If You’re Not Watching ‘Rutherford Falls,’ You’re Missing Out


Art is often strongest when it holds a mirror up to our faces, forcing us to see ourselves in ways we were either too afraid or too oblivious to confront. The subtlety with which this mirror is consistently shining in our faces throughout the first season of Rutherford Falls, one of TV’s first Native sitcoms, is a testament to the show’s creators—Ed Helms, Mike Schur, and Sierra Teller Ornelas (the first Native showrunner of a television comedy)—and its writers’ ability to harness the nuance of the human experience.

It’s also just really funny. 

“I feel like Native people have always known that we’re funny,” Teller Ornelas tells me over the phone on the afternoon of the show’s premiere on Peacock. “This was just getting an opportunity for everyone else to see it.” 

Jana Schmieding, who was a writer on the show before auditioning for and landing the starring role opposite Helms, tells me over Zoom, “I’m just so filled with the feeling of bringing laughter to my community in the most fulfilling way. I love making audiences laugh. That’s like my spank bank.”

The show starts with a car crash—one of many, we learn—into a statue in the middle of the street. The statue is that of Lawrence Rutherford, or Big Larry, the patriarch of the Rutherford family that gave the town its name 400 years ago. It sits in the exact spot where the Rutherfords, in 1638, “brokered a uniquely fair and honest deal” with the Minishonka, the fictional Native tribe that was there first. Despite the statue’s being a proven safety hazard, Big Larry still stands where it is simply because “it’s always been there.” It’s the push to have it moved that starts a ripple effect in a town that has yet to come to terms with itself. 

At the center of the story are best friends Nathan Rutherford (Helms) and Reagan Wells (Schmieding). Nathan is the last remaining Rutherford in town, and we meet him at his best: giving a tour of his very precious Rutherford Falls Heritage Museum to school children with his baby-faced teen assistant, Bobbie Yang (Jesse Leigh, who provides a number of the show’s belly laughs), by his side. The pride Nathan has for his namesake is palpable, and he’s obsessed with preserving history accurately—right up until it clashes with his own deeply held belief system.

The hurdle for Nathan is pushback from the town’s mayor, Deidre Chisenhall (Dana L. Wilson, who has an uncanny ability to make facial expressions feel like dialogue). She sees him as a nuisance—a Rutherford figurehead and manbaby who just won’t budge when it comes to anything he sees as challenging his family legacy. After Chisenhall reminds Nathan that it’s not a great time for people who love statutes, Nathan opines, “Big Larry’s not one of those statutes.”


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