TV TATTLE

Peacock's Rutherford Falls is ambitious, but it would be better without the same old Michael Schur-style protagonist

  • The Peacock comedy Schur co-created with Sierra Teller Ornelas and Ed Helms "has all the makings of a typical Michael Schur sitcom: a catchy little jingle of a theme song, with mirrored musical interludes sprinkled into the story; topical pop culture references; an endearing slew of quirky characters; workplace banter," says Fletcher Peters. Rutherford Falls, he says, features unsuspecting, nuanced discussions on the once-fraught subjects. "Any show, movie, book—in fact, anything in general—that deems itself worthy enough to enter the discourse surrounding the internet and cancel culture is ambitious, point-blank," says Peters. "Rest assured, Rutherford Falls hosts some of the better discussions, willing to create nuanced relationships before it rushes to label any of its characters as downright horrible people (or, for that matter, icons who can do no wrong). Each person is treated as fallible as they are lovable, a sure sign that the series won’t age horribly. Nathan, whose wrongfully-proud energy and stupidity are suited to make him the antagonist of the show, balances his idiocy with kindness. He just cares a little too much about his family, that’s all. It’s a little bit like Jason Sudeikis’s Ted Lasso, an overly-ambitious character that should irritate us with peppy optimism. There are enough motivations and side stories woven into the narrative to justify a discussion about cancel culture because the arguments feel whole, rather than just fragmented bites of snark. While Rutherford Falls does, perhaps, take a step forward in this sense, it still employs the same protagonist Schur’s been using for the last decade. Headstrong, stubborn, but still smooth enough around the edges to be likable, Nathan Rutherford is almost eerily similar to his predecessors, like Michael Scott of The Office, Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation, Jake Peralta of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Eleanor Shellstrop of The Good Place. It’s starting to get old. Perhaps the next sitcom in the Schur-iverse will be a show jam-packed with these protagonists, all trying to talk over each other in a race to reach their oddball ambitions first. For now, each is like a cookie-cutter-shaped treat of sugary whimsy—but, at this point, they’re too stale to stomach. Who wants to nosh on the same saccharine carb over, and over, and over again?"

    ALSO:

