As Rutherford Falls returns for a second series, Danielle de Wolfe addresses the stars and creators of the Native series who are shaking up the sitcom.
When it comes to creating a breakthrough sitcom, what makes the perfect recipe? For some, it’s an instantly recognizable name – like Ed Helms of The Hangover, perhaps. For others, it’s about tackling seldom-discussed topics in a new and exciting way.
So it stands to reason that Rutherford Falls – a comedy about divergent cultures, set against the backdrop of a Native American reservation, would be a hit with audiences. The first series broke ground, cementing the series as the world’s first Native American sitcom.
Now back for a second series – which not only continues to star, but is co-written by Helms – Rutherford Falls sees writer and series producer Sierra Teller Ornelas (Superstore, Brooklyn Nine Nine) return to the helm , alongside Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Michael Schur (The Office, The Good Place).
“It was always intended as a comedy,” says Helms, 48, describing the series as a way to tackle social issues head-on “but in a fun way.”
“We’re funny people – I hope. We think we’re funny. We’re very arrogant about being funny. And so that’s what we do,” laughs the actor, pointing to his co-star Jana Schmieding , 40 years.
Helms, best known for playing Stu in The Hangover franchise and Andy Bernard in the American remake of The Office, portrays Nathan Rutherford. Best friends with Reagan Wells, played by Reservation Dogs actress Schmieding, the couple tackle all sorts of work, romance and life challenges from their small town bordering a Native American reservation.
A succinct mix of heartwarming friendship and cultural talk, the sitcom even sees Schmieding undertake a few action sequences. “I happen to be the Tom Cruise of comedy,” she announces with a laugh.
The subject of Indigenous culture is something co-creator Ornelas knows all too well, being herself a member of the Navajo Nation, specifically the Edgewater Clan, the name given to the 25,000-mile Indian reservation. extending to the United States. State of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona. Her first-hand experience of the nation’s rich history makes her the perfect conduit for such a tale.
Explaining that shows with natives are “almost always led by white males”, the writer says that traditionally, natives are positioned as supporting characters on screen, “usually dying before the third act”.
“A lot of times, Indigenous stories told by non-Indigenous people focus on trauma or sound like homework. It’s kind of like ‘eat your veggies!’ “”, the creator shrugs.
“We never really wanted to tell stories that way. I feel like we know we’re funny, it’s just new to everyone. Comedy ultimately humanizes the subject – I think that’s why we wipe out entire political movements with comedy.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Indigenous Canadian actor Michael Greyeyes (Wild Indian, I Know This Much Is True), who notes, “The reason comedy works universally is that it’s easy to swallow.
Describing humor as the common thread that weaves its way through their culture, the Rutherford Falls star says Indigenous and Indigenous people have “learned to laugh” at the “absurdity” of many cultural and political situations.
“In that moment, you learn about yourself. You learn why you laugh, why these situations conflict. And I think that’s what (Rutherford Falls) showed us so well. It takes stories and really powerful conflict, and we find, as the natives do, the humor in almost everything.”
Reprising his role as Tribal Casino CEO Terry Thomas on the show, filming was an experience the actor and scholar describes as “liberating”. After more than three decades in the film industry, Greyeyes, 55, says “for the first time” a production was so knowledgeable, showrunners didn’t rely on his own “experience or knowledge of a community to correct writing or direction”.
Describing the upcoming series as brimming with “native joy,” Ornelas says the combination of Helms and Schmieding’s characters is thought-provoking. Describing contrasting experiences, the creator says the two characters are “huge champions of their own story.” Yet despite the systemic issues that surround and divide them, friendship ultimately wins out.
It’s a point Ornelas expands on, describing how the team “felt this great responsibility” to tackle as many topics as humanly possible during the first series in light of the platform that gave them had been entrusted. It’s a sentiment shared by Helms, who describes the series as “a blast” to film.
“In season one, we were building this community and building this world,” Helms explains. “This season, we’re just going to live there. We’re not doing as many shows, we’re just becoming these hilarious characters in this crazy community.”
“My favorite thing about comedy is that a little joke in a certain episode can turn into an entire episode,” adds Ornelas with a smile. After describing a particularly memorable Dirty Dancing sequence that appears in the opening episode, the writer begins to recount a seemingly innocuous moment that stuck in the forefront of his mind.
“While we watched Michael [Greyeyes] and Kimberly hands-on on set, writer Tazbah Chavez just started crying. It was the strangest thing,” recalls Ornelas.
“She just yelled ‘we never understand that!’ And there’s just this feeling of centuries of watching media and never experiencing certain things, which means native people never see themselves falling in love, having sitcom hijinks and finding the most hilarious ways to give a meaning to their life.
Ornelas adds, “It’s like you don’t know what you don’t have until you have it.”
It’s a show that really goes against a Hollywood trend of stereotyping. And yet, the production went even further, with the writing team at Rutherford Falls working in conjunction with actor Jesse Leigh to cement their Bobby character as non-binary – which Leigh, himself, also identifies as. It was a script development that the actor says “felt amazing”.
“Being able to play a non-binary character – you don’t see them as much on TV. And seeing them in a place of power, running for mayor, that’s even more important.”
Rutherford Falls season 2 premieres Monday, on Sky and NOW