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'Rutherford Falls' mixes humor, culture clash, native voices

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In Sierra Teller Ornelas’ family, those who could spin a good tale earned a seat at her grandmom’s expansive dining table, with lesser voices banished to the living room. “There was the feeling of holding court that was really big in my family,” said Teller Ornelas, who happily recalled another of the perks: “If I was in trouble and I could say something funny, I would get in less trouble.”

The Native American writer is now sharing her narrative gifts with the world at large in “Rutherford Falls,” a new Peacock comedy she co-created and produces with Michael Schur ("The Good Place") and actor Ed Helms ("The Hangover").

The small Northeastern town of the show's title has, unwisely, kept a statue of its founder in an intersection. A safety relocation plan lacks the ring of a political hot-button but upsets Nathan (Helms), a Rutherford descendant enamored of his family history, and he clumsily goes to war.

In ever-widening circles, the conflict involves Nathan’s family, his best friend Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), a Native American with her own vision for cultural preservation, and the neighboring tribal-owned casino and its powerhouse CEO, Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes).

The 10-episode series, released in full this week on the streaming service, has drawn critical praise for its smart and endearing humor, and attention as the rare TV series to feature indigenous perspectives and characters minus stereotyping.

Schur (“Parks and Recreation”) and Helms worked together on “The Office” and know what makes for appealing TV. But when they began to develop the concept of “Rutherford Falls,” they saw what was missing: Teller Ornelas.

"We couldn’t write the show without an equal representation of voices at the creative stage, not just in the writers’ room, but literally from the ground up, who understood the world we wanted to talk about,” Schur said. “Without her it was impossible, for the simple reason that we couldn’t tell the story ... of these two Americas and these two histories.”

Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo and Mexican American and was raised in Tucson, Arizona, programmed films at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian before chasing her Hollywood dreams. She honed her creative skills on Schur’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and on “Superstore."

She was finishing a three-year contract as a “Superstore” writer and producer and planned to develop a Native American anthology series when the invitation came to join with Schur and Helms. It was at a telling point in the project.

“It’s very rare that you get the call in the beginning of the process where they say, ‘Hey, we have half an idea. Would you like to develop it with us?’” Teller Ornelas said. Usually, she said, native people are asked to give their stamp of approval to stories made about them, but without them: “'We’re about to shoot. Can you read it now, tell us it’s OK and sign off on it?’” was how she described the cavalier approach.

She serves as an executive producer and showrunner, the person who oversees a production and the holy-grail ambition of TV writers. As important as her ethnicity is to the series, Schur said, her talent and competence are more so.

“The more important thing is that she’s really good at her job,” he said, excelling as a first-time showrunner and despite the added burdens imposed by the pandemic. The result of their collaboration is a show framed by what Schur describes as America's entrenched tendency to ignore its past rather than “engage in a nuanced discussion about what our history says about us.”

That alone would get the show canceled and possibly bring down Peacock, Schur joked, but he's banking that the talented cast and “a roomful of really funny people who write funny jokes" will engage viewers.

The writing staff is half indigenous, reflecting the emphasis on fiction with an honest voice. The casting does as well: charming newcomer Schmieding is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux. Greyeyes, a veteran actor (“True Detective,” “Fear the Walking Dead") who excels as the ambitious casino boss for the show's fictional Minishonka tribe, is Plains Cree.

In one scene, a journalist gets uncomfortably schooled about what’s at stake for the tribe in a soliloquy delivered by Greyeyes' character, who we also see as a husband and dad. “It was really important for us to make sure that every character wasn’t flattened,” Teller Ornelas said. " Everyone on any given Sunday could be the protagonist on this show.”

But “Rutherford Falls” offers a native perspective, “not THE native perspective,” she said. She welcomes the prospect of more indigenous-focused projects, including FX's upcoming “Reservation Dogs,” a comedy set on an Oklahoma reservation and co-created by filmmaker Taika Waititi, a New Zealander of Maori descent.

In modern style, Teller Ornelas is carrying on a family and cultural tradition that's reflected in the maternal half of her surname. It was born of the 19th-century Navajo Long Walk, the brutal relocation of tribal members from what is now Arizona to eastern New Mexico.

At a holding and processing point she compared to New York's Ellis Island, “they asked my great-great grandfather, ‘What do you do for a living?’ He said, 'I'm a storyteller. I'm the keeper of my stories, my people.' That's why they named him Teller."

“I really hold that dear to me, knowing that I am doing what he did,” she said.

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