Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
I used to have an appetite for dark dystopian fantasies and tragic, brooding dramas, gritty depictions of our world populated by sardonic antiheroes and the moral ambiguity created by a really, really good villain.
Sometimes, this is still true. But other days, I’m just not up for it.
In light of “these unprecedented times,” I’ve come to depend on movies, books, and TV shows to lighten my mood rather than challenge it. One option is classic escapism, found in favorites like “Survivor” and “The West Wing.” Another genre I enjoy is one I call “sparkling garbage,” which includes an array of messy reality shows and teen dramas, from “Love Island” to “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Gossip Girl.” It may rot your brain, but it sure is fun.
But more and more, I’ve come to appreciate a genre my sister’s fiancé refers to as “cinnamon roll television”—shows that are just so aggressively delightful it’s impossible not to feel charmed by them. Long-standing examples include “The Great British Baking Show” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” but increasingly, newer sitcoms have been in the mix as well. Shows like “Schitt’s Creek,” “Ted Lasso,” and “Our Flag Means Death,” share the important qualities of being both profoundly funny and sincerely optimistic.
“Rutherford Falls,” which released its second season in June, is the latest to join the cinnamon roll pantheon. Co-created by Indigenous television writer Sierra Teller Ornelas (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Superstore”), Ed Holmes (“The Office”), and Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Good Place,”), “Rutherford Falls” isn’t just sweet and funny—it also has something to say. The show tells the story of a small town in upstate New York grappling with its history and identity. In doing so, the show’s writers raise and address a host of thorny and deeply relevant questions while still painting a genuinely hopeful outlook for the residents of their fictional town.
With a staff of five Indigenous writers out of 10 and a heavily Indigenous ensemble cast, “Rutherford Falls” sets an important standard for Native representation.
For centuries, Indigenous narratives and characters have been ignored, erased, or reduced to flattened stereotypes in supporting roles.
“I think it’s really difficult for Indians to break into mainstream media for a lot of complex reasons,” said Bobby Wilson, one of the writers and actors involved with “Rutherford Falls” in an interview with the Rural Assembly’s Everywhere Extra series.
Lack of access to writing and acting programs is one problem, according to Wilson. Another is the mainstream media’s reluctance to invest in and promote projects with Indigenous narratives.
“The people who control [network television] have been saying for decades that there is just no market for Indian stories,” Wilson said.
And historically, what Indigenous narratives do exist are often tragic and one-dimensional.
“Rutherford Falls” shatters these misconceptions.
Reviews for both seasons of the series have been overwhelmingly positive (both seasons have a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And according to Parrot Analytics, the show has 3.8 times more demand than the average show in the United States, and is more popular than 91.8% of comedies. Not only does the show’s success demonstrate a popular market for Indigenous narratives, but it also proves that Indigenous comedies can be critically and financially successful.
Small Towns with Something to Say
Set in a small town filled with big personalities, the show is primarily driven by the changing relationships the characters have with one another, and with their home.
The opening conflict of the show revolves around the placement of a statue depicting the founder of the fictional town, Lawrence Rutherford. Built in the middle of the street to commemorate the exact spot where Rutherford signed “a uniquely fair and honest treaty” with the (also fictional) Minishonka tribe, the statue—referred to as Big Larry—is a traffic hazard and constant source of consternation for the town’s residents. However, calls to have the statue removed come up against the tireless and single-minded advocacy of Nathan Rutherford (Ed Holmes), a descendant of Lawrence Rutherford who has dedicated his life to preserving and promoting his family’s legacy.
This dispute brings Nathan into conflict with his childhood best friend, Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), a Minishonka woman who is struggling to reconnect with her community and dreams of developing the tiny Minishonka cultural center into a real museum. Many other characters are involved in the ensuing mess, including Deirdre Chisenhall (Dana L. Wilson), the first Black woman to serve as the town’s mayor, Terry Tarbell (Michael Greyeyes), a Minishonka entrepreneur and community leader, and Bobby Yang (Jesse Leigh), a non-binary high school student who takes their role as Nathan’s assistant a little too seriously.
With the conflict over Big Larry as the backdrop, the show takes the opportunity to struggle with a number of complicated questions. Cultural appropriation, identity politics, cancel culture, tests of cultural and ideological purity, and historical revisionism are each addressed, as are the all-important themes of learning and growth. But although the show takes these issues seriously, it does so with wit, warmth, and wicked humor.
With its balance of comedy, groundbreaking representation, and thoughtful recognition of many challenges currently facing the country, “Rutherford Falls” is one of the rare shows that makes me feel better about the world.
Seasons 1 and 2 of “Rutherford Falls are available for streaming on Peacock. Note: Peacock programming may also be available online or on your TV, at no additional charge, if you have an Xfinity TV or internet plan.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.