SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched Season 2 of “Rutherford Falls.”
“Rutherford Falls” is an interracial love story — between two best friends.
The series follows Nathan (Ed Helms), a white man from the family that founded the town of Rutherford Falls centuries before, and Reagan (Jana Schmieding), a member of the Minishonka Nation that was pushed onto a reservation by Nathan’s ancestors. The two have been friends since childhood, but Nathan didn’t truly understand his family history for decades. Season 1 sees Rutherford Falls go through a racial reckoning that not only contextualizes the Rutherfords as colonizers but reveals that Nathan isn’t biologically related to them at all. He responds by disappearing from Rutherford Falls to “find himself” until Season 2, when Reagan welcomes him back (and hides him from the public until he’s ready to emerge, instantly woke and reinvented).
Along with starring, Schmieding and Helms both write for the series, with Helms serving as co-creator alongside showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas and Michael Schur. For Helms, the exaggerated nature of Nathan’s meltdown was necessary for the continuation of the character’s relationships.
“I think that really good TV is all about writing yourself into a corner and trusting that you’ll figure it out,” Helms says. “We knew we wanted to be back in Rutherford Falls and to move past that identity crisis fairly quickly, because there was so much fun to be had with this ensemble. So how do we get everyone back together? Nathan needed a little purgatory.”
And concurring with sentiments expressed by Ornelas to Variety, Schmieding felt more free to explore Native humor in Season 2.
“The rules of comedy require that the audience understands the context in order for the joke to land, and there isn’t a lot of Indigenous literacy in American culture,” she says. “Because of that erasure, we knew we had to spend on what it’s like to be in a Native community. Once we built that world, we had the ability to do what a sitcom does and tell jokes and see these characters’ inner lives play out.”
With “Rutherford Falls” Season 2 now streaming on Peacock, Schmieding and Helms told Variety — in separate interviews — about bromance, romance and everything in between.
Nathan’s Season 1 meltdown deeply affects both him and Reagan. How did you approach his return?
Jana Schmieding: Reagan and Nathan’s friendship is everlasting. It’s strong enough to survive Nathan’s identity crisis. We show Nathan confronting his white privilege and trying to de-center himself, and of course, he’s doing so clumsily. So there were a lot of great jokes about him as a white ghost haunting the cultural center. He comes back to his hometown and finds a home in his friendship with her, and we’re setting up his journey for this season: How do you reestablish roots in a place that isn’t yours? Which is a subversive commentary in the same way that we did with Season 1 in taking Nathan’s land and making him live on it on Minishonka terms. We are positioning Nathan this season to experience what it’s like to have your history and identity de-centered in the national narrative, in funny ways!
Ed Helms: White dudes have had a pretty good run for a long time, and I’m really enjoying the challenge of questioning the ways that white males navigate the world, and the things that I think white males have taken for granted. It’s a fertile area! It’s full of questions. It’s full of uncertainty. It’s fraught. It feels creatively treacherous, in a good way.
It’s rare to see a show that hinges on the relationship between a man and a woman who do date each other’s genders but never romantically pursue one another. Can you walk through the development of their platonic love story?
Schmieding: I have had many friendships with non-Native men and cis-hetero men. It’s rarely given space on TV, but that experience is much more common than we are led to believe. And they’re old friends; they’re like siblings! We have a term in Lakota called “tiyospaye,” which is extended family, and that includes close friends. It’s family-slash-community. Reagan and Nathan have that kind of a dynamic.
Helms: We like to joke that it’s a bromance between a man and a woman. We wanted the central relationship to explore different gender experiences but also be unconditionally supportive and loving. Their backgrounds as a white man and a Native American woman are a huge part of their existence, and it colors so much of what they understand about each other and what they don’t understand about each other. They both push through moments of pretty unsympathetic behavior, and I love seeing two characters as different as they are being so committed to one another. Their differences give us much more territory to develop hilarious satire.
Reagan and Nathan do still have some crushes this season. What was important to accomplish in your characters’ romantic lives as opposed to their platonic ones?
Schmieding: Ultimately, it came down to just showcasing Native love. We get a little bit of in season one between Terry [Michael Greyeyes] and his wife, Renee [Kimberly Guerrero]. And Native families, which is something we’ve never seen on TV — Native families who are not just surviving trauma together. It’s really fun to see Reagan falling in love with someone who actually does understand her [Nelson, a Dakota man played by Dallas Goldtooth]. The big issue between her and Josh [Reagan’s white Season 1 love interest played by Dustin Milligan] is that he still has so much to learn about the way that she functions in her community. He does commit to the learning, and I think we can learn from the relationship with Josh, but in Season 2, you have two people who are at the same level. They are intellectual equals, and they challenge each other. They understand nation-building in the same way. They engage in their Indigeneity in a way that feels collaborative and supportive and loving.
Helms: We were very excited to play with these parallel love stories with Nathan and Reagan, because that keeps their relationship very fresh and alive to have both of them seeking advice and counsel from each other. When we made the discovery that Deirdre [Nathan’s enemy-turned-lover played by Dana L. Wilson] is pregnant, I was very nervous about it. Like, what’s our way out? Will we be acting with an infant? I did that in “The Hangover” … it’s kind of a nightmare. But the pitches started to roll, and all the writers were excited about this idea that Nathan is thrilled. Oftentimes, unexpected pregnancies are a source of great anxiety, but what if in Nathan’s case, it’s just the most jubilant thing? It’s a bit more complicated for Deirdre [who doesn’t want to commit to a relationship], but is there a way to find sweetness and integrity and comedy in something so fraught? She has that great combination of gravitas as a politician and sweet, giddy vulnerability in the personal scenes.
What were your favorite writing challenges this season?
Schmieding: Sierra [Teller Ornelas], our showrunner, did a lovely thing for our for Native writers to honor some of our favorite things about sitcoms. She is a really big fan of rom-coms, so she put rom-com elements into this season. Tai Leclaire is a really big fan of seasonal episodes, so he pitched the Halloween episode. As a Native writer in Hollywood, I [have been called to aid] white projects as the Native consultant. So I got to co-write Episode 5 with Matt Murray where Reagan and Terry go consult on the fictional TV show “Adirondack.” I have been a consultant — no big productions, but I know other Native writers who have been asked to be consultants on big projects like that. We all talk — we’re not that big of a community yet, so we know what’s going on. There’s been this big push for the last few years to reclaim narrative sovereignty. Native writers are finally saying, ‘We need an opportunity to tell our story. We want to be hired as writers on your production, as opposed to consultants, because if we are writers, we’re contributing to the character development and you’re gonna get a better product.’ And some shows just still don’t want to do that.
Helms: We landed on this idea that a mayoral race would be a good backbone. It’s a great thing to hang sub-stories on, and we really liked putting Terry on his heels and having him need to fight for something. In Season 1, he’s very tactical, but he’s always winning. In Season 2 we wanted Terry to be a little scared. So then it became, ‘Who’s the candidate?’ We pretty quickly decided it shouldn’t be Nathan. That would just be boring; I feel like we’ve seen it before. I think Mike Schur was the one [to suggest] it should be Bobbie [Nathan’s 18-year-old former intern, played by Jesse Leigh]. Jesse proves themself so incredibly in Season 1; we can’t give them enough to do as an actor. And culturally, we’re aware of teenagers being mayors. That is a phenomenon that happens! Like the 18-year-old kid that became the mayor of a small town in Iowa! So we thought, let’s play with that idea, and set it up as a puppet situation [where Terry control’s the campaign], but allow Bobbie to find their own agency in that situation and surprise everybody.
This interview has been edited and condensed.