Peacock's 'Rutherford Falls' proves there's a place for Native-led content in Hollywood

Key Points
  • The Peacock series "Rutherford Falls" has a staff of 10 writers, five of whom are Indigenous.
  • The show currently holds a 94% "Fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes from 32 reviews, and fans of the series are already clamoring for a second season.
  • "It is actually a financially viable decision to bring new voices into the industry," said writer and actress Jana Schmieding. "We have more nuanced storytelling, we have more engaged viewers and we have more literate viewers."

In this article

Michael Greyeyes as Terry Thomas in the Peacock series "Rutherford Falls."
Peacock | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

When audiences first meet Terry Thomas, the manager of Running Thunder Casino on Peacock's "Rutherford Falls," they see a stoic, intense Native man with a commanding presence.

The character is set up to be the villain, or, at least, that's how it seems. As each 30-minute installment of the 10-episode season unfolds, viewers meet the real Terry — a loving father with a knack for entrepreneurship and a devotion to his community.

He is calculating and cunning, but also sincere, honorable and, at times, quite funny. Episode four of the series, entitled "Terry Thomas," was a particularly emotional experience for actor Michael Greyeyes.

"Very often people who are businessmen, casino owners or bosses are corrupt and greedy people," he said. "With episode four [Sierra Teller Ornelas] and the other writers obliterate that stereotype."

For Hollywood, diversity and inclusion have become a hot-button issue. In the last few years, the traditionally white industry has begun to institute official initiatives to foster a culture of inclusivity. While some of these goals were created due to public outcry, studios quickly discovered that having these unique and different voices was good for business.

Films with women or people of color at the center have proven successful at the box office, bringing in billions of dollars to studios in the last five years. Blockbuster features like "Captain Marvel," "Wonder Woman," "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Black Panther" have shown that audiences will turn out for quality films with diverse characters.

For streamers like Peacock, who derive revenue from subscribers and advertising, the payoff is a little different. The shows that gain traction with audiences can result in higher subscription rates or convince a subscriber who was thinking of leaving the service to stay around for another month or two.

"Rutherford Falls" is an anomaly in the industry, although its writers and actors hope that changes. The show has a staff of 10 writers, five of whom are Indigenous. The team is led by Michael Schur — one of the most prolific sitcom creators in the industry, whose credits include "The Office," "The Good Place" and "Parks and Recreation" — and Ornelas, the first Native content creator to helm a television comedy.

On Peacock, which has 42 million sign-ups for its service, the Native creators are able to share their stories with a wide audience — and their authentic voices are already being rewarded. The show currently holds a 94% "Fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes from 32 reviews, and fans of the series are already clamoring for a second season.

"We are starting to see a shift, especially with the Hollywood Foreign Press and such, we are starting to see some real and actual systemic challenges taking place right now," said Jana Schmieding, who works in the writers room for "Rutherford Falls" and as well as stars in the series.

"It is actually a financially viable decision to bring new voices into the industry," she said. "We have more nuanced storytelling, we have more engaged viewers and we have more literate viewers."

Welcome to Rutherford Falls

This is Schmieding's first gig as a writer on a TV series and her breakout role as an actress. While she has been widely praised for her role as Reagan Wells in the series, it was a part that she had not initially planned on playing.

After a decade as a public school teacher in New York City, where she spent her nights performing sketch and improv comedy, Schmieding finally made the move to Los Angeles in 2016. For the better part of three years, the Lakota Sioux writer and actress tried to get a staff position.

After striking up a friendship with Ornelas, Schmieding was finally offered a seat at the table.

"It took a Native woman to see me and to see my talent and to lift me up and hire me," she said.

The table was "Rutherford Falls," a show about two lifelong best friends, Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) and Reagan Wells (Schmieding), who find themselves at a crossroads when the town calls for the removal of a historic statue that honors Nathan's family lineage. Both the town and the Native tribe are fictional, but are brought to life through the real experiences of the show's writing staff.

