Review: Rutherford Falls : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls, which follows a conflict over a historical statue in a small town, is notable for a few reasons, besides its timely topic. It's the latest project from Mike Schur and it marks Ed Helms' return to TV. But it also centers several Native American characters (played by Jana Schmieding and Michael Greyeyes), boasts what NBCUniversal claims is "one of the largest Indigenous writer's rooms on television," and is led by co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas, who is the first Native American showrunner of a television comedy.

'Rutherford Falls' Finds A Historic Mix Of Comedy And Representation

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The Peacock sitcom "Rutherford Falls," which is about a conflict over a historical statue in a small town, is notable for a few reasons besides its timely topic. Yes, it's the latest TV project from Mike Schur, whose previous shows include "The Office," "Parks and Rec" and "The Good Place." He's a co-creator. And, yes, it marks Ed Helms' return to TV, who's also a co-creator. But what really sets it apart is that it centers several Native American characters, that it boasts what NBC Universal claims is one of the largest Indigenous writers rooms and television and that its third co-creator, Sierra Teller Ornelas, is TV's first Native American showrunner. Also, not for nothing, the show's really good. I'm Glen Weldon, and we're talking about "Rutherford Falls" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELDON: Welcome back. Joining us from his home in Virginia Beach is Vincent Schilling. He's an associate editor at Indian Country Today. Welcome to the show, Vincent.

VINCENT SCHILLING: Hey. Thanks so much for having me - appreciate it.

WELDON: And joining us from Tahlequah, Okla., is writer and film critic Shea Vassar. Hey, Shea.

SHEA VASSAR: Osiyo. Thanks for having me.

WELDON: So here is what "Rutherford Falls" is about. Ed Helms plays Nathan Rutherford, the direct descendant of this small town's founder. Nathan's entire identity is wrapped up in his status as a Rutherford and specifically in a white-knuckle grip on the myth of the Rutherford family's history.

His best friend, Reagan, played by Jana Schmieding, who is also a writer on the show, is a member of the fictional Minishonka Nation, the indigenous people of the region. But she's working to get back in her community's good graces, having left to go to college after leaving a well-liked young man at the altar. She now runs an under-loved and underfunded cultural center inside the local casino. The casino owner, Terry, is played by Michael Greyeyes. He's a savvy businessman determined to do what's best for his people and make some money doing it. When Nathan learns of a plan to move the statue of his ancestor from the town square, his protest gets noticed by an NPR podcaster named Josh...

SCHILLING: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...Played by Dustin Milligan, who comes to town to report the story out. Shea, let me start with you, big-picture stuff first. What did you think of "Rutherford Falls"?

VASSAR: So the show is just something that - I wasn't ready for it to be as good as it is. I knew I was going to watch it and like it because of a certain amount of - you know, the characters and all of that. But I wasn't ready for how smart the humor is. And that was what really, really captured me. Like, I still am thinking about just how smart the jokes and the story arcs and the character arcs are. And so that's been the most impressive aspect to me.

SCHILLING: Oh, gosh, I agree with Shea. This is next-level, you know? I was blown away, absolutely blown away by how sneaky and unapologetic the humor is to Indian country because for so often, as - you know, I'm sure Shea can be right with me on this - is so often have to explain ourselves. We so often have to say, well, the reason I said this is because of this, you know? So, you know, our family - and so, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah. It's unapologetic and hilarious and fun, and it's inclusive in its storyline. It's just brilliant.

WELDON: Yeah, I agree. I was really impressed with this show. And I think we need to acknowledge that what this show's doing has a high degree of difficulty. It's kind of painting itself into a corner from the jump by making Nathan Rutherford, who is this egregiously privileged white guy whose defining characteristic, really, is how much he hates change and loves a statue in the year 2021 - to make that guy one of your two principal characters. In terms of liking that guy, that's an uphill battle. And they fight that battle, I think, very smartly by casting Ed Helms. I don't think there's a universe where that character works at all unless you imbue him with some of Helms' - I guess you'd call it kind of needy doofus energy.

SCHILLING: (Laughter).

WELDON: But they go out of their way to write Nathan as a really good friend to Reagan. He cares about her very deeply. And they make it very clear that Nathan is just plain wrong on this whole statue thing. And then they underscore it by giving him this trait that, whenever his character is challenged, he throws a tantrum. And in that tantrum, he says some wildly ignorant, selfish, thoughtful stuff. And he often says that stuff to Reagan, who bites her tongue. And that's the joke, right? The joke is, you know, she might say something like, seriously? You're saying this to me?

