Written by: Joe Lollo; student reporter
It’s no secret that Parks & Recreation is one of NBC’s best sitcoms, yet it’s hard to ignore the fictional town of Pawnee’s long, horrific history of violence against native tribes who lived on the land before the white settlers “claimed” it as theirs. Across seven seasons, this was often little more than aside-jokes to fill idle moments where the implications were worse than the actual content.
These jokes often felt like the writer’s wink to a white, primarily liberal audience, and the subject of the jokes were “allowed” to go by, unchallenged. Rutherford Falls, NBC’s new show, is that challenge, and it’s incredibly satisfying to watch.
The new show is streaming its 10-episode first season on Peacock, the first three episodes are free but a cable plan or Peacock subscription is needed for the rest. It comes from the minds of several familiar faces to NBC viewers: Parks & Rec co-creator and Brooklyn Nine-Nine creator Michael Schur, Office star Ed Helms (who also stars and serves as executive producer), and Superstore and Good Place writer Sierra Teller-Ornelas (who also directed an episode).
Like Parks & Rec, this show is the story of a small town with a complicated history, but unlike any other sitcom it leans into the history and makes comedy out of the extremely messy way it gets presented nowadays.
Helms stars as Nathan Rutherford, a descendant of the town’s namesake and a staunch advocate for his family history. He’s super into his heritage, living in his family’s colonial home and running a museum of early American history. He’s often at odds with local government, which is shown through the show’s opening as he demands the mayor to keep the statue of one of his ancestors despite its poor placement in the city center, and he’s equally at odds with the neighboring Minishonka Tribe, an Indigenous community that Rutherford Falls was imposed on.
Rutherford Falls builds on this conflict. Mayor Dierdre Chisenhall (Dana L. Wilson) has the next election on her mind, and believes that Nathan’s staunch support of keeping Rutherford “heritage” as the centerpiece of the town will screw up her campaign.
Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), the owner of the local casino, is advancing his people’s cause. Bobbie Yang (Jesse Leigh), a nonbinary high school student interning for Nathan, doesn’t know who to support because of their personal beliefs clashing with those she reports to.
And Josh Carter (Dustin Milligan), an NPR reporter from Chicago, is here to chronicle it all. In the middle of all of this is the show’s other protagonist, museum curator Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), a Minishonka woman caught between two worlds as Nathan’s best friend and an advocate for her people.
Similar to Michael Schur’s other sitcoms, Rutherford Falls is a comedy about very different people trying to work together and ultimately understanding one another better. It’s lighthearted even as it deals with heavy subject matter that it’s happy to let characters talk about without a punchline, although one often comes. In this, the show that it’s most like is actually Superstore, which co-creator Sierra Ornelas previously worked on.
That show also frequently examined the power dynamics of its setting while also adding several comedic moments. But Rutherford Falls stands out in that it’s unconcerned about whether viewers are in on its jokes, as they’re all rooted in the characters. Everybody on this show wants something to the point where they behave rashly or selfishly to make things worse.
Everyone is always a bit at odds with one another, whether Terry is trying to force his daughter to go into business the way he did (one joke involves Terry guessing how much they can get white people to pay for her beadwork), or Reagan’s joke-fueled tension with her friends who didn’t run off to college like she did, and never let her forget it. The show is at its best when it relishes the conflicts the writers set out.
The show is at its strongest when these conflicts involve Michael Greyeyes’ Terry. The actor is a comedic powerhouse and seems to just innately get every power dynamic in the scenes he’s in. Terry is laser-focused on using his business to reclaim Minishonka land stolen by settlers and is prickly towards Reagan for the way she straddles the fence between advocacy and integration, yet also supportive of her ambitions to do more for the Minishonka Nation. He’s a brilliantly written character, developed enough to be a straight-laced antagonist but wisely used in ways to make the show more interesting than it could have been without him.
Conversely, Rutherford Falls is at its weakest when it’s leery of conflict, with its slipperiest thread being Nathan Rutherford himself. Throughout the season, he learns that his family isn’t what he believed them to be, leading him to dig in further and become continually disassociated with them. Although arguably a good use of Helms’ talent (and yes, he does showcase his musical talent here and there in the season), he feels like an out-of-place Parks & Rec character, adjusted just a little bit to make him the main character.
This warped journey of self-actualization is made better, however, through his friendship with Reagan and their mutual support for each other’s museums. Helms and Schmieding (whose comedy podcast Woman of Size I would highly recommend) have wonderful chemistry with one another, which makes even the most mundane moments more fun than they could be at first. Parks & Rec has never done anything like that before.
Rutherford Falls can go home proud. It’s a series trying to do many ambitious and difficult things, wrestling primarily with the big question of whose stories should be told and whose should be ignored. There’s always something to gain: social capital, a sense of pride, the absolution of white guilt — all things that do nothing for the marginalized. Unpacking these ideas can tie even the most ethical people up in knots, and Rutherford Falls wrestles with them through its protagonists – Nathan and Reagan’s stories capture struggles that many people have had in the “post-racist” era, including the alienation from where they come from. This is all, however, a part of the joke: the show is clear-eyed about the game they’re playing, and it’s going to make sure its people get paid.