Rutherford Falls has all the makings of a typical Michael Schur sitcom: a catchy little jingle of a theme song, with mirrored musical interludes sprinkled into the story; topical pop culture references; an endearing slew of quirky characters; workplace banter. If you’ve even remotely enjoyed the comedies that have come before it (like Parks and Rec or Brooklyn Nine-Nine), you’re sure to enjoy Peacock’s latest addition to the bunch. The concept blends a traditional workplace comedy with deeper, more dramatic topics surrounding colonialism, Indigenous land, and, of course, “cancel culture”—all of which, when tossed around with clumsy humor, can land like a rotten egg on linoleum. Fortunately, with quick-witted writing and easy-going performances, Rutherford Falls opens unsuspecting, nuanced discussions on the once-fraught subjects.
Schur’s basis for the story is a little more divisive this time around: Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) leads the show as a descendant of Falls’ founders. There’s a statue (a very loaded topic in and of itself) smack dab in the center of town, depicting Big Larry, one of Nathan’s ancestors. While he admires it as he would a first-born child, devoting all of his attention to its preservation, the rest of the town is uncertain. For one thing, the hunk of slate blocks traffic. But more importantly, there’s some unease surrounding the true history of the town. Nathan dumbs down complex history at his museum, where he white-washes the town’s upbringing into a compact narrative: the Minishonka Tribe simply shared their land with white settlers like Big Larry. But that’s not the truth. That’s never the truth. Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding) attempts to establish a Minishonka Cultural Center as a foil to Nathan’s museum, but with little support from either the Native community or the town’s white people, the idea flounders in a corner of the local casino. And as much as she tries to steer her pal Nathan away from spewing problematic history, he still manages to flub at huge town gatherings and in public statements.
Any show, movie, book—in fact, anything in general—that deems itself worthy enough to enter the discourse surrounding the internet and cancel culture is ambitious, point-blank. Rest assured, Rutherford Falls hosts some of the better discussions, willing to create nuanced relationships before it rushes to label any of its characters as downright horrible people (or, for that matter, icons who can do no wrong). Each person is treated as fallible as they are lovable, a sure sign that the series won’t age horribly. Nathan, whose wrongfully-proud energy and stupidity are suited to make him the antagonist of the show, balances his idiocy with kindness. He just cares a little too much about his family, that’s all. It’s a little bit like Jason Sudeikis’s Ted Lasso, an overly-ambitious character that should irritate us with peppy optimism. There are enough motivations and side stories woven into the narrative to justify a discussion about cancel culture because the arguments feel whole, rather than just fragmented bites of snark.
While Rutherford Falls does, perhaps, take a step forward in this sense, it still employs the same protagonist Schur’s been using for the last decade. Headstrong, stubborn, but still smooth enough around the edges to be likable, Nathan Rutherford is almost eerily similar to his predecessors, like Michael Scott of The Office, Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation, Jake Peralta of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Eleanor Shellstrop of The Good Place. It’s starting to get old. Perhaps the next sitcom in the Schur-iverse will be a show jam-packed with these protagonists, all trying to talk over each other in a race to reach their oddball ambitions first. For now, each is like a cookie-cutter-shaped treat of sugary whimsy—but, at this point, they’re too stale to stomach. Who wants to nosh on the same saccharine carb over, and over, and over again?
Still, Helms does give it his all, and I’d be remiss not to mention how enjoyable his performance is. While he’s the definitive headstrong protagonist, he’s paired with Schur’s best second-in-command character to date: Jana Schmieding’s Reagan charms like none other in the show. Though one might expect these two to argue and bicker about Rutherford’s museum culture like two dogs tugging on the same rope, they share a much more nuanced friendship that serves as the backbone of the show. They speak to one another like real friends might, with occasional references to Taika Waititi and high school, a calm breath of that Northeast air in an on-screen relationship that could otherwise be too terse to swallow.
If Reagan and Nathan’s friendship is half of the reason to watch Rutherford Falls, let the sublime co-stars be the other half—again, what’s a Schur show without a killer ensemble? Terry Thomas, played by the incredible Michael Greyeyes, commands attention. He’s often serious about his work and his casino, which allows his humor to crescendo gracefully. Terry’s relationship with his two kids, as with his Casino, propel the show into fascinating discussions about work ethic and belonging. Then, there’s the buzzing Bobbie Yang (Jesse Leigh), Nathan’s high-energy personal assistant who, frankly, deserves more screen time. Hopefully, as the show progresses, they get a backstory of their own. A lot of other moving parts waltz in as well, promising a grand combustion of humor as they all come together.
While the hearty cast of characters and stellar writers (Rutherford features the largest Indigenous writing staff in television) have bolstered this show’s potential, one somewhat abstract aspect feels missing. With a show called Rutherford Falls, one might expect the setting itself (Rutherford Falls) to be of the utmost importance. It’s another aspect common in these Schur shows: spots like Pawnee, Scranton, or even the not-so-Golden-Arches of The Good Place are characterized with such vigor. After watching enough of these shows, it feels as if you’ve moved into the area yourself. You’re a local. These settings breathe as much as the characters themselves. It’s a little detail Rutherford Falls lacks as it hones in on the specifics of this convoluted (albeit convoluted in a good way) story. Perhaps a clearer vision of the town will come with more time and more seasons, or perhaps it’s even better to leave it feeling fragmented, mirroring the characters’ feelings towards its history.
The most controversial aspect about watching Rutherford Falls? You’ll have to subscribe to Peacock, NBC’s relatively new streaming platform that houses most of Schur’s other series. If that bounty hasn’t seduced you yet, let Rutherford Falls be the straw that breaks the camel’s back: it may not be perfect, but it’s more than worthy of a friendly stream. In other words, it’s Peacock’s first original show with real promise—best to get started now, in case it hits the masses like a true protege of The Office or Parks and Rec might.
Rutherford Falls premieres Thursday, April 22 on Peacock
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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