Sierra Teller Ornelas knows how to tell a story. She proved it over the last five years, working as a writer and producer for revered sitcoms like Superstore and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Now, the Navajo and Mexican American creative is turning to a story close to her heart as co-creator and executive producer of Rutherford Falls. The sharp new Peacock comedy centers Native characters and challenges what we’ve come to accept as the American narrative.
Ed Helms stars as museum owner Nathan Rutherford, the namesake of a small northeast town where his family has lived for centuries. His unflappable reverence for this legacy makes him sensitive to even the slightest criticism, so when the city votes to move a statue of his ancestor from a dangerous location, he loses it. “It’s history,” Nathan nobly tells the mayor (Dana L. Wilson). “You can’t change history unless you have a time machine.” Meanwhile, his best friend Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), a Northwestern grad and member of Minishonka Nation, works at a cultural center attached to a casino owned by Terry (Michael Greyeyes) and longs to bring attention to her people’s legacy in the town.
“It’s really the story of, ‘What is American history?’” Ornelas says. “What are the narratives we cling to, and who gets erased from those narratives?” With that basis, she and the rest of the team—including four Native writers, giving Rutherford Falls one of the largest Indigenous writers’ rooms on television—have grounded the story in both meaningful and hilarious conflict. “We are trying to say something, but also don’t want to make homework,” Ornelas says. “We want to make [it] funny and entertaining because Native people are often flattened in our depictions, if we’re included at all. We’re either idealized or vilified. It was great to be in this space where you could really express yourself and the stories you want to tell.”
And it’s fitting that, when Ornelas hops on the phone with me from her Los Angeles home, she begins by tracing her own family’s lineage of storytelling. “Indigenous people are the first storytellers,” she says proudly. “Within my family, we’re living reverence for telling a great story.” She shares anecdotes from her own childhood: how her great-grandfather’s knack for tales landed him the government name Teller; how her own father would beg her to shut off the TV and read a book; how she knew she’d write for television after repeat viewings of Laverne and Shirley and The Dick Van Dyke Show. “I remember seeing Rose Marie and thinking we have a very similar vibe,” she says of Sally, Rob Petrie’s (Dick Van Dyke) witty co-writer for the series’ fictional variety show. “That’s sort of my personality.”
So when Rutherford Falls co-creators Michael Schur (Ornelas’ former Brooklyn Nine-Nine boss) and Ed Helms approached her about making the show, she jumped at the opportunity to infuse Native character elements into a story that challenges the very idea of American storytelling. It was particularly important to Ornelas to join at the show’s starting point, ensuring its Native actors and themes weren’t treated like an afterthought. “A lot of times, Native people in media get a phone call like, ‘Hey I wrote the script and we’re going into production tomorrow. Can you read it and tell me if it’s okay?’” she explains. “To get this call at the beginning of the development is such a great feeling.”
And it allowed the writers time to make every character fully dimensional, from Terry’s mistrust of Reagan’s college elitism to Nathan’s inflated piety for a family legacy that’s less than perfect. Ornelas describes the plot as a “Rubik’s Cube,” where one thing has to happen in order to make another thing happen. “Because there were multiple characters, [there] were opportunities to service multiple things. It was very important for us to show a Native couple, which is why we made sure to include Terry’s family. These are all conversations that we ruminated over.”
Then there’s Josh (Dustin Milligan), a white journalist who visits the town to report a story on the statue hubbub and ends up challenging everyone about their own values. He also serves as a potential love interest for Reagan, an interesting choice given the dearth of Native romance on screen. Making Josh white was a decision the writer’s room took into consideration as they developed the story. “Not necessarily in relation to his relationship with Reagan,” Ornelas explains. “It was more with Terry having this well-meaning, liberal NPR journalist come in.”
Rutherford Falls gave Ornelas the opportunity to affirm that there’s no such thing as a single Native experience. “Usually on television shows, if you have a Native character, they’re expected to carry on their shoulders all of Indian country, and educate people on every aspect, which is impossible,” she says. Rutherford Falls is one of very few TV series that illuminates the indigenous American experience in some of its many complexities (Taika Waititi’s Reservation Dogs is also forthcoming).
Ornelas is quick to point that out in her own experiences, too. As she graciously spills the backstory on her adorable Twitter photo, a portrait of herself as a toddler smiling in traditional Navajo clothing, she notes, “That’s like a rite of passage,” before catching herself. “[For] a lot of us, not all. Because we’re not a monolith. But at least in in my family, a lot of us get dressed up in our traditional regalia. My son had pictures taken in the same way.”
And while she does share a few things with Reagan (Ornelas also worked at a museum before heading to Hollywood), Rutherford Falls isn’t a story about her experiences. Rather, it’s about illuminating Native humanity through her gift for storytelling.
“What we were hoping to do was offer Native stories, not necessarily the Native story,” she says. “I don’t feel like you ever see three Native characters have a conversation in this way in a comedy. For me, that felt incredibly personal.”
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