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For the Love of Moira – The Arc of a Memorable Character

The Author as Schitt's Creek Fanboy
A wintry pilgrimage to the Schitt’s Creek-inspired Rose Apothecary Pop-up in Sharon Springs, NY

You are blind to reality and for that I am most proud.” – Moira Rose, Schitt’s Creek

Five years ago, the Canadian Broadcasting Company premiered a sitcom conceived by Dan Levy, son of renowned comedy legend Eugene Levy. The story revolves around the trials and tribulations of the wealthy Rose family who, after an unscrupulous relative absconds with their fortune, are forced to relocate to their only remaining asset, a rural town with the unfortunate name of “Schitt’s Creek,” which the patriarch had once purchased as a joke. Now in its sixth and final season, what began as a modestly successful comedy has grown into a cultural touchstone, gathering critical accolades and engendering a deeply devoted fandom.

And, now, a tiny confession … I’m a total acolyte to the cause. In my view, the world would be a kinder place if everyone watched this show. You see, Schitt’s Creek offers much more than the usual fare of sitcoms in which characters, no matter how well-drawn, ultimately fall into routine patterns and increasingly rely upon self-referential puns. A stellar ensemble cast is certainly a key ingredient of the show’s success. But the real strength of Schitt’s Creek, in my opinion, is its writing, which over the course of the series has explored deeply personal journeys for each of its main characters.

And after repeated viewings – hey, in times like these a gentle comedy can draw one in like a bee to a field of clover – I find myself even more enamored for I now see how even seemingly innocuous exchanges in early episodes laid the seeds for character arcs that deliver emotional payoffs later in the series. And in this discovery, I see lessons for my own stories, lessons others may find helpful as well.

Unfortunately, unspooling the film, so to speak, on how Dan Levy and his team of writers pulled off such a feat, involves a few spoilers. But even if you haven’t yet watched the show – and, again, you should – I will limit my reveals to the character played by inimitable comic address Catherine O’Hara. So let’s get started on exploring the evolution of unforgettable matriarch and former television star Moira Rose.

Early Hints of a Shielded Heart

Never let the bastards get you down.” – Moira Rose, Schitt’s Creek

Moira Rose is a woman who wears armor. Not literally, of course, though many of her over-the-top fashion choices carry a distinctively military flair. Instead, Moira shields herself with flamboyant wigs, eye-catching jewelry, and a biting sarcasm delivered with an indecipherable accent. Of all the Rose family, she remains the most defiant, determined not to lower herself to the standards of a community she regards with open disdain. The writers make it clear Moira is a force to be reckoned with as she engages townspeople over the course of Season 1. In the series premier she insinuates that Stevie, the manager of the roadside motel in which they now live, may have stolen a valuable keepsake. In another uproarious early scene, she slaps the mayor – at his insistence, to be fair – to facilitate a potential sale of the town which now holds them in involuntary exile. Moreover, she’s notoriously detached from her children, with the running gag of one early episode centered around the fact she can’t recall her daughter’s middle name.

And yet, even within the laughter, the writers allow space for sewing deeper threads. In an episode harkening back to her prior soap opera fame, Moira gets drunk while filming a commercial for a local vintner. The vulnerability she displays in the episode, fearing that her star has dimmed, plays an important part in her journey that only comes to fruition seasons later. Other scenes reveal an abiding devotion to her husband, Johnny Rose, an admirable trait that defies her normally self-centered actions.

But the key moment of Moira’s arc in the first season, in my opinion, is one in which she and Johnny deign to attend a party thrown by the mayor. While smoking weed with Jocelyn, the mayor’s wife, Moira lets slip a clue. She confides that she understands the town and its people because she is from a place just like it, a place she couldn’t wait to escape. And in that instant, all her fierce defenses – the costumes and all the other artifices with which she surrounds herself – suddenly make sense. Moira simply cannot accept that circumstances have led her back to a world she fought so hard to forget.

