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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Rutherford Falls is a comedy about a northeastern U.S. town with simmering conflicts between the privileged White family who gave the city its name and the Native Minishonka people who are fed up with their second-class status. The cast and behind-the-scenes staff are diverse, with many Native writers and cast members led by Navajo and Mexican American showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas. Characters who belong to the fictional Minishonka Nation have complex roles with agency and are written as realistic (if heightened for comic effect) people with relatable motivations. The series does, however, spend much of its focus on the more trodden narrative of a White man's personal journey. A character with a large body type is presented as attractive and competent and given a love interest. There are also other people of color in important roles, and all learn to be more thoughtful and kind to one another over the course of the series. Humor is sometimes sexually suggestive; there's a horny teacher who's a bit of a stereotype and openly comes on to main character Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms). A sex scene is initiated with a kiss and immediately cuts to a woman in bed the morning after, fully clothed. There are also scenes set in bars, with characters sharing beer and cocktails; no one acts drunk. Language includes "hell," "ass," and "s--t." Messages of integrity and teamwork are underlined by plotlines that involve groups of people working together to resist entrenched power and make changes; strident messages are softened by humor and don't feel preachy.
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What's the Story?
Legend has it that the town of RUTHERFORD FALLS was founded on a handshake deal between the Native (fictional) Minishonka people and Lawrence Rutherford in the 17th century. Lawrence's direct descendent, Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), spends most of his time and energy burnishing that legacy, with the enthusiastic help of his best buddy, Reagan (Jana Schmieding). But in contrast to the opulent Rutherford Museum, the Minishonka Cultural Center that Reagan runs is confined to an abandoned corner of the Running Thunder Casino. That's where Reagan catches the eye of ambitious Minishonka leader and casino runner Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), who has long had his own plans for Rutherford Falls and has been waiting for just the right moment to put them into action. In the clash that follows, it's anyone's guess who will come out with their reputation and future intact. The show was created by Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation, The Office), Helms, and Sierra Teller Ornelas.
Is It Any Good?
The cast and creators lead audiences to expect wall-to-wall LOLs, but this cool, fresh sitcom takes its time ratcheting up the humor level in favor of character- and world-building. Rutherford Falls' approach is smart and sophisticated, but some audience members' patience will run out before the gags start really flowing, in much the same way that early viewers checked out of the fledgling Parks and Recreation and The Office, both of which had an awkward adolescence before blossoming into comedy gold. Rutherford Falls shows distinct signs of following the same pattern; it gets funnier as it goes along and viewers understand just who they're dealing with. After all, we've never seen characters like this before, particularly the electric Michael Greyeyes as calculating casino head Terry, and Jana Schmieding's Reagan Wells, who is alienated from her peers thanks to her fancy out-of-town college education and outlook but still hopes to worm her way into acceptance with the Minishonka Cultural Center she directs. And, in a nearly unprecedented move, despite her being a woman with a large body type, Rutherford Falls not only presents Reagan as smart, funny, and dignified, but also gives her a love interest, without a whiff of condescension or pity.
Helms' Nathan feels like a character we've seen before -- with his rich-kid obliviousness, he comes off as a riff on The Office's Andy -- but even he reveals more layers as time goes on, though it continues to be slightly mystifying what holds his friendship with Reagan together, since he consistently overrides her feelings and needs with his own ego-centrism throughout the first season. The heart of the show lies in complicated political and cultural politics, which could be a deadly dry focus for a sitcom, but Rutherford Falls' talented writing staff is up to the challenge. Jokes are both brilliant and unexpected, like when Terry interrupts Reagan in the midst of a long-winded plea for more cultural center funds to sum up her character: "You're smart. I'm guessing lots of college; not Ivy League, but so close it drives you crazy." "Northwestern," sighs Reagan in agreement. You'll want to spend time with these people, in this place; Rutherford Falls is a winner.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about Rutherford Falls' setup, which has disenfranchised people of color clashing with privileged White characters. Is this focus unusual? Surprising? Do you often see Native characters on TV? Which can you name? Have they been main characters or side characters? Realistic or stereotypical?
Can clever writing really poke fun at serious subjects like racism or sexism? Has the line between what's considered acceptable and what's offensive changed, and is that line different for cable and network shows? Should it be?
How do the characters on Rutherford Falls demonstrate integrity and teamwork? Why are those important character strengths?
- Premiere date: March 22, 2021
- Cast: Ed Helms, Jana Schmieding, Michael Greyeyes
- Network: Peacock
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, History
- Character Strengths: Integrity, Teamwork
- TV rating: TV-14
- Award: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: March 11, 2023
Our Editors Recommend
Parks and Recreation
Local government spoof for mature viewers is goofy at heart.
Workplace spoof is hilarious but filled with mature humor.
Lighthearted cop comedy serves up laughs and diversity.
For kids who love comedy
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