“What is the story of America?” asks a character on Rutherford Falls. “Is it a chronicle of innovation and achievement, or of oppression and greed? Is it about freedom or power? Who gets to write history? And once written, can it be changed?”
There’s a joke at the end of this monologue; the speaker is a self-important journalist who turns out to be lecturing his bored, jaded colleagues. But it’s also an accurate summary of the themes explored in Peacock’s latest original, the story of a New York town conflicted over how to commemorate and carry on its own legacy. Nothing says “sitcom” like a 10-episode meditation on history, power, and injustice!
TV comedy taking on politics is hardly new, of course. There’s the entire career of Norman Lear, plus newer examples like Superstore, the recently concluded workplace sitcom where Rutherford Falls cocreator Sierra Teller Ornelas once worked as a writer. What is novel is the show’s specific focus on Indigenous characters and their everyday experience. With Ornelas helming the writers’ room, Rutherford Falls is the first TV comedy to have a Native American showrunner, though it won’t be alone for long; this summer, FX will debut Reservation Dogs, a crime comedy cocreated by Taika Waititi and Native filmmaker Sterlin Harjo. (Ornelas is Navajo, and five of Rutherford Falls’ 10 writers are Native American.)
Rutherford Falls’ entry point into its larger interests is the friendship between Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), a scion of the family that gives the town its name, and his lifelong friend Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), a Native nerd who wastes no chance to remind us she went to Northwestern. Nathan and Reagan bond over their shared enthusiasm for preserving the past, though they espouse two very different perspectives on it. Nathan is obsessed with paying homage to his ancestors, who bought the land that became the town in what legend holds was a “fair and honest deal.” Reagan runs a cultural center dedicated to the other side of that deal: the fictional Minishonka tribe, who now operate the casino where the center occupies a fluorescent-lit side room. Lots of drunk, mostly white patrons assume it’s the gift shop.
The plot of Rutherford Falls is propelled by two interconnected conflicts. One is Nathan’s quest to preserve a statue of town founder Lawrence Rutherford; the other is a lawsuit brought by casino CEO Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes) against the Rutherford family seeking material damages for a deal that, however fair and honest in theory, was never fully honored. Statues and reparations each have a claim on the title of American politics’ most polarizing issue. Rutherford Falls tries to combine them into a sweet story of friendship and community, often succeeding a little too much for its own good.
Teller Ornelas developed the show with Helms and Mike Schur, the producer who’s made earnestness and intellect the unlikely cornerstones of his comedy. (Teller Ornelas also worked on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the police sitcom Schur cocreated with Parks and Rec alum Dan Goor.) The two men’s involvement explains much of Rutherford Falls’ approach. With The Good Place, Schur demonstrated his interest in turning knotty concepts like moral philosophy into surprisingly sweet ensemble stories. And Helms’s creative role indicates why Rutherford Falls not only opts to make Nathan the protagonist, but aims to keep him sympathetic—sometimes at the expense of its own story.
Yes, Nathan wants to keep a statue of his white, wealthy ancestor in place, no matter what the cost (mostly traffic accidents). But Rutherford Falls wants us to know this isn’t that kind of statue, and Nathan isn’t that kind of preservationist. He balks at a former mentor’s open racism; he readily admits some statues are monuments to genocidal bigots, but just thinks his town’s isn’t one of them. These choices seem calculated to keep Nathan on the right side of viewers’ good graces—oblivious, maybe, but not irredeemable. Stranded somewhere between ally and apologist, though, Nathan feels like more of a fantasy than anything on Game of Thrones. A late-season conversation is framed as the first time Nathan’s ever heard that the Minishonka don’t think of Lawrence as highly as he does. How is it possible for a man obsessed with history, who is best friends with a Minishonka historian, to learn this in middle age? Isn’t it more likely he’s already heard the opposite side of the story and decided to tune it out?
In the end, Nathan brings to mind Steve Carrell’s character in last summer’s Space Force: a main character the show never goes all in on satirizing, perhaps because the performer was instrumental in creating the show. And while Schur may be known for nice, he’s put unpleasant people in his shows before—then put in the work to make us like them anyway. The male lead of The Good Place was a demon whose life’s work was torture! Even surly libertarian Ron Swanson was allowed to be more abrasive in his clashes with Leslie Knope than Nathan ever gets with Reagan. Why not make Nathan exactly what he appears to be—a man whose family made a multibillion-dollar fortune off of stolen wealth and dedicated his life to denying that basic truth—and start his redemption story from there? That might be a hard sell for a colead, but as Rutherford Falls starts to build its ensemble, we learn there are plenty of other candidates for Nathan’s role as the show’s emotional center.
Take Terry, the casino head and Reagan’s de facto boss. A Machiavellian capitalist who’s resolved to beat the colonizers at their own game, Terry cuts an intimidating figure. But he’s not a villain—just something more complex, and interesting, than a hero. Terry is the show’s best asset by far, but he’s surrounded by other compelling figures: Reagan, who’s widely disliked after leaving her fiancé at the altar for a master’s degree in the Midwest; Deidre (Dana L. Wilson), the town’s first Black mayor, whose independence helps ensure that not all the show’s marginalized characters are always on the same side of its disputes; and Josh (Dustin Milligan), the smug Brooklyn journalist who becomes Reagan’s love interest. (It’s kind of nice to watch a man live out the rom-com cliché of a reporter sleeping with their subjects, ethics be damned.) Despite its protagonist problem, Rutherford Falls is too ambitious and intriguing to be entirely weighed down by its weak points.
Rutherford Falls is not especially dense with jokes, and many of its episodes run closer to a full half-hour than a brisk 22 minutes. That’s not necessarily a criticism. Instead, it suggests the Schur house style has evolved in an unexpected direction: the dramedy. This is a show that, in a recent interview with Teller Ornelas and Schur, could plausibly be compared to Exterminate All the Brutes, Raoul Peck’s searing docuseries partly based on An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Rutherford Falls scales its themes down to the size of a quaint small town and its municipal disputes; it doesn’t dilute their seriousness.
By spotlighting Native writers, directors, actors, and more, Rutherford Falls will rightly receive attention for its existence alone. Just as noteworthy as the show’s raw elements, however, are the questions it chooses to pose with them. The Good Place got into plenty of heady, hard questions, but it also had the luxury of abstraction in a magical afterlife. Rutherford Falls has to deal with the messy, flesh-and-blood reality of how people share resources, managing to up the difficulty even further from “NBC show about ethics.” How history gets enshrined as fact, and by whom, may not be an intuitive fit for a sitcom. It’s still a fascinating premise for a TV show, even one that hasn’t quite found its footing yet.