The statue, known as "Big Larry," commemorates the deal Lawrence Rutherford, an American settler, made with the Minishonka tribe to create the town of Rutherford Falls. Through a series of missteps, Nathan accidentally opens the door for one of the leaders of the Minishonka tribe, Terry Thomas, to sue him and a multimillion-dollar corporation that was established by the Rutherford family for years of unpaid remunerations.

The ordeal puts a strain on the relationship between Reagan and Nathan, as Reagan must choose between standing with her longtime friend or siding with her Indigenous community.

Pictured: (l-r) Jana Schmieding as Reagan Wells, Ed Helms as Nathan Rutherford in Peacock's "Rutherford Falls."
Peacock | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

"What some people may not realize is that there is a tremendous amount of pressure on such a sitcom," wrote Vincent Schilling, an Akwesasne Mohawk and associate editor and senior correspondent at Indian Country Today. "If it isn't funny, or flounders in any way, Native people may not get a chance for a long, long time because the execs that be in the TV networks may just assert that Native content isn't going to sell."

Ornelas, Schur and Helms, who co-created the series together, balance the weightiness of the tension between the Minishonka and Nathan with light comedic moments. The satire of watching a white man fight for his history (and land) against a group of people who have long been subjugated under similar circumstances brings surprising levity to the show.

"As a Native journalist, this is exceptional," Schilling wrote in his review of the series. "The writing is exactly what I have wanted to see for decades, actually my entire life."

An American story

That sentiment was shared by Greyeyes, a Plains Cree from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Canada. The Native actor has three decades of experience in the entertainment industry and it's only in the last five that he's seen a real shift in the portrayal of Native characters in film and on television.

Throughout his career he said he's seen "the good, the bad and the ugly" when it comes to Indigenous representation in media.

"What I saw in Hollywood for a very long time was that they were just willing to look at the Indigenous person as a metaphor or as a foil for something else where white characters would learn something from us or they would come to their own emotional realization due to our presence in the story," Greyeyes said. "Or even worse, they would just extract from our cultures, from our stories, from our history and use it for whatever purposes that they needed."

"What I've seen change is the notion that Indigenous people are not siloed, that we are everywhere," he said.

For those that study Native culture and representation in media, the largest shift in the portrayal of Indigenous people in film and on television has come in the wake of the Standing Rock protests.

In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Members of the tribe opposed the pipeline because it would disturb the upper Missouri River, the only water supply for the reservation.

Pictured: (l-r) Jana Schmieding as Reagan Wells, Dustin Milligan as Josh Carter in Peacock's "Rutherford Falls."
Peacock | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

While protests started that year, it wasn't until mid-2017 that the media began to latch onto the story. A video showing how people were treated while protesting the pipeline went viral and included evidence that Dakota Access guard dogs had been attacking protestors.

Dustin Tahmahkera, a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, and an interdisciplinary scholar of North American indigeneities, critical media and sound at the University of Illinois, said the Standing Rock protests were the first major event of Native activism that the mainstream media had picked up in decades.

It was a reminder to the country that Native people are modern Americans and exist beyond the stories and histories that are taught in public education.

"There was so much more awareness and raised consciousness," he said. "And still, so much further to go."

Joanna Hearne, a professor of Native American film studies at the University of Missouri, also pointed to Standing Rock as a pivotal moment in altering perceptions in the entertainment industry. She added that the rise of streaming platforms offers more space for these voices outside of a traditional cable schedule and the success of other Indigenous people, some outside of North America, has helped showcase what Native talent can do.

Hearne used writer and director Taika Waititi as an example of this. Waititi is Maori, an Indigenous people from New Zealand. While he made his start in the industry telling stories that reflected his experience in New Zealand, his most recent work, which includes the blockbuster Marvel film "Thor Ragnorak" and the Oscar-winning feature "Jojo Rabbit," shows that Indigenous people can use their unique experiences to tell universal stories.

"This is a really exciting time for us and there's room, there's room for it and there's an audience for it," Schmieding said. "'Rutherford Falls' is like a nice little stepping stone into some even more nuanced, more engaging, exciting diverse Native and Indigenous content."

Disclosure: Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, a subsidiary of CNBC owner Comcast.

Disclosure: Peacock is the streaming service of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC.