'Rutherford Falls' upends the narrative on Native American stories
Native Americans' stories in Hollywood are, more often than not, depicted as sad and monolithic. And while the stories of historical trauma inflicted upon our nation's first inhabitants serve a purpose, it seems a sea change may be afoot.
"Rutherford Falls," a half-hour series for NBC's Peacock streaming service, is one of a few Native narratives coming down the television pipeline (along with FX's "Reservation Dogs," NBC's "Sovereign" and Marvel Studios' rumored "Echo") that tells a different story about America's Indigenous peoples. The comedy follows two best friends - Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding) - who both have a loyalty and love for their heritage, but whose histories come head-to-head when a statue of Nathan's ancestor, their town's founder, needs to be removed.
The minds behind "Rutherford Falls" - co-creator Mike Schur ("The Office," "Parks and Recreation"), showrunner and co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas ("Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Superstore") and lead and co-creator Helms - wanted to take Native Americans out of the box in which they're so often put.
"We very intentionally wanted to tell a story that had Native joy," says Ornelas. "Diversity of Native perspectives was the big thing (in our writer's room)."
Helms and Schur, who first worked together on "The Office," decided to take their decades-long creative back-and-forth to the next level in 2016. They were interested in exploring the issues that they, as two White men, saw happening around them.
"In particular, all the ways people cling to historical narratives and derive so much identity from them," says Helms. "It's an endlessly fascinating question, right? What is history? Essentially, it's just stories that our culture tells itself. Especially at this time in American culture where identity is becoming inextricably linked to other facets of our personal histories - it just felt so precious and fascinating."
It was in this abstract place that Helms and Schur began to shape the idea of the main character, Nathan Rutherford: He is a good guy with blind spots; a small-town man who takes immense pride in his family's history without any objectivity or context for the legacy the Rutherfords built on the backs of the Minishonka, a tribe who settled in that area long before White Europeans arrived.
"This meant that the tension and the comedy of the story needed to relate to Native American people," says Schur. "And that's not really our story to tell."
Ornelas, who originally linked up with Schur on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and developed a pilot for Helms in 2017, is a seasoned TV writer and producer who was perfectly positioned to take the reins of "Rutherford Falls." For a room of 10 writers, Ornelas staffed five Natives, including herself (she has a Latin-Navajo background) and Schmieding (who is a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux tribe). Decisions about the show - from the beadwork to the artwork to wardrobe to choosing Red Lobster as a hangout spot - came directly from the writers' lives. Creating "authenticity" - a word that's problematic in its own right - was effectively baked in.
The staff "had very different views on certain issues and not just Native issues," says Ornelas. "It was so great to have those conversations (both in the room and) on the show. I have a lot of Native friends who have made films that depict trauma in really incredible ways (that are) moving and wonderful. I think that is what people assume they want to see from us, (but) I feel very reticent to present my trauma because there's so much of my life that has been joyous."
Adds Schur: "I wanted us to do a show where there's a scene where three Native people are hanging out and they're not talking about being Native, because that's what actual, legitimate representation is; it's the normal, boring, everyday stuff."
It was the same mundane stuff that Schmieding was wading through in late 2019, just before she was hired as a writer on the show. At 38, she was still trying to transition out of public education and into full-time standup comedy and TV writing. At the end of her rope with the Hollywood hustle, she made a pact with herself that if she didn't get staffed by spring of 2020, she was going to move back home with her parents.
"All of my writing samples featured a Native female lead," says Schmieding, whose parents and grandparents taught her that representation mattered, especially in the small Oregon town where they were one of only a few Native families. "I don't want to say that there was no interest in my samples, but I was worried that there was no market for Native roles. I was betting on my own identity and it wasn't working out until it was. Until Sierra."
Schmieding - who grew up loving to perform, went to the University of Oregon for theater arts and did the rounds on the New York City stand-up and sketch circuit - had no intention of acting on "Rutherford Falls." Without a trace of self-pity, she explains that she just didn't think that what she had going on was "marketable," motioning to her body.
But Schur is known for casting his writers, probably a holdover from his days on "Saturday Night Live" where the line between behind the scenes and on-screen is often nebulous. Writer Paul Lieberstein famously ended up as Toby on "The Office," and Schur himself played the fan-favorite Mose.
Schmieding thought that they'd given her the audition pages for Reagan Wells as a joke, giving it her best shot anyway. But Ornelas had her eye on Schmieding from the beginning, having followed her comedy for years. "She has this winning quality where you just cannot help but root for her," says Ornelas.
"Jana was the funniest," adds Schur. "That's what it came down to. I come from an ethos that has never failed once - whoever wins the audition gets the part."
As the entire team worked to bring this first-of-its-kind story to the small screen, Schmieding was able to focus her efforts not only behind the scenes, but on visibility in front of the camera, too. And while the story is built around the issues that come from a statue that needs to be moved from the center of town, she's quick to remind that - much like the real-world protests over historical monuments - that is simply the inciting incident.
"It becomes much more personal than whether or not we should take down a statue," says Schmieding. "What we're really seeing is how historical narratives manifest between a friendship, which is something that I experience all the time as a Native person. In what ways has my life been in service to or supporting other people's narratives about their life? And because people don't have that deep level of literacy about Native history, we often get trapped being in support of other people's dreams and visions. We don't have that autonomy, that sovereignty, to go to bat for our history and when we do, it doesn't get mainstream attention."
The point of "Rutherford Falls" is to challenge the thinking around history: Is there a right or wrong history? A good or bad one? What parts of it are relevant and to whom, and how do we explore all those gray areas? But no one from the series is looking to give a lecture or wag a finger.
"The best TV and movies and art is prescriptive in the sense that it doesn't just illustrate a problem, it gives you a path to work through or correct that problem," says Schur. "This is a comedy show and we want it to be funny first and foremost, always. (But we also want it to) feel like a prescription for how people can be better in their lives in any way."
Adds Schmieding: "These are complex narratives we're having with each other. People from different walks of life, different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, coexisting in solidarity, but also having real issues with each other about this stuff. That's real."
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"Rutherford Falls" (10 episodes) available for streaming on Peacock.