Nathan Rutherford is a nice guy.
Affably played by comedy veteran Ed Helms, Nathan holds tours for school groups in his house/museum, treats his teenage personal assistant Bobby Yang (Jesse Leigh) with kindness, and supports his best friend Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding, Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux), a member of the fictional Minishonka tribe. He’s even friendly with Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes, Nêhiyaw from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation), CEO of the Minishonka casino. There’s no one Nathan won’t greet with a handshake and a nugget of history from his New York hometown Rutherford Falls.
Created by Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo), along with Helms and Michael Schur, “Rutherford Falls” is a character-driven sitcom about lovable weirdos living together. Like the other shows Schur co-created, particularly “Parks & Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Rutherford Falls” features a good-hearted doofus living in a diverse community, whose personal foibles strike comedy gold. But where those shows had problems that resolved in less than 30 minutes, the conflicts in “Rutherford Falls” never get fixed.
Over the first 10-episode season, Nathan fights to protect a statue of his ancestor and town founder Lawrence Rutherford, despite its inconvenient position in the middle of the street. When Nathan declares that the statue (dubbed “Big Larry”) must remain because of a “legally binding … fair and honest deal” Lawrence struck with the Minishonka, Terry gets an idea. On behalf of Minishonka Nation, Terry sues Rutherford Falls for breach of contract, hoping to return to his people land stolen by the ancestors Nathan valorizes.
In most episodes, Nathan acts like your average sitcom protagonist, pushing what he considers mere misunderstandings toward a simple conclusion. But the show’s themes make such tidy endings impossible. Take the series’ second episode, “Buckheart Lodge,” written by Ornelas and directed by Lawrence Sher, in which Nathan enlists the help of history professor Tobias James Kaufman (Paul F. Tompkins) to prove that Big Larry and the Rutherfords deserve their prominent place in American history.
Nathan initially thrills to hear Kaufman describe him as a man who finds “his very heritage under attack.” He swoons at Kaufman’s admiring stories about the early Rutherfords. But while Nathan wants to talk about his ancestors’ noble and fun accomplishments, such as serving U.S. presidents and introducing s’mores to the northeast, Kaufman celebrates a history that Nathan would rather ignore.
A self-declared “freethinker,” Kaufman urges Nathan to embrace his forefathers’ colonizing. “Is it not accurate that your family introduced whiteness to the region?” Kaufman asks with relish. Nathan hems and haws at the statement, but Kaufman persists. “Is it not accurate?” he prods, before reminding his guest, “I know that it is, but I’m asking as a courtesy.”
“I’m just saying I’m proud of my family,” Nathan stammers, “I’m not saying it’s because of anything, like, race-related.”
“But you are related exclusively to White people,” Kaufman insists.
The conversation with Kaufman follows a standard sitcom trajectory, climaxing with Nathan brawling with the professor until the latter passes out drunk. And like most sitcoms, the episode ends on a reflective note, in which Nathan and Reagan (who had been in her own plot with Terry) reconvene to share what they’ve learned.
Nathan admits that he should have heeded Reagan’s warnings about Kaufman, even apologizing and thanking her for her friendship. But when Nathan asks about Reagan’s day — and remember, she’s had just as much screen time in the episode as he has — it’s almost an afterthought.
The ending shows us that Nathan’s problems don’t resolve by the episode’s end because he does not want to deal with them. Kaufman’s admiration for the early Rutherfords should have proven to Nathan that the identity he cherishes is deeply seated in white supremacy. But Nathan chooses this identity and all the false history that props it up, over the truth.
To its credit, “Rutherford Falls” isn’t interested in just telling Nathan’s story. As some Native critics have observed, the series not only features Indigenous creators as writers and directors, but it tells stories about modern Native life that one rarely sees in pop culture of any type. But other critics note that for all the screen time and nuance given to Terry and Reagan, Nathan is still the main character. “Rutherford Falls” centers whiteness, structurally giving privilege to White stories over those of other races.
Without question, we need more stories about Native life, especially in pop-cultural fare like sitcoms. But if we’re going to have another White-centered story, at least “Rutherford Falls” analyzes that whiteness, instead of taking it for granted.
When Terry proposes a settlement that will make the city into a Colonial Williamsburg-esque tourist destination, Nathan complains that his land is being stolen and his culture is being appropriated. He says this to Reagan, a Native woman.
We’re obviously asked to laugh at Nathan for his ignorance, but it’s a different type of joke than those made at the expense of “Parks & Recreation’s” Leslie Knope or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” Jake Peralta. It’s not go-getter earnestness or a laid-back attitude that makes Nathan the butt of the joke; it’s his white privilege.
By laughing at white supremacy, “Rutherford Falls” lets us see and critique it, necessary work for everyone, especially White Christians. Like everyone else, White American Christians such as myself have family histories that shape our identities. We develop our selfhoods, in part, according to memories about grandma’s house and family vacations, and stories about our forerunners.
Whether those stories stretch back to the Mayflower or only go back to European immigrants a few generations ago, they’re made possible by whiteness. Whiteness allowed my immigrant great-grandparents to assimilate, my grandparents to get land for their house, and my parents to afford vacations. The memories and stories created by these events form my identity, which means that white supremacy is part of my selfhood.
But it isn’t the defining part. As I grow aware of the privileges whiteness affords me, I also feel greater the call of my identity in Christ, whose teaching can be summed up in two commandments, “love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Those commandments mean that I have to repent of any part of my identity that counters that love, even family stories (after all, Jesus said that no one who doesn’t hate their mother and father cannot be his disciple). Of course, I cannot do this repentance unless I’m aware of my white privilege, something that people like Nathan Rutherford have worked hard to make invisible.
By making a joke out of Nathan’s intentional ignorance, “Rutherford Falls” forces White viewers to see the ridiculousness of their personal histories and the “nice” attitudes that cover destructive privilege. In doing so, it opens the way for confession and, in turn, repentance. And that’s nothing to laugh about.