So in a weird way, the show expends so much effort, so much sweat working to make Nathan someone we want to spend time with that I didn't particularly. I mean, I think the show knows that. I think the audience's surrogate character isn't Nathan. And it isn't even Josh, who you'd think it would be because he is the outsider who comes to town to investigate. So we should be looking at this town through his eyes, but we're not. This show's heart and soul is Reagan. And I kept sitting there thinking, why is this not the Reagan and Terry show? And I think the reason for that is the most obvious and the most depressing one, which I guess is - probably wouldn't have gotten made without Helms.

VASSAR: I really - the first couple of episodes, I was wondering the same thing. I was like, why is this show that is breaking Indigenous barriers, you know, with the writing room, with Jana being a lead character - why are we focused on Nathan Rutherford? But I think that what is - again, going back to how smart "Rutherford Falls" is, the character arc of Nathan really comes through in the last couple of episodes. And we see a lot of parallels to the fight that he's having that Native people are constantly having to bring up in regards to our own histories. There is something there.

However, we also know that this is on a platform like Peacock. It's newer. It doesn't have a built-in audience. And if anything, its built-in audience assures other followers, right? So we're going to assume that they're white. And so the way that the show both thinks of its Native audience while also knowing that the built-in audience is not Native and it gives this opportunity to educate is really where I think "Rutherford Falls" is something special.

SCHILLING: You know, I know the world wants to believe that we are completely woke 24/7 and every single issue has been addressed and there's no such thing as the goofy wannabe ally who doesn't have any idea what they're talking about as much as their good intentions are. But those wannabe goofy allies are out there, and God love them, you know?

WELDON: (Laughter).

SCHILLING: This is a stepping stone and a platform that - Ed Helms and Mike Schur graciously and lovingly knew that this was a story that they wanted to tell about this guy, Nathan Rutherford, and the characters that were the Minishonka Nation. And they said, hey; in order for us to do this, we need to reach out to an executive producer that is Native. And that's exactly what they did.

I mean, like Shea said, I agree that this is a very good way of addressing this issue and bringing these topics to light. And the fact that Ed Helms and Mike Schur are such a big part of it is reality. Like it or not, there are a lot of Nathan Rutherfords out there right now, you know? And this is a real deal. And this is the people that we have to interact with and deal with to try and make changes who mean well but will turn right around and be like, you don't get it because you're all, you know, stupid, just like he did when people were talking about Big Larry, the statue.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUTHERFORD FALLS")

ED HELMS: (As Nathan Rutherford) Yeah, because you don't get it. You're not getting it, OK? A bunch of years ago, Lawrence Rutherford wrote and signed a legally binding agreement with the Minishonka. That's why this town exists. That's why all of you exist, OK? Lawrence Rutherford is our forefather. He's our Adam and Eve, our Tigris and Euphrates. And that statue, which sits on my family's land, commemorates all that he gave us.

WELDON: You both touched on this, but I want to drill down a little bit more. We talk on the show a lot about rep sweats, representation sweats - that feeling when you are a member of a marginalized community and then some big piece of culture comes along that centers itself on that community. You get this feeling of hope mixed with dread. So I feel it whenever a big queer-centered show or movie comes down the pike. And it's just this feeling of, like, you know, OK, you don't have to be everything to everyone, but please just don't suck. That's - we can't afford for you to suck.

VASSAR: (Laughter).

WELDON: So given how little Native media representation there is, a show like this comes along - did you both feel it? And how specifically do you think the show addressed those feelings? Shea, any thoughts?

VASSAR: It's very true that we - as Native nations in the so-called United States, we are not a monolith. There are currently over 570 federally recognized tribes, which means that there's over 570 different Native cultures. But what I think something like "Rutherford Falls" does is it shows where a lot of those cultures overlap. We're not all the same, but we do have a lot of similarities in our experiences and the way that we've been systematically erased and been forced to assimilate into a bigger culture. There's aspects of "Rutherford Falls" that really captures that. There's a great moment. It's, like, a three- to five-minute scene where they address the use of the word Indian.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUTHERFORD FALLS")

JOHNNY JAY LEE: (As Spencer Vanderslice) I actually took a few Indian classes in law school.

CARLA-RAE: (As Lorna Cook) I'd prefer you not say that word.

LEE: (As Spencer Vanderslice) What - Indian?

MICHAEL GREYEYES: (As Terry Thomas) Said it again.

LEE: (As Spencer Vanderslice) He just said federal Indian. No, no, but the actual term is literally federal Indian.

GREYEYES: (As Terry Thomas) Jess, are you taking the minutes? I'd love to get a record of how many times opposing counsel has said that word.

DEVERY JACOBS: (As Jess Wells) Yeah. So far, they've said it five times.

VASSAR: And they do it so well, and - who can use that word, why it's still used by Native communities. And that is something that I've heard, whether I'm in Oklahoma, whether I'm in New York, no matter where I'm at - is this idea of the word Indian because, you know, a good 30 years ago, that was the term that everyone used for us. And now it's become where, if I say the word Indian in front of someone who, again, is more like a Nathan Rutherford, they'll be like, that's not the proper term.

