[TV REVIEW] Rutherford Falls balances hilarity with depth of Native American characters

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NBC/Peacock

“Rutherford Falls” features Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding as best friends Nathan Rutherford and Reagan Wells.

Rutherford Falls is not a show you expect to like right away. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned to accept that NBC’s (or any cable network, for that matter) sitcoms are usually a swing and a miss, so clicking on Rutherford Falls’ icon on Peacock was a real benefit-of-the-doubt scenario for me.

But, for once, my optimism paid off.

Rutherford Falls was created by Michael Schur (Parks & Rec, The Good Place), Ed Helms (The Office, The Hangover), and Sierra Teller Ornelas (the first-ever Native American showrunner of a television comedy). The show follows best friends Nathan Rutherford (Helms) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding, initially a writer for the show turned actress) as they navigate a world of comic misunderstandings and realistic historical comeuppances.

“I feel like Native people have always known that we’re funny,” said Teller Ornelas in an interview with Glamour. “This was just getting an opportunity for everyone else to see it.”

In the center of Rutherford Falls stands an old statue of Lawrence “Big Larry” Rutherford. The town’s founder and Nathan’s ancestor, Big Larry “brokered a uniquely fair and honest deal” with the fictional Native Minishonka tribe (as opposed to blatantly stealing their land and livelihood like countless other European settlers) in 1638, nearly 400 years ago. The statue is also the leading cause of car accidents in the town, as it’s located in the middle of the street. When the local government, led by Mayor Deidre Chisenhall (Dana L. Wilson), decides to remove the statue for public safety reasons, local historian Nathan rises up to “maintain history.”

Nathan is the last of the acclaimed Rutherfords to still live in his family’s namesake: the town of Rutherford Falls. He runs his pride and joy, the Rutherford Falls Heritage Museum, alongside high school intern Bobbie Yang (Jesse Leigh, a nonbinary actor whose character shares the much-needed representation of gender identity). A huge history nerd, Nathan will do nearly anything to preserve his family’s namesake. That is, until his dreams grapple with his personal beliefs.

Nathan’s passion for preserving history clashes with the current political climate around what it really means to “respect history.” Nathan, however, is adamant that his point of view is not one of upholding systematic oppression, as with many other anti-statue removal movements. In Nathan’s eyes, Big Larry wasn’t an oppressor to the fictional Native Minishonka tribe, but a friend and an ally. When Mayor Chisenhall reminds him once more of the connotations that come with supporting an ancient statue of a white guy, Nathan insists, “Big Larry’s not one of those statues.”

Reagan is a member of the Minishonka tribe who left home to earn two master’s degrees, only to return and run an underfunded and underappreciated Minishonka cultural center on the ground floor of the local casino. The head of the casino, Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), offers Reagan greater opportunities for her and her cultural center, so long as she helps with one thing — suing the Rutherfords. Considering Nathan Rutherford has been her lifelong best friend, Reagan, naturally, feels conflicted. On the one hand, she helps Terry with reclaiming reparations for the Minishonka tribe and therefore ensuring more aid for her dream, and on the other she helps Nathan handle his difficult situation — and falls for NPR reporter Josh (Schitt’s Creek’s Dustin Milligan) in the process.

With a premise that could easily have been written as over-eager or definitive, Rutherford Falls finds complexity and realism in its plot and characters. While Nathan initially seems like the classic annoying white guy who must “come to terms” with his privilege, he’s actually not all bad. Yes, he has his moments of PR weakness, and yes, there are scenarios where it’s fairly obvious that Reagan has had to fight tooth and nail for the same opportunities he’s granted, but you trust him. Mainly because Reagan trusts him, and we trust Reagan.

“Their relationship is not black or white. It’s not clean-cut. It’s messy and it’s complicated,” said Teller Ornelas.

Reagan is the true hero of this story. She is trapped between two worlds: her tribe, which has isolated her ever since she left her well-liked fiancé to pursue higher education, and Nathan’s world, which she sometimes feels is a betrayal to herself to simply exist in. But she walks the line in-between beautifully. She loves Nathan and she loves her tribe, and isn’t that enough?

With a premise that could easily have been written as over-eager or definitive, Rutherford Falls finds complexity and realism in its plot and characters.”

In Rutherford Falls there are no villains. And that’s what I love the most about this show (in addition to its hilarity and emotional depth and surprisingly good theme song). You find yourself rooting for everyone: Reagan, Nathan, Terry, even Josh. Every person in it is a person, full of backstory and motive and delightful one-liners.

Not only are the characters excellent, but so is the plot. While it offers multiple perspectives on issues in the hopes of education, it never explicitly tells you what is “right” or what is “wrong.” Instead, it expects that you can figure it out for yourself, a skill everyone should master.

It’s incredibly rare that the general public has access to Native American storylines in the media, much less comedy, which makes Rutherford Falls all the more special. Typically, Indigenous plotlines are either used solely for trauma-baiting or as a side story treated as an indifferent attempt at diversity, and both scenarios rely heavily on stereotypes to shape the Native characters in question. In an industry heavily under-serving towards Native American populations, Reagan, Terry, and all the other Minishonkan characters of Rutherford Falls offer a much-needed assembly of three-dimensional Indigenous individuals.

“I think it shouldn’t be revolutionary in 2021 for Native people being seen as human beings on television, but it does feel that way,” said Teller Ornelas.

In tackling societal and representational issues many would consider black-and-white, Rutherford Falls adds profundity and intricacy to its storylines, offering a wonderful immersive experience that educates while it entertains.

Rating: ★★★★★

Rutherford Falls is now streaming on Peacock.