How Peacock’s Rutherford Falls challenges white privilege
In the new Peacock comedy Rutherford Falls (April 22), Ed Helms plays a man who grew up idolizing his ancestors, but it just so happens his worldview is past its expiration date.
Co-created by Helms along with fellow The Office alum Michael Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas (Superstore), Rutherford Falls stars the Together Together actor as Nathan Rutherford, a descendant of a Northeast town's founder who throws a fit when his family legacy is challenged. The bronze statue of the town's namesake "Big Larry" is set to be moved, not just because one too many cars are crashing into it, but the shadow it casts over the neighboring fictional Minishonka Nation is tainted at best.
"The show is in response to a lot of what we were seeing around us over the last few years," Helms tells EW. "Why do people cling to historical narratives? Are they accurate? And if inaccurate narratives are exposed, why are they then also fought for?"
The tide change rocks Rutherford, so he turns to every lifeline he has, including longtime best friend and Minishonka tribe member Reagan Wells (played by Jana Schmieding). While initially on his side, Wells has long had dreams of helping the Minishonka gain more visibility. She works at the cultural center inside Rolling Thunder Casino and is trying to convince its prudent owner Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes) that they need more resources to highlight their artistic contributions. While her fight is two master's degrees and countless part-time jobs in the making, Rutherford's started two seconds ago.
"There's a privilege that gets afforded to certain people where they don't have to ask hard questions," Ornelas says. "I think you can be incredibly close with people, but you saw this happening constantly in America, where you don't really connect the dots between these larger societal conversations with the people who are actually around you. And as a way to survive the day, we tend to compartmentalize."
Schur and Helms started talking in 2017 about reuniting for a TV series. Once they had their idea in place, Ornelas — a member of the Navajo nation — signed on and recruited a writing staff of five Natives (including herself and Schmieding) to accurately represent the variety of Native experiences, including the dynamic between small-town USA and the marginalized groups that have had their history erased by people in positions of power. "There are stereotypes that Native people are just exhausted by on a daily basis, that most white people aren't even aware that it's happening," Ornelas says. "The more we can absorb that and run toward the fact that this [conversation] is going to be messy, I think the better off we'll be."
Rutherford is going to have to face the music at some point, no matter how hard he tries to avoid the inevitable. "Nathan is a character that probably has some holes in his life, in his emotional makeup, and he fills those holes with what he thinks are stories that give him value and meaning in the world," Helms explains.
The two prevailing histories of Rutherford Falls clash and so do the show's two leads in the process. As is happening in many places in real life, Helms says there will be a "reckoning in their friendship" on the horizon.
Rutherford Falls debuts Thursday on Peacock.
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