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Why Is Ed Helms Leading the First Native Sitcom?

“Rutherford Falls” could have been a great show—except for one small problem.

Colleen Hayes/Peacock/NBCU/Getty
Ed Helms as Nathan Rutherford

In one sense, there has never been a show like Rutherford Falls before. 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. His best friend, Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), is trying to find her way back into her community after leaving the Minishonka rez to chase her personal and professional dream of running a museum. Helping her on that mission, while working to accomplish his own ambitious goals to expand both Minishonka lands and his own company’s reach, is Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), the CEO of the Minishonka casino. In Reagan and Terry, in particular, it’s easy to see how the show is building upon—and improving—the relationship mold popularized by Parks center-left government enthusiast, Leslie Knope, and libertarian Ron Swanson.

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.

By the end of the fourth episode—in which Terry’s path to running the Minishonka casino is woven into the statue-removal storyline—it was hard not to think that the show had already made a foundational misstep. Nearly the entire half-hour is dedicated to letting Greyeyes dig into the crevices of the Terry character. Greyeyes delivers as both the media-savvy casino executive and the caring but overzealous father to his daughter Maya (Kiawentiio), with the episode filled out by flashbacks to his childhood as a lemonade-stand entrepreneur trying to make a buck in an unfair world. Navajo director Sydney Freeland, who helmed four of the 10 episodes, clearly knew how to get the most out of her time with Terry.

However, it’s quite annoying that the meat of what we learn about Terry’s motivations is delivered through a Q&A with patronizing white NPR reporter Josh Carter, played by Schitt’s Creek’s Dustin Mulligan. The know-it-all, parachute-reporter character is 100 percent accurate—read literally any major American publication’s Indian Country archives for proof. But it also feels as though the episode is torn between revealing Terry’s character and reminding its white audience that their preconceived notions about tribal nations and the casino industry are merely reflections of their own insecurities. Both are worthwhile efforts, but at the peak of an episode about understanding the man ostensibly set up as Nathan’s self-proclaimed “nemesis,” having that understanding framed by Terry putting an NPR reporter in his place softened the blow. It’s an example of the show feeling like it has to explain itself to white people when, truthfully, it doesn’t.

There are moments in the show when you can see the vision of the writers shining through. Nathan’s story leans heavily on his relationship with his brother, affectionately called Duz (Benjamin Koldyke). Their relationship throughout the season is extremely stunted and plays out in cheesy, forgettable scenes more than once. But—but!—there is a moment between the two in the ninth episode, as Nathan grapples with both losing the fight over the statue and finding out the truth about his own genetic ties to the Rutherford family, that lands as a decent, albeit veiled, attempt at exploring the emotional response to Hollywood’s legacy in furthering the public acceptance of ahistorical Native stereotypes.

Had Nathan been designed as a side character with a similar arc, and not the top-billing actor, then perhaps the moment could have had a big emotional payoff. But because it bears the weight of an entire season spent exploring Nathan’s identity, the scene, and the show, leave you imagining what could have been.

The reality is that Rutherford Falls, as an idea hatched by Schur and Helms, was always going to be limited by a white lens. Here is how Schur, speaking with the Nine Network in Australia, described the initial development of the show:

The show started when Ed Helms and I got together and we asked ourselves what’s interesting about the world right now, so we developed a character for him. We started designing a character that was a guy with a good heart who just has a blind spot about the narratives that have been fed to him about himself, his family, American history, and all that. He’s just been gobbling up these good, clean narratives and has been feasting on them his entire life, and I think what happens to a guy like that when those narratives get shaky, that’s a very relevant thing for our time.

And here is Teller Ornelas, speaking with The New York Times, explaining where she entered the picture:

They wanted someone nonwhite to collaborate with them and pitched me what they had. They had one or two Native characters, and I said, “What if there were 10?” I took my museum background and then pitched a bunch of different characters, and we were off to the races.

Teller Ornelas very clearly has the chops to run her own show, based on her own ideas and her past work. But because of the way the power dynamic has been formed in Hollywood to exclude and hamstring Native artists, she had to essentially duct-tape her wonderful idea of a Native anthology onto the preexisting (read: much whiter and much safer) framework that Schur and Helms had already developed. That’s how you get Rutherford Falls, a show that is so close to fully committing to its best parts yet demands that you watch and care about Nathan’s inner journey and Josh’s podcast.

This is the Nathan Rutherford paradox: With no Helms, there’s no Schur, and with no Schur, there’s no show. You can apply this paradox to a number of other recent films and showsHostiles, Longmire, Wind River, among othersthat 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. 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.

This is a show that could have focused on Reagan’s return to the rez and her desire to turn the cultural center into a museum; that could have developed a meatier storyline about Terry, his daughter Maya, and her unnamed, off-screen grandmother; that could have swapped out the Brooklyn-based white journalist with an intrepid tribal newspaper reporter; and that could have brought more of the the tribal council members, particularly Geraldine Keams’s Rayanne, into the main ensemble. Thread whatever narrative you want through 10 episodes of that—even a version of the statue lawsuit, if you like—and it would absolutely make for a better show, especially with this writing staff and Teller Ornelas at the helm.

I shelled out the five bucks for a few days of Peacock access because I wanted to see the first major American sitcom written by and featuring Native writers and actors. It was worth every penny. I laughed more than I have in a long time and found myself rewinding parts just to revel in how joyful some of these scenes are. And I recognize that it’s likely too greedy of me to ask for the first Native-run major network sitcom to hit all the marks and subvert the structural forces an entire industry has spent years perfecting. But if this show, cast, and writing staff have proved anything with the work they produced on Rutherford Falls’ first season, it’s that dreams like that are well worth having and fighting for, because the talent and the desire are clearly there. All we need now is for more of the people who matter to realize that and step out of the way.