The most memorable moment of “Rutherford Falls” — featuring two characters sitting opposite each other and just talking with startling honesty — deviates sharply from the show’s established norm. Otherwise, the new comedy from Ed Helms, Sierra Teller Ornelas and uber-producer Michael Schur focuses on hapless heir Nathan Rutherford (Helms) trying to preserve his family legacy while his childhood best friend Reagan (Jana Schmieding, also a writer) works to do the same for her tribe — which, to say the least, has a complicated relationship to the Rutherfords who first “settled” the town years ago. In the first four episodes screened for critics, as the increasingly complicated plot takes over.
In the fourth episode, when “Rutherford Falls” gets laser-focused on making a specific point, and even deadly serious about it, it makes for a genuinely jarring scene — but also, in the absence of another distinct center, a welcome one.
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Terry (Michael Greyeyes), a wealthy Native American casino owner, sits in his office with Josh (Dustin Milligan), a white NPR reporter who smells a Great American Story — “a powder keg,” as he constantly puts it — in the tiny town of Rutherford Falls that could put his radio career on the map. As Terry gears up to sue one of the town’s most powerful entities, Josh wants to know why, not just because tribes have traditionally had so little success with such lawsuits but because he sees Terry’s focus on accruing money as antithetical to his tribe’s values. “Isn’t that what all capitalists say?” Josh asks, as Terry stares at him with unnerving calm. “Don’t you feel that by chasing the almighty dollar that you’re selling out your culture?”
Within an instant, Terry’s entire demeanor shifts, though he barely allows his face to move at all. He pauses, walks over to Josh’s tape recorded, and switches it off. His hospitable act dropped, Terry turns and delivers a stunner of a monologue about the lessons he’s had to learn about “the true American pastime — which is power,” the lengths he’ll go to in order to keep his, and how his tribe has been maligned and preserved over the years without help from anybody else. “I’ve had to learn to play this game through bare-knuckled necessity,” Terry concludes, “and while that might not make for a feel-good story, I won’t rest until my Nation gets every single thing that was taken from them.” And with that, he turns the recorder back on and shows a gob-smacked Josh out of his office with a practiced, patient smile.
It’s a remarkable scene, showcasing Greyeyes’ skill as a performer and the show’s singular perspective as a comedy run by a Native American (Orenelas) and boasting a writers room with several others. It’s not particularly funny, as the comedy otherwise tries to be, but it is, at least, gripping and specific in its own way. Here, four episodes in, “Rutherford Falls” finds itself something of a thesis statement of taking back the Native American narrative from white people — even the self-professed “liberal” ones who believe they mean well — and making Native American characters the heroes, villains and everything in between of their own stories.
In many ways, “Rutherford Falls” feels like a direct reaction to something like Schur’s “Parks and Recreation,” a pleasant comedy that often acknowledged the “atrocities” its Midwestern town perpetrated against its Native American community in the past but never went so far as to let any Native American characters have storylines or appearances for more than a single episode at a time. In “Parks and Recreation,” enigmatic casino owner Ken Hotate (played by Jonathan Joss) would sporadically pop up to inconvenience some park project with his pesky reminders about how many Native Americans died at the site, but would inevitably get appeased by episode’s end with some quid pro quo. Terry, by deliberate contrast, is his show’s center of gravity, making everything bend his way by cunning calculation and sheer willpower.
And yet Terry isn’t, technically, the main protagonist of “Rutherford Falls.” In the show’s first few episodes, that role is split between Nathan and Reagan as they stumble towards their goals. Reagan, played with warm charm by Schmieding, is learning how to own her own voice and expertise without crumbling under pressure; Nathan, played with a tad more restraint than usual by Helms, has such a single-minded focus on making sure his very powerful family continues to get its due that he lacks many other defining characteristics. Despite being best friends, the two somehow rarely share the screen in these first few episodes. Instead, Nathan spends most of his time bumbling through life with his trusty assistant (Jesse Leigh) while Reagan reluctantly teams up with Terry even while flirting with Josh. Each character has their moments, but Nathan in particular seems at sea to the point that I started wondering why he’s a series regular at all, beyond the fact of Helms playing him.
There is the possibility that, once the show gets through some of the cumbersome plot obstacles it throws in its own way, “Rutherford Falls” will settle into a more recognizable groove later in the season, as many new comedies tend to do. Given just the first four episodes, however, it’s hard to imagine exactly what that might look like given their diffuse approach to the material. If that striking Terry scene proves as pivotal as it feels in the moment, “Rutherford Falls” will at least become a fascinating rebuke to stereotypes past that could make it worth the while.
The entire first season of “Rutherford Falls” premieres April 22 on Peacock.
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