SCHILLING: (Laughter).

VASSAR: And I'm like, who are you to tell me? But OK. I'm not usually a fan of creating a fictional Native nation, but I think that because "Rutherford Falls" has that certain humor aspect, because it's using just enough satire, that it works to capture some of these really broad topics that, in Native communities, we're constantly having. Even the idea of, like, Reagan being someone who went away and then came back - that's a conversation that I've heard from not only my community but other Native communities because it's not as common for us to leave. Or, you know, there's the debate of urban versus rez. So it really touches on some of these nuanced things while also educating non-Native audiences. So I think it does a really good job at capturing that.

SCHILLING: As Native people, we are so often battling the difference between truth and generalization and stereotype, you know, of what is real and what is not real. And it's interesting that you said about not sucking because literally, you know, as this was coming up - "Rutherford Falls" - I thought to myself before I started watching, please don't suck.

WELDON: (Laughter).

SCHILLING: I'll be honest. I was admittedly terrified, you know, because here I am, you know, being built up on what this could be. You know, the very first thing, you know, that most of us notice in that big poster with Jana Schmieding and Ed Helms were these massively dangling earrings. And, you know, I bet we're all thinking, what artist did those earrings, you know, because as a Native person, I cannot tell you in my lifetime have I ever seen Native earrings in a upcoming television series poster or film that I can ever remember. It's almost as if there was, like, this ancient script hidden somewhere in the catacombs of some deep, dark tunnel that they pulled this because these are jokes that we've been telling forever, you know, and - but they tell it in a refreshing, wonderful way that's 2021. It's just brilliant. So, you know, I'm thrilled about it all.

WELDON: I want to talk about Michael Greyeyes, who plays Terry, for a second. I think he's the best part of the show.

SCHILLING: He's awesome.

WELDON: There is a relatively recent phenomenon with sitcoms that are on streaming sites. Anyone that has, like, an eight or 10-episode season, one episode turns the focus on a secondary character. And I'm all for that. I am especially all for it when it works as well as it does here with that one episode focused on Terry. We get background. We get backstory. Yes. But we also get this scene in Terry's office where he turns off Josh the NPR reporter's RadioShack recorder, who asks a well-intentioned but ignorant question. And Terry calmly turns off the recorder and goes from serving Josh these softball Pat answers to giving him a dressing down that has some real fire underneath it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUTHERFORD FALLS")

GREYEYES: (As Terry Thomas) And long after I'm dead, there will be Minishonka figuring out how to master the next endeavor because that's what we do, Josh, those of us who fight this battle. We do whatever we have to. I've had to learn to play this game through bare-knuckle necessity. And while it might not make for a feel-good story, I won't rest until my nation gets every single thing that was taken from them.

WELDON: The reason I think it stands out so much is because that should stop the show dead and come off as really didactic. But it doesn't because it's of a piece with the rest of the show.

VASSAR: That episode was really where I became less skeptical because, again, the first couple of episodes are focused on Nathan Rutherford. I was a little surprised that it took to the fourth episode for us to have an episode where it's just all focused on Terry. We see him first as a kid, and then we see him as a casino executive. I mean, this is a powerful and funny and loving guy, and we don't get a lot of characters like Terry on television and movies. And the fact that it's Michael Greyeyes, I mean, anyone in the Native community, like, knows who that is. And we're used to seeing him in more serious roles. So to see him in a role like Terry, where he's funny and loving, like, really attest to his talent.

But I think that monologue is kind of the thing that so many Native people, including myself, have just wanted to say to people, right? Everyone and their mom and their dad and their dogs, they all feel like they know what we as Native people need to do, you know? Oh, well, don't you guys have issues with alcohol? You know, the whole idea of casinos, that's a constant conversation in our communities. But the fact that Terry breaks it down for Josh and basically states that you have not been in our position. You do not know. And the only way that you do know is from books. You will never know what it's like to be a Native person. You don't know what we do with our money. You don't know the way that we have been oppressed and had to overcome that. So please don't speak out of place. And that is such a real experience. I know I've had to be in situations like that.

But we as Native individuals carry a certain burden, and we are just now in the self-determination era if you want to get federal Indian policy on everyone. But we are still fighting for that right to determine what we as Native people can do. And we're getting closer, and we're seeing more evidence of that. But it has been a long, long fight.

That monologue, that episode with Terry - that's where the show really shifts to be less about Nathan Rutherford and more about this tension in the Native characters and the Minishonka just in general. And it's a beautiful shift. It's done very well. The rest of the episodes are especially where it just starts building up and up and up. And we get more of just that meaty goodness that we've never seen in any kind of media before unless it's specifically, like - you know, we still talk about, like, "Smoke Signals" and stuff. But "Smoke Signals" came out how many years ago? So we were due for a "Rutherford Falls."

