If you revisit the first few episodes of classic workplace sitcoms such as “The Office” and “Parks & Recreation,” you’ll notice the writers and the ensemble casts took a while to find their voice and their rhythm, and sometimes things seem a little … not quite there. Michael Scott is more mean than lovably clueless, Tommy Haverford comes across as brooding and cynical — and who ARE some of those people lurking in the background at Dunder-Mifflin and the Pawnee Parks Dept., anyway? Where’d they go?
Watching the first four episodes of the smart and breezy and instantly likable Peacock sitcom “Rutherford Falls,” I wondered which of the supporting characters would eventually emerge to become major featured players and which might fall by the wayside — and whether this new vehicle for “Office” alum Ed Helms and a terrific ensemble would make that leap from promising vehicle to multi-season hit.
I wouldn’t bet against it. They’re off to a great start.
“Rutherford Falls” kicks off with a controversy over a statue of a town founder, and while there are obvious parallels to real-world events, THIS particular dust-up is at least initially more about the location of the statue than anything else. It’s at the spot in the Northeast where colonial settler Lawrence Rutherford founded the town through a treaty with the local (and fictional) Minishonka Nation in 1638 — a spot that’s now smack-dab in the middle of a busy street, leading to one car crash after another.
The obvious solution? Move the statue. Even Helms’ Nathan Rutherford, who is obsessively dedicated to preserving all things involving his family’s legacy, agrees to the move — but when a gathering at the statue grows contentious, Nathan has a meltdown that goes viral, and all heck breaks loose in formerly sleepy Rutherford Falls.
Like every other storyline and subplot about class and cultural differences in “Rutherford Falls,” this controversy is handled deftly, with humor that hits home with your mindset as opposed to hitting you over the head. Over the course of the opening episodes, we meet a myriad of interesting and funny regulars, including:
- Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), Nathan’s best friend, who runs the Minishonka Nation Cultural Center, which in reality is a small and sparse space in the tribe’s casino that tourists keep mistaking for a gift shop. Complicating life for Reagan: She dumped her fiancé at the very last minute, making her a pariah in the community.
- Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), the CEO of the casino and a respected leader of the tribe, who bristles at the stereotype that one can’t adhere to the philosophies of the Minishonka AND pursue the modern American Dream. Challenged on this issue, Terry says with more than a trace of sarcasm: “I drive a car, I have a microwave, and yet I’m somehow able to live with myself and my cultural beliefs.”
- Josh Carther (Dustin Milligan from “Schitt’s Creek”), a self-proclaimed crusading reporter for NPR who sees the controversy over the statue as a microcosm for bigger issues and heads to Rutherford Falls in pursuit of The Big Story.
- At least a half-dozen other relatively minor characters, including Nathan’s assistant, a non-binary high school student named Bobbie (Jesse Leigh); Nathan’s older and more practical brother Duz (Ben Koldyke), and Mayor Chisenhall (Dana L. Wilson), have some crackling good moments and might well emerge as breakout players as the show progresses. Helms is the most recognizable name on the show, but he’s part of a true ensemble and is often a secondary character in certain episodes — and with all respect to Helms and his reliably solid work as a likable if irritating everyman, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Created by Helms, Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation”) and showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), who is Navajo, “Rutherford Falls” not only features Native American cast members Schmieding and Greyeyes, but five Native writers as well. That’s an admirable, even historic step forward for a sitcom — and based on the early returns, this group could be working together on the same show for years to come.