Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Peacock’s Rutherford Falls is a joyous, barrier-breaking addition to the Mike Schur TV universe

Jesse Leigh, Ed Helms, Dana L. Wilson, Jana Schmieding in Rutherford Falls
Jesse Leigh, Ed Helms, Dana L. Wilson, Jana Schmieding in Rutherford Falls
Photo: Colleen Hayes/Peacock
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With warm and witty humor, Rutherford Falls fits right into the Mike Schur TV universe like a glove. Co-created by Schur, Sierra Teller Ornelas, and (series star) Ed Helms, the Peacock comedy is set in a small Northeast town of the same name. While the show is mostly contained within Rutherford Falls, it broadens its real world scope with characters who veritably represent the Native American community. Ornelas, who is Navajo and Mexican American, is also the showrunner, while the writing team has a record number of Indigenous members. Their voices lend an honesty to the portrayal of Native American characters, who don’t otherwise have much real estate in small-screen comedies.

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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. 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.

Nathan picks a fight with the town’s mayor Deidre (Dana L. Wilson) and casino owner Terry Thomas (Greyeyes) when faced with the threat of removing a poorly located statue of Big Larry, a.k.a. Lawrence Rutherford, the town’s founder and his paternal ancestor. Nathan is so focused on preserving his family’s legacy that he often gets swept away by his emotions instead of seeing the big picture. He isn’t cast in a negative light, but the show doesn’t shy away from his ignorance, especially in how he chooses to see his challenges as similar to the ones Reagan faces. Meanwhile, Reagan struggles to find her place in the world as she tries to keep the cultural center solvent and expand it into a full-fledged museum, seeking Terry’s help to do so. As the season evolves, so does Reagan’s self-assurance. This leads to interesting internal clashes, especially as she reconnects more with her roots with Terry’s help, while the suave casino owner gains momentum against Nathan in his fight to seek equality for his tribe.

Like most Schur TV comedies, Rutherford Falls is anchored by a laudable group of actors. Comedy vet Helms brings his confident energy to the role, and meets his match in co-star and relative newcomer Schmieding, who balances his rigor with a down-to-earth and equally captivating performance. Dustin Milligan, Schitt’s Creek’s Ted, plays another endearing character: Reporter Josh Cogan, who arrives in Rutherford Falls to investigate what he believes will be a big story related to Nathan’s powerful family and the town’s Indian reservation (he’s not wrong). And Jesse Leigh as Nathan’s devoted assistant Bobbie Yang is delightful and sardonic.

Greyeyes solidifies the ensemble. The strong fourth episode, “Terry Thomas,” unravels both Terry’s backstory and his agenda to restore glory for his beloved tribe. Greyeyes has recently appeared in noteworthy projects like Fear The Walking Dead, True Detective, and I Know This Much Is True, but in Rutherford Falls he gets to flesh out his comedic side while bringing in the deeper aspects of his previous dramatic roles. The powerful “Terry Thomas” episode helps hone the power of not just his character but also that of a show like this one.

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Rutherford Falls is a lighthearted comedy, but in giving a voice to Indigenous people, it also break barriers. The show smartly poses this reality under layers of well-written humor and situations to make it entertaining while keeping its message intact. There are a few chaotic moments (including an appearance by Paul F. Tompkins) that seem rushed, but the show finds its footing pretty quickly. Plus, it’s just a ton of fun. The series has a vibrant, heartwarming spirit—captured in its animated opening credits—akin to Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso. It might have grabbed more eyeballs on primetime NBC as opposed to the company’s lesser-known streaming platform Peacock, but the show is worth getting a new subscription service anyway. It’s a promising new addition to the “Schurverse” while being comforting and distinctive on its own.

Staff Writer (TV)