Signs of Growth

I am suddenly overwhelmed with regret. It’s a new feeling for me, and I don’t find it at all pleasurable.” – Moira Rose, Schitt’s Creek

In subsequent seasons, the writers ran with every aspect of Moira they introduced in Season 1. Acknowledging, begrudgingly, that her family’s detour into Schitt’s Creek may not be as temporary as she would prefer, she mounts a campaign for a vacant town council seat. She proves a surprisingly formidable opponent, turning her glitz into charm, and at one point reveals more of her humble roots to a group of women entrepreneurs. Moira also joins “The Jazzagals,” the local women’s a cappella singing group, furthering her ties within the community.

Meanwhile, closer to home, she and daughter Alexis, through fits and starts, slowly transform their awkward relationship into something approaching normal. While the writers take care not to alter her fundamental nature, Moira in many ways begins to exhibit a maternal instinct. In Season 5, she even gives Stevie, suffering from a recent heartbreak, the lead in a community performance of Cabaret in order to show her a world outside herself. The result is a touching moment for both character arcs, with Stevie finding her voice on stage and Moira realizing that, beyond her usual bravado, she may genuinely possess a knack for stagecraft and inspiration.

Even her own long-stagnant career receives a boost when she lands the lead for the third installment of a cheesy horror film — The Crows Have Eyes 3: The Crowening. It is this last, surprising turn that again raises Moira’s hopes for a return to former glory, a desire the writers never diminish from Moira’s character, staying true to a core motivation they gave her from the start.

Building to a Satisfying Climax

One must champion oneself and say, I am ready for this!” – Moira Rose, Schitt’s Creek

Now, in its final season, though not yet fully concluded, the writers have masterfully brought Moira’s arc full circle. From the crestfallen depths of a cancelled theatrical release of her new “Crow” film, which brings her to an all-time low, Moira in true-to-form fashion picks herself up, only to have the movie go viral on a new streaming service, thanks in part to daughter Alexis’s publicity chops.

But all of this is only a teaser to Moira facing her true demon, the fear first introduced to audiences all the way back in Season 1, when she had faltered during the taping of the fruit wine advertisement. For as fortune would have it, Moira’s newfound streaming success has prompted interest in a potential revamp of the soap opera that made her a household name years before.

In a remarkably well-crafted episode, an old producer and a former co-star arrive in town, keen to entice Moira to sign on to the new project. The prospect, while appealing, triggers old fears. For the first time, Moira acknowledges to her family that she has long felt she sabotaged her television career by pushing too hard in contract renewal negotiations, and the situation dredges up feelings of inadequacy about her talent. Alexis, who over the course of the series has grown into an independent young woman, senses something is askew and gets Moira to acknowledge the possibility that she did not in fact destroy her career but rather was pushed off the show due to machinations of her co-star, the same smarmy man who just rolled into town hoping to entice Moira onto the new project. As Alexis explains, Moira’s star is rising so the producer and her former co-star need her more than she needs them. “There is nothing wrong with asking for what you deserve,” she emphasizes as Moira leaves.

Moira arrives at the meeting, hesitant but assured, pointedly declining an offer of cocktails to celebrate her signing on. In an inebriated state, her former co-star lets slip his part in her failed contract renewal. Ultimately, Moira ends her participation in the new project on her own terms by making demands she knows they won’t be able to accept.

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Pretty dramatic for a sitcom, is it not? And here’s the thing, as mentioned at the start — all the major characters of Schitt’s Creek have similarly complex evolutions. I find it inspiring that a show can be such a comedic gem; and yet Dan Levy and his team of writers have still crafted these incredibly complex character arcs, including relationships that mature as the characters grow. Studying it has prompted me to scrutinize my character development more carefully. In even short stories I find myself considering details – the first spoken words of a character, their first actions on the page – to see if they should be infused with more meaning. Or, conversely, if some thread exists that can be put to better use for showing character development later in the tale.

Have you ever had a similar inspiration from other written or performance works? Are there character threads in your current manuscript that could benefit from a tighter continuity — some aspect of personality at the start that could be more fully fleshed out at the end? Or perhaps a fear that could be more fully explored? Or are you a Schitt’s Creek fan yourself? If so, what character arcs have most surprised you in the show? Please share your thoughts in the comments — I look forward to hearing them.

About John J Kelley [1]

John J Kelley [2] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [3], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.

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