TORONTO – Amid the dark clouds hovering over the beleaguered CBC, at least one bright light shines for English Services boss Heather Conway: the provocatively titled new comedy “Schitt’s Creek.”
Soon after the public broadcaster revealed last week that poor TV ratings and underwhelming ad sales helped contribute to a $130-million budget shortfall, Conway touted the Eugene Levy series as a show that will attract the much-sought-after younger demographic that advertisers love.
The “SCTV” veteran writes, executive produces and stars alongside his son and co-creator/writer Dan Levy, best known for co-hosting MTV Canada’s “The After Show.”
Fellow former “SCTV” vet Catherine O’Hara co-stars, along with U.S. comic Chris Elliott, of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Late Night with David Letterman” fame.
The younger Levy says shooting has just begun in Toronto but he already feels like the series is striking the tone needed for broad appeal.
“It’s a family show at its core,” Levy says in a recent interview from set.
“You have my (character’s) sister and I who are (age) 20s and 30 and you have all the storylines that will happen with us and the younger people in the town, and then you have my dad and Catherine and everything that sort of happens with them.
“And amidst it all we all sort of pull together so there’s a nice blend of young-and-old and heart-and-edge. I think if we balance it properly it’s a pretty all-inclusive show.”
CBC has trumpeted the involvement of comedy veterans O’Hara and her fellow “SCTV” cohort, who both rose to fame in the ’70s sketch comedy series.
Acknowledging that strategy could be seen as out-of-whack with CBC’s bid for younger audiences, the younger Levy is careful to portray “Schitt’s Creek” as “a family show with an edge” that offers “a more modern take on the family dynamic.”
“It’s not necessarily a network TV sitcom. It has an edge and it has a heart and it has a reality that I don’t think we see in a lot of mainstream sitcoms out there that deal with families,” says Levy.
“A lot of that is contingent on a certain style of comedy that my dad and Catherine and Chris do so well, which is a little drier.”
Younger co-stars include Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire, Tim Rozon, and Dan Levy’s sister, Sarah.
Eugene Levy plays video store magnate Johnny Rose, while O’Hara is his soap star wife Moira. Dan Levy plays their hipster son David and Murphy is socialite daughter Alexis. When the Roses suddenly find themselves broke, they are forced to leave their pampered lives for Schitt’s Creek, a town they once bought as a joke.
“The humour is definitely not multi-cam sitcom humour,” Levy continues.
“It’s not one-two punch humour — it’s character-driven, it’s about the dynamics and inner workings of the characters and how they speak to each other and how they act. So it’s not like a big, jokey show, it really delves a little bit deeper. And the humour, much like the roles that both my dad and Catherine and Chris have done, they all stem from a very strange but real place. All the characters are grounded in reality and they’re all sort of likable characters despite it all. So the humour definitely has that depth. And we just hope that people like it.”
As does the CBC.
On Thursday, the public broadcaster revealed a wide swath of cuts including 657 full-time jobs over the next two years.
It followed several TV cancellations including the northern drama “Arctic Air,” mental health crime series “Cracked,” the cooking shows “Best Recipes Ever” and “In the Kitchen with Stefano Faita” and as well as “George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight” and “The Ron James Show.”
Last week, scripted programming boss Sally Catto said the broadcaster was keen to shift its schedule towards edgier fare, even if it might turn off some traditional viewers.
She pointed to the upcoming dark serial “Strange Empire” — a Western set in the 1860s that centres on a group of women who are forced to fend for themselves in a frontier town.
Catto described it as a “very, very raw” series that won’t shy away from sex and violence. Meanwhile, she acknowledged that the name “Schitt’s Creek” could rankle some, but said it was a risk CBC was willing to take.
“We would always like to bring our demographic down a bit, I think all broadcasters seek that,” said Catto, who ordered 13 episodes of the comedy. “For advertising purposes, (age) 25 to 54 is important.”
Levy said the title was not crafted to push buttons, noting that it addition to being the name of the fictional town where all the action unfolds, it’s the name of Elliott’s character, Mayor Roland Schitt.
“When you see the first episode, all will sort of come together,” he says. “I can see how it’s controversial (but) it’s also a common last name in Canada.”
Catto said the very title of “Schitt’s Creek” signals that CBC-TV is ready to take risks.
“We’re being bold, we’re out there, it’s a sign of our change in direction,” Catto said.
“Schitt’s Creek” is set to debut on CBC-TV in January 2015.