The producers of Peacock's upcoming comedy series Rutherford Falls -- who have ties to The Office -- gathered for a digital panel on Monday to preview the show, which is one of many new series coming to the new streaming service. Ed Helms, who also stars, was joined by Michael Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas, and they talked about Helms and Schur's The Office reunion and the show's authentic Native American representation.
Rutherford Falls is about a small town in upstate New York and the Native American reservation it borders, both of which get turned upside down when local legend and descendant of the town's founders, Nathan Rutherford (Helms), fights the proposed moving of a historical statue that depicts the purchase of the land for the town from the local Native American tribe at the precise location where it happened -- which is a problem, because it's in the middle of the road and people keep crashing their cars into it.
The show came out of conversations between Schur and Helms, who have been friends since they worked on The Office together. "Mike was instrumental in shaping Andy Bernard and helping me find that character and who he was and we always had a really good time just kind of riffing on Andy's character and I always felt like Mike got me in a way that very few writers do," Helms said. As they casually talked about ideas they were interested in, they arrived at themes of identity and how people define themselves and how they relate to historical narratives, and what happens when people learn new things that challenge those narratives and identities. Helms said that in those conversations, he and Schur arrived at a story that "had a strong Native American component," so they brought in Ornelas, a Navajo writer who had previously worked on shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore.
Ornelas said that the show depicts Native Americans more accurately than TV usually does. "What's great about this show is there are multiple Native American characters," she said. "A lot of times you'll see on a show there's one type of person and they have to represent the whole community, and in the writers' room we had five Native writers who all saw things differently, we had different opinions on casinos, on border relations, and it was really great to kind of have that reflect in the show."
The producers were asked about how Rutherford Falls handles the scrutiny comedy shows are under to make sure jokes are not offensive to marginalized people, and Ornelas said that their show makes sure that Native people are in on the joke and depicts them being normal people; people with full lives who go to Starbucks, have complicated relationships with their friends from work, and are also Native American, with all the cultural specificities that that entails.
"To be clear, I do have a medicine man but, like, we text each other, you know what I mean?" she said, making Helms and Schur laugh. "We would have the Native writers make these jokes that we felt were, like, inside baseball, and then everyone would laugh, because there is a kind of, you know, 'funny is funny.' I think it's a mixture of letting us be normal people and then part of that being kind of diving into those specifics."
Production on Rutherford Falls was delayed because of the pandemic, but the producers plan to start shooting in a few weeks and there's no premiere date yet. Peacock announced Monday that the cast also includes Jana Schmieding, Michael Greyeyes, Jesse Leigh, and Dustin Milligan.