Michael Schur co-creates another sitcom that tempers complicated issues with humor.
Michael Schur’s no stranger to centering television sitcoms around complex topics. There’s the inner workings of local government in Parks and Recreation, the chaos and philosophy of the afterlife in The Good Place, and now America’s problematic past in the Peacock original Rutherford Falls. Co-created by Schur, Ed Helms, and Sierra Teller Ornelas, Rutherford Falls is the funny wake-up call we need.
Rutherford Falls follows Nathan Rutherford (Helms) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), two friends from very different backgrounds: Nathan’s ancestor is the town’s founder, Lawrence Rutherford, and Reagan hails from the fictional Minishonka Nation, a tribe who was on the land well before the settlers. Rutherford Falls becomes the center of attention when “Big Larry,” the statue of the town’s founder, is scheduled to come down because it’s inconveniently located in a busy intersection (and the cause of too many car accidents over the years). The debate on removing the statue stirs up quite the debate, one that causes meltdowns, spurs lawsuits, and garners the attention of NPR reporter Josh Cogan (Dustin Milligan).
The cast of Rutherford Falls is excellent. The two leads, Helms and Schmeiding, have real best-friend chemistry and can hit jokes and punchlines back and forth. Helms is perfect as Nathan, a man struggling to honor his family’s legacy while also acknowledging a problematic past. Schmieding is a revelation as Reagan, a woman working her way back into good standing in the Minishonka tribe after she ditched the tribe (and a fiancé) to pursue graduate school.
The supporting cast is just as stellar at its leads. Jesse Leigh is hilarious as Bobbie, Nathan’s devoted assistant, even donning a possum costume while they and Nathan reenact the town’s famous “Possum Infestation of 1747.” There’s also Josh, the “hot reporter” from NPR, who’s searching for his “powderkeg” story. The character to keep your eye on is Terry, the intimidating and scheming casino owner expertly portrayed by Michael Greyeyes. Episode four peels back the layers of Terry, ending in a chilling moment that sets up some delicious conflict for future episodes to come.
Rutherford Falls is the funny wake-up call we need.
As with many sitcoms, Rutherford Falls takes a couple of episodes to find its bearings. The pilot focuses on Nathan’s plight to hold onto his family’s legacy and gives Reagan only a brief moment to call out his white privilege. Reagan’s “runaway bride” subplot felt like it was decided after the series was picked up. One could draw connections that jilting her fiancé is symbolic of leaving her tribe. However, she plans to apply her education to starting a Minishonka Cultural Center, which is hardly an offense to vilify her for. Then again, it does set up a joke when Terry tells Reagan she’s complicated and “No one likes a complicated story. That’s why everyone hated Cloud Atlas.” The series hits its stride in the fourth episode, setting up some dramatic conflict that will keep viewers engaged.
Rutherford Falls represents a historic milestone in Native representation in comedy television. Actors Schmieding (Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux) and Greyeyes (Nêhiyaw from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation) belong to Native tribes. Offscreen, Rutherford Falls has one of the largest Indigenous writer’s rooms on television, with five native writers in its room. These writers include co-creator and executive producer Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo), Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), Tai Leclaire (Kanien’kehá:ka [Mohawk Nation]/Mi’kmaq), Schmieding and Tazbah Chavez (Nüümü [Bishop Paiute Tribe], Diné [Navajo], San Carlos Apache). The town of Rutherford Falls may be stuck figuring out the narrators of their history; lucky for us the show has Ornelas and company to lead the way.
As each episode progresses, the intricacies of America’s complicated history are examined, revealing the threads white supremacy is woven into the fabric of our past. Lawrence Rutherford may have been “a good guy,” befriending the Minishonka and issuing a treaty with the tribe promising them goods “for all perpetuity.” Nathan argues the treaty is now ceremonial; Terry on the other hand thinks it’s time for the Rutherfords to pay up. Rutherford Falls is clever in that brings the conversation all of America should be having – systemic racism and the oppression of marginalized communities – to a beloved American concept: the television sitcom. Here’s hoping viewers tune in and get ready to laugh and learn with Rutherford Falls.
Rutherford Falls premieres on Peacock April 22nd.