    • With warm and witty humor, Rutherford Falls fits right into the Mike Schur TV universe like a glove: "Rutherford Falls integrates Native culture with character-driven, funny stories that share the vibe of previous Schur offerings like The Office, Parks And Recreation, The Good Place, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine," says Saloni Gajjar. "It invokes the same fun pairings and dynamics among its protagonists, but is distinguished by a sincere attempt to depict previously untold narratives without falling into a trap of stereotypes, bolstered by its off-camera representation as well as breakout performer Jana Schmieding and the talented Michael Greyeyes. The show subtly but effectively uses ironic humor and jokes to bring the bias against a marginalized community to the forefront, so it’s hard-hitting without being forced. This is evident right from the pilot, which shows the heritage museum honoring the town’s white ancestors, run by Nathan Rutherford (Helms), thriving while the cultural center dedicated to the native Minishonka tribe, run by Nathan’s best friend Reagan Wells (Schmieding), is barely afloat. The two maintain their bond despite a commitment to contrasting causes."
    • Rutherford Falls has an Ed Helms problem: "Really, there could be a whole discussion of why Rutherford Falls chooses to make the white male with the star — beyond the standard reason of name recognition," says Kristen Lopez. "The series works far better than it should because of everyone else other than Helms, a showcase for the fantastic work being done by Schmieding and Michael Greyeyes as Terry Thomas. Schmieding’s Reagan should be the star of the series. Outside of the historical premise more adversely affecting the Natives in general, we see the series explore the different ways to be a Native person." Lopez adds: "Helms is good, but he’s played this character before: a standard Nice Guy who isn’t sold as villainous, just highly ignorant. The moments where Nathan is offensive, especially to the Native population around him, are played off as 'look at how dumb he is,' as opposed to being grossly offensive. Meanwhile, the audience learns Nathan is a wealthy son of privilege, with an entire conglomerate boasting the Rutherford name behind him that he has no problem sicc-ing on Terry when the Natives sue Rutherford."
    • Rutherford Falls is as frustrating as it is promising: "This is all surprisingly topical for a sitcom pilot from Michael Schur, the Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place mastermind who created Rutherford Falls alongside Helms and showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas," says Judy Berman. "While they’re timely in their own, mostly subtextual ways, Schur’s beloved comedies have rarely ripped from the headlines. And while he consistently hires diverse casts, the characters they play rarely seem too concerned with identity politics. All of which makes this show, despite the gentle tone it shares with his other work, a considerable departure from Schur’s comfort zone. The equally promising and frustrating result, which debuts on Peacock April 22, bears evidence of some significant growing pains, combining ambitious, intriguing ideas and slow, overly delicate storytelling."
    • Rutherford Falls’ biggest pitfall is its saggy pacing — the pilot, which runs a (rather unfunny) half-hour, feels twice as long: "There’s also both too much and not enough table-setting in these early installments," says Inkoo Kang. "In a misguided attempt at historic preservation, Nathan is determined to fight the mayor’s intentions to move a statue of one of his forefathers so it no longer stands in the middle of the street where drivers keep crashing into it. Nathan is positioned for a clash with his bestie Reagan, who is taken under the wing of her scheming casino-manager boss, Terry (Michael Greyeyes, a highlight), who’s been lying in wait for the right moment to go after the Rutherford family. But other than their dedication to their respective ancestors’ legacies, it’s not really clear why the overconfident Nathan and the mousy Reagan are friends at all — her amusingly snide coworkers (Julia Jones and Bobby Wilson, both hilarious) compare them to Tony Stark and Hawkeye. And because it’s hard to get invested in the show's central friendship, the seemingly imminent rift between them is robbed of its urgency. Diversity in storytelling isn’t just about new faces; it can also lead to fresh perspectives, novel stakes and unconventional characters. That’s the promise — but not yet the reality — of Rutherford Falls, which offers a portrait of a Native community, with all the heterogeneity that entails."
    • 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," says Jen Chaney. "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."
    • Rutherford Falls faces a central hurdle: Are we supposed to side at all with Nathan Rutherford?: "He's a classic Ed Helms man-child type: Overly enthusiastic in a way that borders on purposefully annoying, and in this case, his main goal in life is to uphold the legacy of his white forebearers in a place where the indigenous population is just as, if not more, prominent," says Esther Zuckerman. "Within the first four episodes—those that were made available to critics—Nathan repeatedly finds out that his words can easily be twisted to sound, frankly, racist. Often, it's hard to imagine how Reagan has stayed friends with him for so long without fully telling him off. But Nathan exists in a weird middle ground of sitcom characters. He's not quite a Michael Scott-type, who wears down your defenses through his total idiocy and braggadocio. His cluelessness feels almost more insidious when you consider the circumstances."
    • Rutherford Falls takes a couple of episodes to find itself: "At first, the point of the show and the reasons we’re watching these particular characters are a bit hazy," says Matthew Gilbert. "There are many appealing elements in play, notably a breakout comic performance by Jana Schmieding, but little clear sense of what the larger theme is going to be. By episode three, though, the ironies become sharper, the characters have established their points of view, and I was eager for more...It takes a little time to reconcile goofy comedy with the more complex and loaded theme of a marginalized community trying to get its due. But Rutherford Falls is finding a way to make those opposites attract, cloaking its message about the true story of America in a lighthearted atmosphere."
    • In many ways, Rutherford Falls feels like a direct reaction to Schur’s Parks and Recreation

      Parks and Rec, says Caroline Framke, was "a pleasant comedy that often acknowledged the 'atrocities' its Midwestern town perpetrated against its Native American community in the past but never went so far as to let any Native American characters have storylines or appearances for more than a single episode at a time. In Parks and Recreation, enigmatic casino owner Ken Hotate (played by Jonathan Joss) would sporadically pop up to inconvenience some park project with his pesky reminders about how many Native Americans died at the site, but would inevitably get appeased by episode’s end with some quid pro quo. Terry, by deliberate contrast, is his show’s center of gravity, making everything bend his way by cunning calculation and sheer willpower. And yet Terry isn’t, technically, the main protagonist of Rutherford Falls.” 

