It’s odd to see “Schitt’s Creek” described as a “cult comedy” (see here and here and here) when the show actually feels like one of my generation’s few shared television experiences. The disconnect speaks to a broader problem we discuss often in these pages. Our ability to distinguish cult phenomena from mainstream ones is diminishing steadily each year, thanks to the proliferation of opaque streaming platforms and the consequential explosion in choice. It’s difficult to know what this will mean for so-called popular culture in the future.
As a viewer, I’m representative of a slim demographic, one that’s vastly overrepresented in media: college-educated, white, coastal, urban, millennial. When it comes to the popularity of “Schitt’s Creek,” I can really only say it feels like the show is widely beloved, since we in the United States have basically no way of knowing who’s watching and what our backgrounds are, unless Netflix self-reports its viewership numbers. That’s a problem for critics and observers, most of whom are coastal and college-educated like me, but should strive to provide roughly proportional coverage to avoid the pitfalls of cultural blindspots.
“Schitt’s” isn’t “Broad City,” where the characters’ backgrounds mirror those of most critics. Instead, the show brings rich, white urbanites together with the residents of a rusty small town, warmly fusing two disparate demographics at a time when their alienation is wreaking havoc on our culture. “Schitt’s” has predictable flairs of coastal leftism, like most everything in entertainment, but its appeal should be broader than something like Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” I imagine, for instance, someone could say, “Ew, David” at my high school reunion in Wisconsin and people would get the reference.
To be sure, the “Schitt’s Creek” following seems to have built slowly. And not everybody is watching it. But something made the show valuable enough that Fox just acquired the syndication rights. Millennials seem starved for decent situational comedies (which, perhaps, explains the enduring popularity of “The Office” and “Friends)—where lovable characters set under bright lights come together to learn and grow year after year—and “Schitt’s Creek” fits the bill pretty well.
There’s something funny about a show that deliberately set out to be “niche” succeeding in the mainstream, especially while so many other ambitious projects flounder. Although it’s entirely possible “Schitt’s” isn’t really that popular. After all, in the burgeoning era of niches, almost everything is cult content.
The bar for commercial success is falling. I don’t know how many people watch “Schitt’s Creek,” but it’s certainly not consumed as widely as “Cheers.” Nothing is. The question reminds me of one Daniel Fienberg recently posed of “Santa Clarita Diet,” another critically acclaimed Netflix comedy.
“One of the amusements of Netflix’s mystery-driven algorithm is never quite being able to predict what below-the-radar offering is about to become a cultural touchstone — be it the latest star-free rom-com or tawdry true-crime documentary or Israeli domestic melodrama — and what A-list-driven, heavily promoted original is about to become culturally invisible. I don’t know that Santa Clarita Diet is completely culturally invisible. I’m certain, or certainly hopeful, that it has a dedicated audience. It’s plausible that Santa Clarita Diet is actually a huge hit, because who would ever know with Netflix?”
To borrow Fienberg’s language, the cultural visibility of “Schitt’s Creek” certainly seems much higher than “Santa Clarita Diet.” But we don’t know. The more content is streamed, the less we know about our cultural tastes, and the less we know about our culture more generally.
I wanted to write about the millennial love for “Schitt’s Creek” as evidence a sitcom drought is plaguing a generation raised on sitcoms. But then I realized there was no definitive way to measure whether that love even exists, rendering the point dubious and, arguably, irresponsible. So I wrote this instead. If our future involves the media feeling around in the dark, forced to guess at what shows are meaningfully impacting culture, we could be in for some trouble. Not loving that journey for us.