The stories of Native Americans in Hollywood are, more often than not, portrayed as sad and monolithic. And while the stories of historical trauma inflicted on our country’s original inhabitants have a purpose, it seems like a radical change is underway.
“Rutherford Falls,” a half-hour series for NBC’s Peacock streaming service, is one of the few Indigenous stories to hit the TV pipeline (along with FX’s “Reservation Dogs”, NBC and Marvel Studios’ Echo). which tells a different story about the indigenous peoples of America. 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 stories clash when a statue of the ancestor of Nathan, their founding city, must 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 they are so often put in.
“We very intentionally wanted to tell a story that had some joy among the Aboriginal people,” says Ornelas. “The diversity of Indigenous perspectives was the most important 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 they saw in it. as two white men. is 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, isn’t it?” What is the story? Essentially, these are just stories our culture tells itself. Especially in this era of American culture where identity becomes inextricably linked with other facets of our personal histories – it was 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’s a good guy with blind spots; a man from a small town who takes immense pride in his family history without any objectivity or context for the legacy the Rutherfords have built on the backs of the Minishonka, a tribe who settled in this area well before the arrival of white Europeans.
“This meant that the tension and the comedy of the story had to relate to Native Americans,” Schur explains. “And that’s not really our story to tell.”
Ornelas, who originally partnered with Schur on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and developed a pilot for Helms in 2017, is a seasoned screenwriter and television producer who was uniquely positioned to take the reins of “Rutherford Falls. “. For a room of 10 writers, Ornelas employed 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 beading and artwork to wardrobe to choosing Red Lobster as a hangout – have come straight from the lives of writers. Creating “authenticity” – a word that is problematic in itself – has been effectively incorporated.
The staff “had very different views on some issues and not just on indigenous issues,” says Ornelas. “It was so great having these conversations (both in the room and) on the show. I have a lot of native friends who have made films that portray trauma in really amazing (which are) moving and wonderful ways. I think that’s what people assume they want to see from us, (but) I feel very reluctant to present my trauma because there is so much of my life that has been joyful.
Schur adds, “I wanted us to do a show where there’s a scene where three natives hang out and they don’t talk about being native, because that’s what real and legitimate performance is; it’s the normal, boring, everyday thing.
It was the same mundane things Schmieding was going through at the end of 2019, right before he was hired as a screenwriter on the show. At 38, she was still trying to leave public education to devote herself full time to comedy and television writing. At the end of her rope with the hustle and bustle of Hollywood, she made a pact with herself that if she wasn’t hired by Spring 2020, she would go home with her parents.
“All of my writing samples featured an Aboriginal female role,” says Schmieding, whose parents and grandparents taught her portrayal mattered, especially in small town Oregon where they were one of the rare indigenous families. “I don’t mean that there was no interest in my samples, but I was worried that there was no market for the native roles. I was betting on my own identity and it didn’t work before. Up to Sierra.
Schmieding – who grew up enjoying acting, went to the University of Oregon for the performing arts, and toured the New York 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 what she was doing was “marketable,” waving her body.
But Schur is known to have chosen his writers, probably a holdover from his days on “Saturday Night Live” where the line between backstage and onscreen is often nebulous. Writer Paul Lieberstein ended up as Toby in “The Office” and Schur himself played fan favorite Mose.
Schmieding thought they gave him the audition pages for Reagan Wells as a joke, still giving him the best advantage. But Ornelas had his eye on Schmieding from the start, having followed his comedy for years. “She has this winning quality where you can’t help but support her,” says Ornelas.
“Jana was the funniest one,” adds Schur. “That’s what it happened to. I come from a philosophy that has never failed once – whoever wins the audition gets the part.
As the entire team struggled to bring this one-of-a-kind story to the small screen, Schmieding was able to focus their efforts not only behind the scenes, but also on visibility in front of the camera. And while the story is built around the issues that come from a statue that needs to be moved from the city center, it is quick to recall that – much like the real-world protests against historic monuments – it is simply the inciting incident.
“It becomes a lot more personal than whether or not we should cut down a statue,” says Schmieding. “What we really see is how the historical narratives play out between a friendship, which I experience all the time as an Indigenous person. In what ways has my life served or supported other people’s stories about their lives? And because people don’t have this level of in-depth knowledge of Indigenous history, we often get trapped in supporting the dreams and visions of others. We don’t have this autonomy, this sovereignty, to defend our history and when we do, it doesn’t attract the attention of the general public. “The purpose of “Rutherford Falls” is to question the thinking around the story: is there a good story or a bad story? A good or a bad? Which parts of it are relevant and for whom, and how do we explore all of these gray areas? But no one on the show is looking to give a talk or wag a finger.
“The best television, the best movies, and the best art are prescriptive in the sense that they don’t just illustrate a problem, they give you a way to solve or correct that problem,” says Schur. “It’s a comedy and we want it to be funny first and foremost, always. (But we also want that) to feel like a prescription on how people can be better in their lives in any way. .
Schmieding adds: “These are complex narratives that we have with each other. People from different backgrounds, different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, coexisting in solidarity, but also having real issues with each other about this stuff. It’s real.”
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“Rutherford Falls” (10 episodes) available to stream on Peacock.