 2010s (and 2020s), Schitt’s Creek has a go-along-to-get-along vibe I find sort of hard to take, where Letterkenny is often actively trying to push me away. (If you’ve read any thing I’ve written over the years, you know I love when a show acts like it doesn’t care if I want to watch it.) There’s something oddly conservative about the show featuring characters becoming better together and something snottily progressive about the characters standing outside the system and thumbing their noses at it.

Which brings me to where I grew up.

The Schitt’s Creek Christmas Special (Pop TV)

Early on in the writers room for season two of Arden, we ended up confronting this very question without realizing we were confronting it. The bulk of the season is set in a small town in Montana that the regular characters go to in hopes of helping a young woman solve the mystery surrounding her father’s death. We tried not to define the town too specifically, but the more we realized we needed to define it even slightly, the smaller it became. To a degree, the town had to be suffocating for the season to work. But it also needed to be suffocating in the eyes of certain characters. For others, it could be quite welcoming and fun. In essence, we had worked ourselves into a place where both the Schitt’s Creek and Letterkenny models operated simultaneously.

But isn’t that the whole thing about power structures? If you’re more or less okay with them, or if you benefit from them even slightly, it’s a lot easier to accept them as Just The Way Things Are. If you’re constantly railing against them, you might find yourself pounding at the window, screaming to be let in. (Interestingly, I would argue my old friend Parks & Recreation operates on both levels at once as well, with Leslie being either insider or outsider depending on the plot arc.)

Thus, our main window into the world of our small town was someone who felt as if she had been promised something and had it rudely stripped from her. It wasn’t hard to see why she wasn’t so hot on the place she lived. But it also wasn’t as if the town didn’t have its own charms, especially if you were willing to go with its laidback weirdness. American small towns do offer a version of life where everybody cares about the people they’re supposed to care about — which is to say those who know their place in the pecking order and never ask too much.

I write a lot about small towns in my fiction work. This is only understandable, given the fact that I grew up in one. But the notion of how small towns function and how their social orders organize themselves has only come more and more to the forefront since I came out to myself as trans. Growing up a trans girl in small town South Dakota meant constantly evading my true self. And because I grew up as a “boy” from an economically comfortable family, I was more or less left alone and treated well.

But these memories aren’t hard to flip on their ear if I imagine myself as someone who knew who she was from the earliest, or even someone who was born cis. I think I resist Schitt’s Creek because I find it fundamentally false — it takes place in a version of the small town that allows us all of the comforts of a place where a small group of people all long for roughly the same things, then makes the things they’re longing for not all that similar to the vast majority of rural towns in North America. Letterkenny, with its crudeness and its hard-won bittersweetness, strikes me as more fundamentally “true.”

I don’t know if I would have said that always, however. I’ve loved lots of shows about small towns where everybody knows your name, especially as I was growing up. They captured a romanticized version of what it is to live somewhere where you know exactly what your place is and know that everybody thinks you’re great. But now, I want to balance the realism alongside that. I want to find a place where belonging is about more than figuring out a specific niche but, instead, about the niche shifting to fit you. The TV small town is a facsimile of this idea we have that there’s a better, more honest life somewhere if we just go out and find it. But I grew up in one of those better, more honest places. I’m not sure that such a place exists.

Important programming note: For the next four Mondays, I’m going to be tackling topics that are vaguely related to the second season of my scripted fiction podcast Arden, then asking you to give me money to make the second season of Arden. You can read more about the show here, but suffice to say season two will tackle rural America, trans issues, asexuality, big agribusiness, and waterfowl — among many, many, many other things. (I should mention that we’re a comedy? Also a mystery? Also a romance? As befitting a project I’m working on, we are a confusing jumble of tones.)

You can donate here. If you donate just $5, you will be privileged to receive the story of the time Roger Ebert almost got me fired.

Read me: Well, looks like this is gonna be an all me edition this week, because I’d really love if you’d read this piece I wrote for Vox about Showtime’s Couple’s Therapy. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve written in ages.

Every monogamous relationship is inevitably built atop systems that perpetuate brutal inequalities. Because those inequalities are so huge, we often pretend we don’t have to grapple with those inequalities, that love can conquer all. And I honestly believe it can. But also: Can it?

Libby and I have been married for 16 years. We got married before we even finished college, because everybody we knew thought maybe it would be a good idea, and we didn’t see a compelling reason not to. It ended up being a bad idea, even though we’ve stayed together. We weren’t yet adults. One of us was clearing out a brain hampered by depression. The other wasn’t yet the person she needed to be. We grew together, but codependently.

We’ve navigated life together extremely well — Libby is my favorite person alive and the first person I want to tell about my day — but part of understanding each other means she sees me as a woman named Emily and not, specifically, as a trans woman, moving through a deeply transphobic society. And I see her as Libby, not as a person struggling with depression and anxiety in a world weighted toward the neurotypical.

Watch me: Everybody knows the best small town stories are told on the big screen anyway! If you’ve never seen one of Preston Sturges’s tales of goofy small towns and the good-hearted Americans who live there, what’s keeping you? My favorite is The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which shows a rather lively willingness to consider the idea of a woman getting pregnant by a father who more or less doesn’t exist and then her attempts to keep things above board. It strains to conform to the Hays Code and is all the better for the straining.

And another thing… Please enjoy this video of my Arden co-creator Sara Ghaleb’s cat Veronica in her jammies. Does Veronica like the jammies? It’s really hard to say. But I like to think she does, yes.

This week’s reading music: “Northern Town” by Fruition

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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