Feature

Rutherford Falls warrants a Peacock subscription

A big-hearted comedy with a fresh point of view

Yes, the rumors are true: Peacock is "a platform that does exist!" It's worth confirming — using the words of showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas — because if the streamer was off your radar before, its newest show, Rutherford Falls, absolutely shouldn't be.

If you've heard of Rutherford Falls already, it's likely for one of two reasons: That it's "one of TV's first Native American sitcoms" as well as the "first television comedy with a Native American showrunner" (that would be co-creator Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo and Mexican-American), or that it's the latest installment of the Mike Schur TV universe (that being the prolific creator and producer of The Office, Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine). If neither of those pitches speaks to you, let me offer a third: It's a clever, heartwarming TV show, and well worth figuring out how to sign up for Peacock in order to watch.

A half-hour sitcom set in a fictional New York town of the same name, Rutherford Falls centers on Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms, formerly of The Office), who proudly maintains the legacy of his ancestor, the town's problematic founder, Lawrence Rutherford. Nathan's unlikely best friend is Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), who has been considerably less successful in her own efforts to promote the history of the (also fictional) Minishonka Nation, whose reservation is adjacent to the town and to which she belongs. Though the pilot focuses on Nathan's attempts to thwart the mayor's plan to remove the statue of "Big Larry" — "Nathan, if you haven't noticed, this isn't a great time for people who love statues," the mayor points out — the show considerably broadens beyond topical wokeness in the four episodes that were made available for critics (all 10 episodes of Rutherford Falls will be available to paying Peacock subscribers on Thursday; free users will be able to watch the first three episodes).

Of particular note is the character Terry Thomas (an unmissable Michael Greyeyes), who owns the casino on the Minishonka reservation and is also Reagan's employer. Though he's initially set up by the series as the cunning villain, out to rain on Nathan's well-intentioned-nice-guy parade, his character is far more complex than the exaggerated stereotypes that populate other popular sitcoms. The show also ribs just about everyone, from white liberal reporters ("this is a story about stories" a radio journalist pitches his editor, in a joke that might only be amusing to people who have spent too long in media) to conservative podcasters to Northwestern grads, to poking fun at Natives themselves.

Half of Rutherford Falls' 10-person writers room are Indigenous, and they pull from a rich — and frequently overlooked — history of Native American comedy. Teller Ornelas, a Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore alum, told comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff for his new book, We Had a Little Real Estate Problem, that the show has the biggest Native comedy writer team ever assembled for an American TV show. "When there's no other person who has any shared experiences with you — it's that much harder to bring your full self to a space," Teller Ornelas explained. "[So it] has been a truly wild experience to come to work every day and have no qualms about my jokes and … having people understand them."

The show is so much richer for it. The jokes don't always seem aimed, necessarily, at an assumed white audience: a punchline about Reagan's community looking down on her for snobbily walking her dog on a leash being one example. To quote Nesteroff, "obviously First Nations and Native American peoples should be in charge of their own stories without the interference of non-Native interpretation." Indian Country Today's critic, Vincent Schilling, wrote in his review that Rutherford Falls is "quite simply the best thing I have ever seen on television." He gave it his first-ever 11 out of 10.

Rutherford Falls' best feature of all, though, might be its big heart. I was reminded throughout of my experience watching Ted Lasso, one of the tenderest television shows I've ever seen; while Nathan is no Ted, there's a general feel-goodness that both shows share. It's not that Rutherford Falls pulls punches; it can be blistering when it needs to be, and the terrific fourth episode definitely has teeth. But Rutherford Falls' gentleness with its characters makes it an especially inviting binge.

This is great news for viewers. It's great news for Peacock, too, which, as of February, had as its biggest streaming hit a 12-year-old sitcom that's been off air for a year. But it might not be great news for Rutherford Falls itself, which would have been better served with marquee placement on NBC, rather than on its still-just-barely-recognizable streaming platform.

If there's any justice, though, viewers will seek it out anyway (or, you know, use their 7-day free trials to binge the first season). Maybe people will be attracted by the promise of representation, or by a showrunner they love. Maybe word will simply get out: There's this new show on this thing called 'Peacock.' And you're gonna love it.

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