There’s no getting through the New England town of Rutherford Falls without dealing with its founder — figuratively or literally. A towering bronze statue of Lawrence Rutherford stands where he, his fellow English settlers and the fictional Native American Minishonka Nation brokered a deal in 1638, a fair deal for all, according to the history books. Never mind that said spot is now in the middle of a much-traveled street that, in the opening scene of the new Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls, practically lures an unsuspecting outsider into crashing into it. That’s just the way it’s always been and must always be.
Or at least that’s how the genial but dangerously blinkered Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), who runs the town’s history museum out of his stately family home, sees it. And why shouldn’t he? He wears his name proudly, even if the rest of the Rutherfords have packed up and moved on and he now plays only a ceremonial role in the massive corporation that bears the family name. It’s a version of the past that makes his people look good and allows him to live in a bubble in which the Rutherfords helped create a picturesque utopia that embodies the best of America. Over the course of the ten episodes of the show’s first season, one force after another will threaten to burst that bubble. Helms is, as usual, terrific playing a variation on a persona he’s played elsewhere: the endearing, buttoned up, but slightly clueless and sometimes worryingly misguided normie.
Co-created by Helms, Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place), and showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas (a writer for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore), Rutherford Falls is a charming and ambitious successor to its creators’ past work, a mix of winning characters, thematic heft, and pure silliness that quickly develops an identity of its own. The show repeatedly finds ways to mix commentary and comedy without letting the former overwhelm the latter. That alchemy is most executed best in the series’ fifth episode, in which a high school history fair becomes a hotbed of controversy over questions of representation as its participants’ problematic pasts come to light: Does an earnest video about the inequities faced by Native Americans deserve awards if it comes from a white teen? What about a white teen with a history of speaking in Jamaican patois while wearing dreads? And do judges who still enjoy Braveheart and Annie Hall really have a right to make this sort of call?
Rutherford Falls is compelling because it has elements of representation seldom found in the deepest waters of the television mainstream. Nathan’s lifelong friend Reagan (Jana Schmieding, a charming newcomer who nicely holds her own playing opposite Helms and other veterans) runs the Minishonka Cultural Center, which is more of a room, located off the main floor of the Running Thunder Casino,Television doesn’t have a great track record depicting Native American characters or hiring Native American talent. Sometimes even seeming steps forward can end up looking like steps in the wrong direction. (Star Trek: Voyager, for instance, broke new ground with the Native American character Chakotay then brought in an “expert” who falsely claimed Native ancestry to develop him.) Rutherford Falls can’t singlehandedly correct that but it can set a standard for the future. Teller Ornelas is Navajo and Mexican-American (and, like Reagan, has a background in museum work and funny stories to go with it). Five of the series’ ten writers are of Native descent, including Schmieding, who does double duty in the writers’ room.
Beyond numbers, Rutherford Falls’ Native American characters have complex inner lives and conflicting emotions and the Minishonka Nation as a place with its own specific references and not-always-fair rules. Reagan gets bullied and treated as a borderline outcast by her fellow casino workers. The scripts are filled with jokes about Young Guns II and jabs about false claims of attending the Standing Rock protests. And details that seem at first like easy jokes — like a teenager making beadwork emojis — get treated with nuance. The back half of the season gets consumed with wild plot twists that push Nathan to the breaking point. It works, but some of the best moments come when Rutherford Falls slows down and forgets about the overarching plot driving the series and just lets the characters hang out. The first season has to spend a lot of time setting up a rich world for the show to live in. Future seasons will likely benefit from the work done by this one.
That richness extends beyond its central duo. Casino boss Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes) is another great character, one of disarming complexity, however easy to read he seems at first. Terry likes money and knows how to earn it, as Running Thunder’s success attests. But where Reagan sees him as a crass capitalist, the series takes time to explore what made him the man he is, and reveal he has more going on beneath the surface than his easy smile and tough negotiating tactics would suggest. The fourth episode gives Greyeyes a terrific spotlight that finds both dignity and humor in the character, particularly in domestic moments in which his wife and daughter deflate his tough facade and endless drive. In the world of Rutherford Falls, everyone has someone to call them on their bullshit.
That extends to supporting characters like Josh (Schitt’s Creek’s Dustin Milligan), an idealistic but pretentious NPR reporter who sees a potential story in the town’s slow-simmering conflicts and Bobbie (Jesse Leigh), Nathan’s ambitious 16-year-old assistant. But it’s just as true of Reagan and Nathan, whose relationship forms the heart of the show and encapsulates its ambition to explore issues of history, identity, injustice, and privilege at the most personal level. The first episode establishes the tightness of their bond, but the season keeps threatening to fracture it as Reagan starts to see that what’s important to her and what’s important to Nathan don’t always align, and that her ambitions for herself and the cultural center mean she has roles to play other than supportive best friend. Her development, and other revelations best left unspoiled, force Nathan to consider life outside the bubble of tradition and certainty as the issue of whose history is more important plays out not as a clash of opposing forces but as an argument between friends who have to live together — and really can’t live without one another. In its story of a small town in crisis, Rutherford Falls finds, like all first-rate sitcoms, a pleasant but insistent way of talking about much bigger stories.