    • The impact of Sierra Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo and Mexican-American writer, can be clearly seen in Rutherford Falls: "Schur's sitcoms are episodic plays about the inherent decency of regular folks, and his ensembles are culturally diverse quilts of disparate personalities who treat each other with mutual respect and appreciation of their differences," says Melanie McFarland. "Applying that framework to a tale of cultural reckoning on a microcosmic scale, and featuring a culture that is rarely rendered with complete complexity on TV, is a smart flip made distinctly effective because of Ornelas' handiwork. Her fingerprints are clearly visible — highlighted, certainly, by the work of the five other Native American writers on the show — in the complexity written into all of these characters. Through each of them Rutherford Falls mounts a substantial argument about privilege and whitewashed history obviously evinced by Helms' Nathan."
    • As satire, Rutherford Falls is gentle rather than lacerating: "Passing references to opioids and women’s shelters notwithstanding, Rutherford Falls is a TV town, superimposed on the collective memory that is the Universal Studios backlot," says Robert Lloyd. "By not turning people into talking points, Ornelas, Schur and Helms leave their characters free to become who they are in complicated ways, rather than what they are in obvious ones — to stand for themselves. Which is a political point, after all."
    • Ed Helms says Rutherford Falls is in response to a lot of what we were seeing around us over the last few years: "Why do people cling to historical narratives?" he says. "Are they accurate? And if inaccurate narratives are exposed, why are they then also fought for?"
    • Michael Schur recalls coming up with the initial Rutherford Falls idea with Ed Helms: "So Ed and I worked together on The Office and we’d always really liked each other and had one of those very vague, like, 'We should figure out (something to work on) some day' kind of conversations," he says. "One day we decided to actually do it. We ran into each other on the Universal lot and were like, 'Let’s sit down and start thinking.' We designed this character of a well-intentioned, good-hearted soul who just had this enormous blind spot about stories that we tell ourselves and stories that we learn in school. We kept talking about how, in our minds, America was uniquely terrible at grappling with its own story. We thought it’d be interesting to do a character study of a guy who is just very, very secure in a certain narrative about himself and his own family, which then can unravel. We started talking about there being a statue of his ancestor in the town where he lived — this is all pre-statue mania — and eventually what we realized is that if that was the story we were telling, about a guy who was deeply invested in this narrative of his family that stretched back to the Europeans arriving in America, that it would eventually collide with Native American history. So that’s when we were like, 'Okay, we need some help here.' Sierra had worked on Brooklyn Nine-Nine for a season and she had coincidentally developed a show with Ed. So we were like, 'Let’s talk to Sierra and see if she likes what we’re talking about and is interested in it.'"
    • How Sierra Teller Ornelas ended up co-creating Rutherford Falls and becoming its showrunner: Ed Helms and Michael Schur, she says, "had a half-formed idea. They’d developed the character of Nathan Rutherford based on the 'backfire effect,' that weird hiccup in human psychology where if you are given information that goes against a core belief of yours, even if it’s irrefutable, people will mostly not accept it — they will actually double down on their previous belief. It’s why we have anti-vaxxers, why people can’t let go of certain politicians. They wanted someone nonwhite to collaborate with them and pitched me what they had. They had one or two Native characters, and I said, 'What if there were 10?' I took my museum background and then pitched a bunch of different characters, and we were off to the races. I also wanted to have as many Native writers as we could get. When Mike asked how big the writing team should be, I said 10. He said five should be Native. That was great. When I first got into the business, my (writing sample) was a Native sitcom, and people said, 'This is great but it will never get made.' We were always being told there’s not enough talent or writers. It’s not true. We found more Native writers than we could staff and multiple actors for each role. It was an embarrassment of riches."
    • Teller Ornelas says depicting Native Americans "as just people feels revolutionary to me": "The idea that we get to be in a workplace comedy, or be parents and have kids and have problems with our teenage daughters – that type of storytelling has never really been afforded to us in a way that I am so excited to be able to show it now," she says. 

    TOPICS: Rutherford Falls, Peacock, Ed Helms, Michael Schur, Sierra Teller Ornelas, Native Americans and TV




  • More TV Tattle: