The story of a small town honoring its dead white ancestors with a statue that, later on, causes problems has been news fodder for the last few years. But the premise of the new Peacock series “Rutherford Falls,” is: What if that was funny? And while there certainly is entertainment to be mined from the series, it’s not in regard to its central protagonist.
“Rutherford Falls” is about the town of the same name, and its biggest cheerleader Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms). Nathan runs the town’s historical museum, where he documents the exploits of his ancestors that includes harmless pursuits like exterminating a rampant possum population and making a peaceful treaty with the local Native tribe, the Minishonka.
But when the massive statues of Nathan’s ancestor, dubbed “Big Larry,” causes traffic jams because it is in the middle of the road, it’s an opportunity for Nathan to establish some goodwill by moving it. Unfortunately, the lack of interest from the townsfolk causes Nathan to lose his cool and double down on keeping Big Larry where he is.
Nathan’s identity is so singlehandedly tied into the town that every conversation with him is like talking to someone from the 1800s, and yet Nathan’s responses to external plot forces are inconsistent. His brother’s reveal that he’s selling the family estate — and, gasp, not to anyone inside the family — forces Nathan to soul-search about why he’s overreacting. This introspection is rare; a later attempt to make nice with local casino owner Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes) sees Nathan present him with popcorn and fur coats because the original town treaty said corn and furs were acceptable peace offerings.
The series’ themes feel harder and more brittle than the lighthearted tone in which they are presented. Nathan’s closest friend is Reagan (Jana Schmieding), a Native woman who runs the town’s cultural heritage center (located in the heart of the casino). Reagan tries to be Nathan’s voice of reason, in addition to providing him insight into Native issues — but too often Nathan’s journey takes him away from her and into other white or business-related spaces where he isn’t actually learning anything. There are too many moments where Reagan has to remind him that the things he’s dealing with are often how she feels every day of her existence.
Really, there could be a whole discussion of why “Rutherford Falls” chooses to make the white male with the star — beyond the standard reason of name recognition. The series works far better than it should because of everyone else other than Helms, a showcase for the fantastic work being done by Schmieding and Michael Greyeyes as Terry Thomas. Schmieding’s Reagan should be the star of the series. Outside of the historical premise more adversely affecting the Natives in general, we see the series explore the different ways to be a Native person.
For Reagan, she’s trying to find herself. She has a degree in museum studies but is floundering at a cultural center that isn’t living up to the title. But, like Nathan, Reagan has her own selfishness to deal with: She believes the town dislikes her since she fled to attend Northwestern and doesn’t have the connection to her roots. But, really, it’s because she stood up her boyfriend the day before their wedding (and a lot of baskets were weaved ahead of time). These moments, where developments are presumed to be about race but then pivot, are so creative and funny that you wish the whole show was about Reagan’s journey.
This is also a standout role for Greyeyes as Terry Thomas, casino bigwig and instigator of a massive lawsuit against Nathan. His work opposite Schmieding is particularly inspired, as it’s a lesson in contrasts. Where Reagan is unfocused and still searching for purpose, Terry knows nothing else. In a flashback we see him as a little boy running a lemonade stand only to get screwed over by a shop owner who believes he’s doing the boy a favor. Terry, like Nathan, is similarly of a one-track mind but that’s more about being financially independent and inspiring that similar work ethic in his daughter.
Greyeyes’ rapport and the situations he encounters opposite Schmieding have far more weight and resonance to them because the series takes the time to explore the concept of what is representation. Is the “right” way to be a Native to chop wood for your neighbors, and find a way to make a profit off your talents? Or is it possible to create your own identity, even if that isn’t how your ancestors have done it? An NPR journalist, played by Dustin Milligan, visits Rutherford Falls in the hopes of capturing a story about who gets to tell stories and what happens when history becomes problematic, but its true impact is found when Terry makes an off-the-record monologue that is at the heart of the series.
Helms is good, but he’s played this character before: a standard Nice Guy who isn’t sold as villainous, just highly ignorant. The moments where Nathan is offensive, especially to the Native population around him, are played off as “look at how dumb he is,” as opposed to being grossly offensive. Meanwhile, the audience learns Nathan is a wealthy son of privilege, with an entire conglomerate boasting the Rutherford name behind him that he has no problem sicc-ing on Terry when the Natives sue Rutherford.
It’s unclear just where “Rutherford Falls” is going to go, whether it will play things safe with a “both sides now” mentality or not. For now, enjoy it as a showcase for why Schmieding and Greyeyes should be bigger stars.
“Rutherford Falls” is now available to stream on Peacock.