Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, who co-starred in Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind" and "For Your Consideration," have a new television series, their first together since the mighty "SCTV" back in the late-middle, early-late 20th century.
A Canadian-made sitcom with the low-pun title "Schitt's Creek," and co-created by Levy and his son Dan Levy, it premieres Wednesday on Pop, formerly the TV Guide Network. Do not be put off by the name or by the unfamiliarity of the venue.
Or by the provenance, our comedic debt to Canada being beyond measure. It's very funny, beautifully played, sometimes touching and, though its premise is familiar — rich family loses money — quite its own animal.
The Levys play father and son Johnny and David Rose who, with mother Moira (O'Hara) and daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy), are suddenly thrown from their mansion and stripped of their glittering possessions for back taxes. A crooked business manager is to blame.
One asset that remains to them, deemed worthless by the government, is a semi-distressed small town Johnny bought as "a joke" in his salad days — a twist inspired by Kim Basinger's 1989 purchase of Braselton, Ga. — and to which they repair to regroup, living in adjoining rooms in a motel whose ceilings drip and sheets reek.
"They're human beings, and they're going through something tragic, really, for them," said O'Hara on a recent afternoon in a San Fernando Valley coffeehouse. Levy was there too, visiting from Toronto. "You see someone suffering and start thinking" — she made a shivering noise — "even at my level of wealth or lack of wealth, if everything was ripped out from under me overnight, how would I react? Hopefully, they'll learn something from it; their lifestyle has divided them, they've lived really separate lives, the Roses and their children. And now there's no getting away from one another."
Dan Levy, who had spent several years as an on-air personality on MTV Canada, came to his father with the idea because "I just seemed like the right person to approach. He wanted the same kind of sensibility in this show that Chris Guest and I had in our movies" — Eugene Levy was Guest's co-writer on their four pictures together — "which is grounded in as much realism as we could muster. It's not about jokes, the humor comes from character. There's nothing tongue in cheek about anything anybody's doing in this show."
How was it working with his son?
"In the beginning I thought that this will be like a mentoring thing where he should be learning quite a bit from dad," Levy said. "You hit those moments where he has own take on something and you say, 'Well that's not what I would necessarily have done here — you might want to rethink this.' 'I feel pretty confident,' he says, 'that this is the way to go on this thing.' And so, OK, go for it, we'll see how it works out. And it works out. His track record as we're going along is proving him to be a good writer with very funny ideas, and I've now got a great partner I'm working with, it's not a father-son thing anymore."
They had O'Hara in mind for Moira from the beginning.
"We work the same way, Catherine and I," Levy said. "We've spent our lives in comedy, and yet I don't think either one of us think of ourselves as funny people. We love to get into characters that are credible, real, grounded. It isn't just, 'Wouldn't it be great to work with Catherine?' You're working with the person who really does this kind of work well."
"He just doesn't like to meet new people," O'Hara said.
"That's the other thing," Levy said, nodding. "But you I'm comfortable with. You don't criticize me that much."
Also wanted from the start was Chris Elliott to play Roland Schitt, the town's mayor and Johnny's chummy nemesis; Elliott, a comedy loose cannon whose canon includes "Get a Life" and "Eagleheart," gives the show an element of almost horror, as a man whose lack of boundaries combined with an unpredictable sensitivity and fealty to his own inscrutable code make him dangerous; he can make a dinner invitation sound like a threat.
"It's hard to describe what it is about Chris — the insanity in his humor that I took to when I first saw him on the Letterman show back in 1982 as the man who lives under the stairs," Levy said. "But he does have a kind of a smarminess to his on-camera persona, or that just seemed like, 'It's there, that's what it is, that's what we want.'"
"Chris is not worried about being liked," O'Hara added.
The show, whose cast also includes Emily Hampshire as the hotel proprietor, Jennifer Robertson as Roland's wife and Sarah Levy (Dan's sister) as the town waitress, has been airing in Canada since January and has already been renewed by the CBC for a second season there. (Its best qualities, as the Roses begin in small ways to acclimate to their new world, are revealed post-pilot; keep watching.)
Would it have been the same sort of series, did he think, if it had been developed for an American broadcast network?
No, said Levy. Here, "they take your scripts and your outlines, and it goes through different departments, and you get notes back that you may or may not agree with, but you don't have final say, and so the show kind of morphs from what you started out to make — and it works for you or it doesn't, but it's not really yours. But we've also worked very hard to make sure that every hole is plugged and every gap is filled so that there's really not a lot to pick apart."
Their experience with Pop, which they pitched before the shows were finished, has proved similarly satisfying. "They got it right away," Levy said. "'We want it' — that's pretty much a very supportive statement."
"It's nice to be trusted, isn't it?" O'Hara said. "To be treated like people are happy to have you there. 'Wow, you're doing this for us?' It makes you try to do your best."
When: 10 and 11 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)