Mike Schur occupies an interesting place in modern television. The shows he’s created like The Office, Parks and Rec and The Good Place were never exactly ratings behemoths, consistently dwarfed by reality TV, Monday Night Football and The Walking Dead. But then again, they’re cultural touchstones, as vital to any understanding of pop culture as The Simpsons, Friends and Seinfeld before them. Schur’s built his reputation on lacing recognizable drudgery with moments of grace and humanity, and the characters he built on this formula seem destined to be with us forever.
And now he’s testing it out again in Rutherford Falls, his new comedy for Peacock. He created it with his pal Ed Helms, who also stars, and Superstore writer Sierra Teller Ornelas, who is the showrunner. Together, they tell the story of a small town called Rutherford Falls. Like Parks‘ Pawnee, Rutherford Falls has a tragic history of violence against Indigenous Americans. Unlike Parks and Rec, this history isn’t treated as comedic filler. The past is prologue in Rutherford Falls, and historic tension remains a very real part of the here and now.
This being a Schur show, that tension is handled with warmth, humor and a light touch. But the fact that it’s neither ignored or played strictly for knowing back-pats from its socially informed viewership is still refreshing and occasionally bold.
Helms is Nathan Rutherford. He’s a descendent of the town’s founder and very proud of the fact, going on about heritage and tradition and, yes, statues. Jana Schmieding plays Reagan Wells, Nathan’s friend and a member of the local Minishonka Nation — which Rutherford Falls was built on top of. Their unlikely friendship spawns difficult conversations, uncomfortable spats and, ultimately, opportunities to bring their two very different worlds together. It’s still a sitcom. But it’s a sitcom with a lot on its mind and attempts a more intelligent way of dealing with difficult issues than similar shows have. Schur knows that it’s not enough to just “come together,” “recognize we’re all the same” or any number of similar eye roll-y platitudes. In Rutherford Falls, there is no moving on without a reckoning with reality.
In the first few episodes, there are missteps — particularly with Helms’ Nathan, whose uneven characterization leaves us unclear exactly how we’re supposed to feel about him (Leslie Knope suffered from a similar fate in the first season of Parks, but the show figured that out in a hurry). Rutherford Falls is on firmer territory with Reagan, a woman who is trying to straddle two communities who frequently ends up feeling like she doesn’t belong in either. Schmieding handles Reagan’s internal conflict wonderfully, delivering some of the shows biggest laughs and brightest moments.
The show isn’t heavy-handed about any of this. Schur is too seasoned a sitcom pro to let the message get in the way of the plot. But there’s an informed intellect at work here that’s trying to do more than just paper over the serious issues being invoked. Rutherford Falls has some work to do in grounding its shakier elements, but the raw materials for another Schur hit are definitely here.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.