SCHILLING: Yeah. Yeah. Shea, thank you for what you just said. I literally got tears in my eyes from what you were saying because I feel that exact thing. And what she's talking about and what I will add to is, you know, when Michael Greyeyes, you know, as Terry Thomas starts speaking with Dustin Milligan and turns off the recorder and starts talking about the hidden rage that we as Native people feel, it's this unveiling of a new person. And when he's delivering this monologue about how, as a young kid, you know, he had a lemonade stand that was successful and was selling brownies and then the guy only gave him a couple bucks, you know, then seeing him pull out all these boxes of brownie mix and stuff, I'm just going, oh, my God, that's my life.

You know, I cannot tell you as associate editor of the largest Native news publication, you know, at - you and I, Shea, as journalists and what we do to climb this road of how many times things have been stolen from me literally. My content has straight out been stolen by production companies, media companies, you know, television shows. And there's nothing I can do about it - nothing - because I'm just some Native guy. So when he said this - Terry Thomas is saying this stuff, I was like, oh my God. I have never heard this on television in my life. For the first time, am I hearing the feeling that I have felt for 54 years of my life that I didn't even know existed as much as it did until this moment, even?

You know, so we bring this sense of years and years of genocide and things that are turned down against Native people for so, so long, and it's in a sitcom. And people think, well, can you talk about humor at the same time as talking about tragedy? Yes. Welcome to the world of being Native because that's what we do every day. I remember being probably about 8 years old, and the only Native person I knew of was Felipe Rose of the Village People. And I played the record in my room and sang and danced to it because I recognized, oh, an Indian. And there was one other one - the guy who cried at the litter.

VASSAR: Right.

SCHILLING: Who, by the way - you know, Iron Eyes Cody was Italian. But the thing is I never had anything like this as a kid. I cannot imagine what it's like being a young person today to see themselves on television. I mean, this is the reason why so many Native people feel unheard, unrepresented, unimportant. And people don't understand that because for the first time, Native kids are seeing themselves. Native elders are seeing themselves on television in a real, legitimate, respectful, hilarious way because Native people do not stand with their, you know, arms folded in front of them, being serious all damn day long. We are hilarious.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHILLING: So it's just awesome.

VASSAR: This is the content that is going to show we might be a small fraction of the population, but we are - as much suffering as that small population goes through, we are also thriving. There is so much good that is coming out of Indian country, out of these different Native communities. I've been fortunate to be in the capital of my tribe right now, and I just get to see some of the great just talent.

And something like "Rutherford Falls" - it really validates me as a Native person. Vincent was talking about, like, the representation he had. And I think as a Native woman, I grew up in the time of where "Pocahontas" was my representation. And then as an adult, learning the true story of what she went through and thinking of myself as a young Native girl who - that's what I thought Native women were like.

It's so opposite what we have with Jana in this show. And just, like, I want to be Reagan. And I read in an interview that they were trying to give Reagan and Terry, like, big auntie and big uncle energies. And it works so well because, like, that's my ultimate goal - is, like, to be an auntie. You know, aunties in our communities - they're fun. They're cool. But they're just the right amount fun and cool, you know? Like, and that's exactly how Reagan is. She likes to have fun. She wears cool clothes, but she's also kind of nerdy. And I love that because we haven't had someone like her.

A lot of the representation that we've had even in the last 20 years has been a misrepresentation. And I'm not saying "Rutherford Falls" is undoing all of that misrepresentation, but I am also so happy to see Native characters in the present day. And I think that's something that is so vital because there's still this misunderstanding that all Native people died, and that couldn't be further from the truth. Again, we're thriving. Our communities are thriving. Our youth are thriving. Our elders are the reason that our languages still exist.

The fact that "Rutherford Falls" shows characters doing regular things - drinking a beer, going to the museums, doing whatever they feel like because that's what we do; we're people - it'll show non-Native audiences we exist. But it'll validate Native communities in being like, yeah, I do exist, because we need more stuff like this where we're in modern day. We're messy, beautiful people. And that's what I think "Rutherford Falls" just gets so right. It's Native excellence at its finest.

WELDON: Wow. I mean, I'm hearing in both of your voices just the power of representation. This show is a long time coming. The power it has to see some version of yourself on screen - it can't be underestimated.

We want to know what you think about "Rutherford Falls." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. I want to - I'm sincere on this. I really want to thank you both for being here. This was a great conversation. I loved talking about this with you.

SCHILLING: Nyaweh for having us, Glen.

VASSAR: Yeah. Thanks again for having us. This was a great conversation.

WELDON: And, of course, thank you to listening for POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And if you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we will see you all tomorrow. We will be talking about the new Netflix film "The Mitchells Versus The Machines."

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