Land MineDid “Rutherford Falls” Need to Center a White Guy?

Jana Schmieding as Reagan Wells, left, and Ed Helms as Nathan Rutherford in Rutherford Falls (Photo credit: Colleen Hayes/Peacock)

Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) isn’t hard to recognize. As the fictional lead on Peacock’s new-ish show Rutherford Falls, he serves as something of a stand-in for the angry white men of America who, in recent years, have bemoaned the dismantling of their statues, the “rewriting” of their history, the retiring of their sports teams’ racist names and mascots—who have, in other words, witnessed the slow but sure slippage of their white-knuckle grip on cultural power. Except, the show insists, Nathan really is a good guy, or as show creator Michael Schur told the Nine Network in Australia, “a guy with a good heart.” He just has a weakness, Schur explains, “about the narratives that have been fed to him about himself, his family, American history, and all that.” He’s nice. He’s well-meaning. His lifelong best friend is a fat Native woman, Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding). He even has an unpaid, gender-nonconforming high-school intern named Bobbie Yang (Jesse Leigh), and he consistently uses their correct pronouns.

It’s as though the show is saying, Come on America, how bad could this man possibly be? Nathan and Reagan’s love of history has always united them—that is, until Reagan’s dream of opening a cultural center dedicated to the fictional Minishonka tribe begins inconveniencing Nathan’s existing museum, one dedicated to his family’s legacy. Suddenly, these two history nerds have to confront their competing narratives about the town—and confront each other in the process. On the surface, the show’s central theme is an investigation of how well-intentioned white folks fail—repeatedly and spectacularly—to acknowledge their history, and of what it takes to overcome their unacknowledged prejudices. In that way, it can feel at times like a project aimed at humanizing the knee-jerk reactions of mainstream white America to watching dearly held narratives crumble in the face of uglier facts. But the show also promises something new: When Navajo producer Sierra Teller Ornelas came on board as showrunner, she told Schur and Helms that they needed more Native actors. There were already one or two Native characters in the script, but, Ornelas proposed, “What if there were 10?”

Five of the show’s 10 writers are Native, including Schmieding, a former schoolteacher and a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux tribe. That number matters not only because of the historical lack of Native film and TV creators (Ornelas is the first Native American to helm a TV comedy), but because of the consistently terrible, harmfully stereotypical treatment of Native characters onscreen. “Hollywood has been brutal to Indigenous peoples since essentially the invention of cinema,” writes Simon Moya-Smith, citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and professor of new media, in a NBC News essay. Indeed, it has largely been white men who have drawn on rudimentary characterizations that are out of touch with contemporary Native life. As for casting these roles, it has been common practice to cast non-Native actors in the few Native roles that do get written—as recently as 2013, Moya-Smith points out, Johnny Depp was cast as Tonto in Disney’s The Lone Ranger.

So it’s not surprising that Rutherford Falls has been received with excitement, relief, and anticipation by many Native and non-Native people alike. “The first television comedy with a Native American showrunner,” the New York Times proclaimed. Indian Country Today lauded the writers room as “one of the largest Native writer’s rooms on TV.” Writing in the New Republic, Nick Martin emphasized that “half of the cast consists of Native actors playing Minishonka citizens, and the season’s best episodes are directed by Native directors.” And Moya-Smith called the show a glimmer of hope: “hope that the old white way of telling our tales is coming to an end.” The advances the show makes in bringing Native perspectives and narratives into the present day are undeniable, as are its humor and joy. The (perfectly diverse) town of Rutherford is next to the Minishonka reservation, whose casino is run by the proudly capitalist Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes). When Terry and Reagan attend a gaming conference, it’s impossible not to laugh at the suitcase Reagan has brought along exclusively for “swag.” The show succeeds at being funny throughout, despite moments of gravity. Some of the more serious plot points—like Reagan’s struggle to find her way back into the tribe’s good graces after ditching her fiancé and leaving town to pursue a Master’s degree—yield some of the funniest scenes, in the way that the things that are most difficult can also became a vehicle for comedy.

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For an Indigenous viewer, the frustrating part is recognizing Rutherford Falls as a show that centers male whiteness, as though it is only by proxy of Nathan Rutherford that a non-Native viewer might possibly come to understand and care about its larger Indigenous plotline. The show spends a lot of time building up the legacy of the Rutherford family, its members, and Nathan’s childhood, when what I wanted to know more about was Reagan’s family history. We get our strong, complex Indigenous woman character, but only as a side dish to the main course of a bland, white man. That said, the show’s writing makes clear that viewers are supposed to question the dynamic between Reagan and Nathan. “I’ve met the guy twice and both times you were pushing your thing aside to focus on him,” says Reagan’s love interest, NPR journalist Josh (Dustin Milligan), as he encourages her to stand up to Nathan and prioritize herself. Yet when the first season comes to a close, it’s Nathan that Josh chooses as the subject of his podcast: “A hapless rube representing a once revered Mayflower family fails to prevent his own demise.”

We get our strong, complex Indigenous woman character, but only as a side dish to the main course of a bland, white man.

Rutherford Falls is conciliatory, setting us up to believe and root for a possible resolution between Nathan and Reagan. As in Schur’s other sitcoms (The Good Place, Parks and Recreation), the show tackles moral and ethical divides, reassuring the viewer that people really want to do the right thing, even if their path is full of missteps. Nathan and Reagan can each get what they want: Their two versions of history can coexist. There’s just one inconveniencing reality—the land—which the show sets up spectacularly. Still, the story draws on a palatable narrative that has gained traction in the reckoning around race and history in the past year: America can still be the great country it promises, after we do the work of understanding the past atrocities that have occurred here. But Native people aren’t responsible for figuring out how to fix America. The process of the show’s creation hints at this outcome.

The idea began with Schur and Helms, and they later brought Ornelas on because, in her words, “they wanted someone nonwhite to collaborate with them.” But as Martin notes in his New Republic piece, more white institutions and individuals should get out of the way, instead of expecting Native creators to graft their ideas onto the already formed and safe narratives that white writers are spinning: Rutherford Falls, he writes, “was always going to be limited by a white lens.” It’s easy to see reflections of that dynamic in the show’s dialogue, as when Reagan finally convinces Terry, her boss, to have the casino foot the bill for her cultural center, and then promptly rethinks her strategy. “Should I have asked for more?” she asks Terry. “Would I have gotten more?” “Yes,” says Terry. Likewise, viewers don’t need Nathan to care about Reagan. The audience is ready; the talent is there. And the sight of more Native-led productions on the horizon proves not only that we can ask for more, but that we should.

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by Amanda Gokee
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Amanda Gokee is a writer living in Vermont. Her recent work has been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Atlas Obscura, and VTDigger, among others.