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The Rutherford Falls paradox: Did the first Native American sitcom need to have Ed Helms as lead?

  • "In one sense, there has never been a show like Rutherford Falls before," says Nick Martin, who is Native American. "Streaming on NBC’s service Peacock, Rutherford Falls is focused on the fictional titular northeastern town and the also-fictional Minishonka Nation. Brought to life by Parks and Rec and The Good Place creator Michael Schur, The Office star Ed Helms, and Navajo showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas, the series features the first-ever Native-majority writing staff on a big-studio comedy series. Not only that, but half of the cast consists of Native actors playing Minishonka citizens, and the season’s best episodes are directed by Native directors. In another sense, however, there is a lot that is familiar about the show, which follows Helms’s character, Nathan Rutherford, a descendant of the town’s founder and the self-appointed champion of a statue that stands at the center of both Rutherford Falls and the town’s original treaty with the Minishonka Nation." Martin adds: "But there is a deeper familiarity that ends up preventing the show from being the best version of itself. I want to be precise in what I write here, because I very much admire and am inspired by the Native showrunner, writers, actors, and crew behind this show. Jana Schmieding shines in every scene as Reagan—a brief shot of her in the second episode calling the winning number of a bingo card is so full of joy that it’s impossible not to give a full-on toothy grin in response. Greyeyes is great, too: Every cocked eyebrow, eye roll, nod, squint, and incredulous stare feels natural and punctuating. Everyone involved understands the assignment, and they manage to deliver so many beautiful expressions of Native humor out of otherwise heavy material. And so it is disappointing that these pockets of genuine greatness are relegated to playing second fiddle to the show’s white perspective. From the moment Ed Helms’s face fills the frame in the first episode, I understood that I would be watching a show about the removal of a colonizer’s statue through the two eyeballs through which we as a nation have perceived almost every significant historical event. It’s the Nathan Rutherford story that pokes its head up time and again to remind you that, while Rutherford Falls is assuredly progress, it is not quite the answer. Like Schur’s past work, Rutherford Falls never engages directly with our modern political atmosphere, instead crafting a Parks-like universe in which partisan divisions are never spoken of and people by and large can agree to disagree. I’ve spent many working hours watching citizens step up to microphones to address calls to remove Confederate statues, replace Native sports mascots, and update anti-Indigenous school curriculums. Likewise, I’ve covered quite a few lawsuits brought by tribal nations seeking to uphold their treaty, land, and water rights. There is emotional drama and satirical humor to be wrought out of what can otherwise be incredibly life-draining affairs. But forming an entire show around the Good White Man who just really loves his family history and expecting a Native audience to truly engage with and care about his journey of understanding the ills of colonization, capitalism, and blood quantum almost undermines the idea of having a Native-majority writing room." The paradox of Rutherford Falls, Martin adds, is that the show wouldn't exist without big names like Helms and Schur. "You can apply this paradox to a number of other recent films and shows—Hostiles, Longmire, Wind River, among others—that recognize the need to tell Native narratives but whose financiers or creators insist that there must be a leading white character to ensure that white viewers will flock to the screen," says Martin. "But for a show like Rutherford Falls to reach its creative potential, and to subsequently find a broader audience, it would have to move the camera away from Helms and back over to its Minishonka cast and storylines."


    • Does Ed Helms' role as Rutherford Falls co-creator end up hurting the show?: "In the end, (Helms') 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," says Alison Herman. "And while (Michael) 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 co-lead, 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."
    • Co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas wanted to create Native American portrayals that were akin to Friday's lighthearted portrayal of Black Americans: “There is a bit of an expectation for us to present our sad stories on a platter for people,” she says, adding: “I have friends. I have good times. I have community. (I'm) not disregarding the hard times but (working) within those hard times.”
    • Jana Schmieding on playing a love interest on Rutherford Falls: "It was an interesting challenge for me," she says. "Women of size and fat women onscreen are not given any kind of autonomy, they’re not really given any character beyond 'funny' or 'clumsy.' And if we see them having love and romance onscreen, it is often because of some crazy event, like they got knocked out. In a lot of fat-justice circles, there’s discussion about how, basically, if a fat woman has love onscreen, it is because of a magical circumstance. A lot of those messages, I’ve internalized. I didn’t really realize until I was confronted with the role. I was like, 'Oh my God, I have to be rom-com-y,' an idea that I’ve kind of rejected for myself … In the lives of many, many people of size, romance is happening. This is just a fabrication of Hollywood, the predominant narrative that courses through Hollywood. In our lives, we snag, we get hotties! Like, we can, you know?"
    • Michael Greyeyes, known for his dramatic roles, compares Rutherford Falls to “stepping into a NASCAR race”: "People were flying and they knew what they were doing, and in comedy they were like fish to water. So I was like, I have to speed up. I’ve got to bring it," he says.

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