“Rutherford Falls” is the new Peacock comedy co-created by Mike Schur of “Parks and Recreation,” “The Good Place,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” along with Ed Helms and Soerra Teller Ornelas of “Superstore.” So going in, you know that you’re going to be in good hands, and that the world of the show will be warm, pleasingly offbeat, and character-driven — all of which turns out to be true.
Having seen the first four episodes, I want to say up top that “Rutherford Falls,” which premieres on Thursday, takes a couple of episodes to find itself. At first, the point of the show and the reasons we’re watching these particular characters are a bit hazy. There are many appealing elements in play, notably a breakout comic performance by Jana Schmieding, but little clear sense of what the larger theme is going to be. By episode three, though, the ironies become sharper, the characters have established their points of view, and I was eager for more.
Helms plays Nathan Rutherford, a loyal ancestor of the founder of the Northeast town of Rutherford Falls, Lawrence Rutherford. He devotes his life to a museum honoring “Big Larry,” and he is stubbornly unwilling to own Big Larry’s sins against the local Native American tribe, the fictional Minishonka. When the town threatens to remove a badly placed statue of Big Larry, he goes to war, confronting both the mayor and the Minishonka casino owner Terry Thomas, played by Michael Greyeyes. At first I wondered if I was supposed to be rooting for Nathan, particularly since Helms is such a likable performer. But soon it’s clear that the writers are positioning him as pathologically resistant to change and growth in every way. As those around him begin to make sense of the offensive past and try to move forward, with the question of reparations in the air, he’s stuck and lost at the same time.
The show, run by Ornelas, who is Navajo and Mexican-American, and featuring five Native writers, represents the Native American community in ways we don’t often see on TV. We view them through Terry’s family — the best of the first four episodes focuses on his story — and through Nathan’s Native assistant and best friend, Reagan, who also runs a cultural center devoted to the Minishonka. As Reagan, Schmieding is irresistible, in the way Merritt Wever was on “Nurse Jackie.” She’s pithy, vulnerable, kooky, and stronger than she realizes. Reagan has drifted away from the reservation, leaving behind a fiance in order to go to college, and we see her now trying to make peace with her estrangement. She has some nice moments with a reporter, played by Dustin Milligan from “Schitt’s Creek,” who comes to Rutherford Falls looking for scoop regarding the Rutherford family business conglomerate.
It takes a little time to reconcile goofy comedy with the more complex and loaded theme of a marginalized community trying to get its due. But “Rutherford Falls” is finding a way to make those opposites attract, cloaking its message about the true story of America in a lighthearted atmosphere.