Rutherford Falls review: Ed Helms comedy is an ambitious tale of two Americas
One of the darkest, funniest running jokes on Parks & Recreation involved the wildly offensive murals at Pawnee City Hall. Several depicted atrocities aimed at the Wamapoke tribe, as when Chief Wamapo was sentenced to death for the crime of "being Indian." Pawnee, noted Leslie Knope with a sigh, definitely could have used a "better, less offensive history." But there should be no running from reality, and with Rutherford Falls, Parks co-creator Michael Schur builds an ambitious comedy series about the lingering tensions surrounding the story of America — as we tell it, and as it really was.
Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) loves his hometown of Rutherford Falls to an almost pathological degree. As a direct descendant of Lawrence Rutherford — the colonial settler who founded the burg through a treaty with the (fictional) Minishonka Nation in 1638 — Nathan has dedicated his life to preserving his ancestors' legacy. He spends his days giving tours of the Rutherford Falls Heritage Museum and generally serving as a town "mascot," as the mayor (Dana L. Wilson) notes with a smirk. His good friend Reagan (Jana Schmieding), part of the Minishonka Nation, has her own heritage museum of sorts — a meager one-room "Cultural Center" off the main floor of the Running Thunder Casino, which the tribe owns. (Sadly, most people mistake it for the gift shop.)
Though Nathan and Reagan have been friends since the fourth grade, they've apparently never really discussed this uncomfortable disparity in how Rutherford Falls honors its history. It's only when a dustup over moving a statue of Lawrence Rutherford (a.k.a. "Big Larry") puts Nathan at odds with the Minishonka Nation that something finally begins to dawn on him: Maybe the glorious tale of his ancestry isn't the whole story. As the conflict with the Minishonka — led by the casino's savvy, unflappable CEO Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes) —starts to snowball, Nathan and Reagan are launched into fraught personal journeys of cultural reconciliation.
Created by Schur, Helms, and Sierra Teller Ornelas (Superstore), Rutherford Falls has what Peacock calls "one of the largest Indigenous writers' rooms on television," with five Native writers on staff. Reagan describes the history of Indigenous people as "the greatest story never told," and Schur and company clearly understand that who gets to tell that story — in this sitcom or anywhere else — is critically important. That's why it feels a little disappointing that the show is built around a somewhat clueless, borderline-annoying white dude.
This isn't to say that Nathan is a bad guy. Rutherford Falls (premiering April 22 on Peacock) works hard to establish him as a kind, openhearted man of principle: He helps Reagan prepare her pitch to Terry about investing in an expanded Minishonka Cultural Center; his personal assistant is a non-binary high-school student named Bobbie (Jesse Leigh); he's a fan of Missy Elliott and Taika Waititi. Helms infuses his character with all the corny charm and peppy optimism that he can muster, but when it comes to his patriarchal ancestors and their history, Nathan is almost aggressively obtuse. It's not as if people haven't tried to point these things out to him before. "Our family also did some other shit that sucks," says his older brother Duz (stealth standout Ben Koldyke). "But you never even mention that."
Nor does Nathan give much thought to the optics of the other family business, Rutherford Inc. — described as "a huge conglomerate that makes everything from missile systems to wet wipes" — which uses an image of "Big Larry" as its corporate logo. It doesn't take a degree in cultural anthropology to see how Nathan's beloved statue also symbolizes the white American prosperity that was built on the backs of Native culture and land. (To be fair, Nathan holds only an "honorary, non-voting" seat on the Rutherford Inc. board.)
Michael Schur is a comedy guru that many viewers would follow anywhere, and several of his best series — including The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — blossomed into greatness after a wobbly start. Peacock made four of Rutherford's 10 episodes available for review, and wouldn't you know it? Episode four is incredible — fresh and vibrant and urgently original. It's also not really about Nathan.
In "Terry Thomas," we get the Minishonka power-player's origin story, from his entrepreneurial start selling "old-fashioned American lemonade" on the sidewalk to help supplement his family's income, to his current life as a devoted family man and CEO. The episode is structured around an interview Terry gives to Josh Carter (Dustin Milligan), an over-eager NPR reporter investigating the "Big Larry" dustup. Early in their conversation, Josh poses a question about whether running a casino is "complicated culturally" for the Minishonka nation. The pause before Terry answers is small but heavy, weighted with a generation's worth of disciplined resignation. "I drive a car, I have a microwave," he replies with a tight smile. "And I'm somehow able to live with myself and my cultural beliefs."
Over the course of the episode, Terry goes on to single-handedly dismantle Josh's whitewashed ideas of the Native experience, with civil but devastating precision. It's thrilling to watch, in part because Greyeyes is so charismatic and commanding, with a sublime deadpan style that can't disguise a gentle sweetness underneath. Though Terry isn't very interested in Reagan's Cultural Center, he does offer to help her rebuild her reputation in the Minishonka community, which she managed to offend a few years back. Greyeyes and Schmieding are delightful comic adversaries, and it's hard not to imagine what Rutherford Falls could be if they were the lead duo.
Of course, Helms is a well-known comedy star, and even a fledgling streamer like Peacock is likely going to cast its shows with a mass market in mind. And it's possible that the remaining episodes will shift the story even more in Terry's direction. "I won't rest until my Nation gets every single thing that was taken from them," he tells Josh. Sounds like at least a season's worth of story to me. Grade: B