tv review

Rutherford Falls Reckons Optimistically With America’s Flawed Past and Present

Jesse Leigh, Ed Helms, Dana L. Wilson, and Jana Schmieding in Rutherford Falls. Photo: Peacock/Colleen Hayes/Peacock

In the third episode of Rutherford Falls, an NPR reporter tries to sell his editors on a story about the place named in the show’s title. “It’s about a town,” says Josh Cogan (Dustin Milligan, a.k.a. Ted from Schitt’s Creek) in his story pitch. “But it’s also about everything.”

That could just as easily be a description of Rutherford Falls itself, a Peacock comedy that’s about a town and, if not everything, then certainly a lot of things: white privilege, the marginalization of Native Americans, the lies perpetuated about our nation’s history, romance, friendship, and unconscious bias. It’s also about representation, in its storytelling as well as in front of and behind the camera.

Rutherford Falls was co-created by star Ed Helms; Mike Schur, the creator of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place; and Navajo showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas, an alum of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore. Several of the cast members are, like Ornelas, Native, as are five of the writers, making Rutherford Falls one of the largest Indigenous-staffed writers’ rooms on television. That’s a refreshing and appropriate infrastructure for a show that seeks to confront the heavy baggage this country still carries with regard to colonization and Native erasure while maintaining a tone that’s light enough to work as a comedy. In the four episodes provided to critics ahead of the show’s Thursday premiere, Ornelas & Co. find steadiness in that balance.

Oh, Rutherford Falls is about another thing, too: a statue, specifically a statue of Lawrence Rutherford, the town founder and an ancestor of Nathan Rutherford (Helms), who runs the Rutherford Falls Heritage Museum and prides himself on being the last Rutherford to still live in the town with his family’s name on it. The statue, nicknamed Big Larry, stands symbolically on the spot where the town charter was signed; that spot also happens to be smack in the middle of a traffic circle, which means Big Larry is constantly being hit by cars. When the mayor (Dana L. Wilson) suggests Big Larry be moved for safety reasons, Nathan is so appalled by the idea of displacing this sacred monument that he starts a crusade to keep the Rutherford figure right where he is. “Nathan, if you haven’t noticed, this isn’t a great time for people who love statues,” the mayor notes. But Nathan’s identity is so wrapped up in his own family tree that he can’t see the forest.

Nathan’s best friend, Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), tries to support him, but she has her own mission: to expand the Minishonka Cultural Center, a small pseudo-museum devoted to the history of the (fictional) tribe Reagan belongs to, whose reservation is adjacent to Rutherford Falls. The modest cultural center is housed inside the Running Thunder Casino, leading slot-machine pullers to frequently pop in and get handsy with the exhibits, thinking they have entered the gift shop. In the first episode, Reagan proposes to the casino’s manager, Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), that the cultural center should be expanded as an independent entity. But Terry, an ambitious man, has his own ideas about how to place the Minishonka people back in the center of the Rutherford Falls narrative.

As has been the case on other Schur-produced shows, Rutherford Falls skillfully braids discussions of serious sociocultural issues with character-based comedy in ways that seem neither forced nor overly didactic. This is done with particular skill in episode four, when Terry, portrayed by Greyeyes with an authority that wobbles between noble and arrogant, dresses down Josh, the NPR reporter, for assuming that Terry’s interest in making money is at odds with his tribe’s culture.

“If we want to ensure this tribe has a successful life, one that can maintain our traditions, art, and culture, it takes power,” he explains. “And unfortunately, power comes from money … I won’t rest until my nation gets every single thing that was taken from them.”

On a show less interested in character development, a speech like that might mark Terry as a heavy. But because of Greyeyes’s layered performance and the shading provided by the writers — yes, Terry is a Native American man who runs a casino, but he’s also a dad who goes to his kid’s lacrosse games — he comes across as a nuanced human being capable of surprising you. That’s especially edifying to see given the historically one-dimensional portrayals of Native Americans in television and film.

The other characters get similar treatment. Nathan seems like a decent guy but one whose obsession with his version of hometown history prevents him from recognizing certain facets of that history. He seems open-minded in some moments, but that attitude is often overshadowed by his obtuseness, which is maddening. During a tour of the Rutherford Falls Heritage Museum, he tells a group of kids that the white settlers who came to the town “befriended their Native American counterparts,” which, um, doesn’t sound accurate.

“What you’re describing,” Reagan reminds him when he expresses concern about having his heritage erased, “is my entire life.”

As Reagan, the person most equipped to understand both Nathan’s and Terry’s perspectives, Schmieding, also a writer on the series, is its breakout star. This is the first major role in a series for the comedian and podcast host, and she’s a natural. In her hands, Reagan is smart and quick with a quip, but she also engages in self-doubt, adding a quaver to her voice or backing away from situations in ways both funny and relatable. (The night before she’s scheduled to make a presentation to Terry, she considers canceling because she feels “a little barfy.”) As a woman trying to honor her heritage yet is judged by those who still live on the reservation where she no longer resides, Reagan is caught between two cultures, which makes her most equipped to act as a bridge.

Rutherford Falls is more of a gentle situational comedy than a laugh-out-loud jokefest. It manages to entertain while depicting a conflict that’s grounded in something akin to reality without oversimplifying the complexities of the themes it addresses or flattening the personalities of the parties involved. Rutherford Falls is a show about flawed Americans reckoning with the flaws in this country, but it offers those same flawed Americans grace and room for growth. It doesn’t ignore the gravity of the sins of the past or the present, but it’s optimistic enough to think that maybe the people in this small town and this country are capable of truly reckoning with them.

Note: This review has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Minishonka, which is a fictional tribe.

Rutherford Falls Reckons Optimistically With America’s Flaws