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Rutherford Falls: A Potential Cultural Artistry with an Unsatisfactory Kick-off


R E V I E W – S E R I E S


Abdullah Sami


Whether we like sitting on the couch all day binging or slowly absorbing the elements at leisure, sitcoms are a splendid source of relaxation that drives away the boredom and refreshes the mind after a tough day’s work. For that, it’s no wonder why they receive much appreciation. Michael Schur is a genius when it comes to this genre. He co-wrote The Office, co-created Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn-99, and later created his own series, The Good Place. Usually, sitcoms focus on the day-to-day lives following characters of diverse nature, set in a particular space (neighbourhood or workplace), added with humour and absurdity. Schur’s creations are no different. He has a way of blending satire and sentiment to illustrate a light-hearted journey that viewers can resonate with. Following his groundbreaking success with the aforementioned titles, recently, he has made his return to the industry with Rutherford Falls, a series he co-created with his Office co-star Ed Helms.

Set in the eponymous town of Rutherford Falls, the series follows Nathan Rutherford, a descendant of the town’s founder; Lawrence Rutherford, aka “Big Larry”. When the officials decide to take down the statue of Big Larry from the town square for causing disruption in traffic, Nathan takes it upon himself to fight the odds and preserve his family’s history. The show also follows Reagan Wells, Nathan’s best friend, and other fellow townsmen, including the local indigenous tribe, the Minishonka and their role in and against Nathan’s cause. Rutherford Falls also happens to be the first US sitcom by a major network created by, written by, starring, and about Native Americans.

For a Michael Schur show, I certainly had high hopes for this one, which unfortunately didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Nevertheless, they deserve much applause for the extensive cultural references that assure they did their homework. The show has its ups and downs but, the characters would be the most admirable feature.

An ensemble of eccentric characters: Michael Schur’s signature method

Schur’s primary strength is his ability to captivate the audience with an array of quirky and optimistic characters of different nature, which distinguishes his shows from generic sitcoms, not unlike in this case. Nathan Rutherford is naive and stubborn, much like Andy Bernard from The Office, and Ed Helms brilliantly brings back the whimsical man-child that everyone adored. Nathan runs a museum dedicated to Rutherford history, something he takes pride in. His enthusiasm, however, makes him ignorant of his ancestors’ past crimes against natives, being a victim to all the sugarcoated stories of pre-abolition America since childhood. Reagan Wells is Nathan’s longtime best friend and the stereotypical straight man of the show, who he describes as “someone who gets it”, an ideology Nathan uses to evaluate his acquaintances. Jana Schmieding delivers a decent portrayal of this down-to-earth, determined-yet-sceptical woman, considering it’s her first major role.

Reagan works in a cultural centre, where her co-workers bully her constantly, which references how people misunderstand her quite often. Terry Tarbell, the representative of the Minishonka, runs a casino in town and is arguably the most exciting character of the show. He is a charismatic businessman, who isn’t afraid to manipulate others for his own or his tribe’s interest, and Michael Greyeyes’ nonchalant depiction makes him all-the-more interesting. In contrast to Nathan’s ancestral dignity, Terry is indifferent to tribal customs and does not hesitate to use his tradition to his advantage. Ultimately, his actions are driven by a noble cause and under the coldness, he does hide a compassionate side.

Few minor characters also maintain their roles but don’t receive much attention: Nathan’s assistant, Bobbie Yang, a 16-year-old college kid, who we don’t know much about and I believe has much to offer; Josh, a journalist, who arrives to cover the town’s situation and gets into relationship with Reagan, which technically was the only purpose he served, albeit pointless to the story; Deidre Chisenhall, the town’s first female Black mayor, something she frequently boasts of, and some other characters who might have major roles in later seasons.

The faults, comparison, and possibilities

Despite an abundance of peculiar characters and an extensive world, the show doesn’t manage to stand on equal grounds compared to its predecessors. The writing obviously needs more work to wash off the dullness. The comedy is almost nonexistent. Although few scenes are worth a smile, the whole season in general features absolutely no genuine laughter and even fewer gags.

The show has an obvious similarity with Parks and Rec. The Big Larry statue is equivalent to Lot 48 (the pit), although it doesn’t serve much purpose as the latter and almost gets pushed off the map. Parks and Rec also spent much time on building Pawnee as a vivid, exuberant town, whereas Rutherford Falls just shoves past history unnecessarily, rather than exploring current circumstances. Let’s talk about the first seasons. Parks and Rec began featuring a set of wholesome characters in a lively town, whereas The Good Place added suspense and supernatural in a similar stage. Brooklyn-99 also managed to hook the audience right off the bat with its unique premise and eccentric troupe. The Office, however, had a shallow start that overlooked everyone but Michael, much like Rutherford Falls, that initially stays focused on Nathan. Considering the gradual decline of Andy Bernard, it’s clear that here too, Helm was having a hard time in a leading role, but fortunately, his focus is soon toned down reasonably whenever it gets repetitive.

Nevertheless, the show has an authenticity regarding characters that Brooklyn-99 lacked. While B99 does have a distinctive foundation, it’s not difficult to notice the similarities between the elements. It’s still enjoyable nonetheless, but personally, I wouldn’t align it with Schur’s preceding works. Rutherford Falls shines in this department significantly. All the characters feel original, except for Nathan’s resemblance to Andy, which can be excused as Ed Helm’s usual persona.

Rutherford Falls had a rather bland introduction that didn’t do justice to its enormous potential, but fortunately, leaves room for development. Just like The Office successfully switched from a tedious cringe-flick to an edge-of-the-seat satire, Rutherford Falls, too, I believe can make an impression if they utilise the existing resources in world-building and better narration. Furthermore, the comical aspects need refurbishing to bring out more laughter and give it a bona fide sitcom touch. Overall, in spite of having mixed feelings regarding the introductory season, being a longtime admirer of Schur’s works, I expect him not to disappoint the viewers in the long run.

 


Abdullah Sami is just another average procrastinator immersed in a delusional utopia, who enjoys squandering away his precious time after pointless endeavours.

 

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