Rutherford Falls brings Indigenous writers together for new NBC sitcom

On the Paramount Studio lot in Los Angeles, five Indigenous writers and comics are rewriting the Hollywood sitcom script.

Ed Helms, Mike Schur and Sierra Teller Ornellas behind the show, set in a small town that borders a reserve

Rutherford Falls writers (L to R): Tazbah Chavez, Bobby Wilson, Sierra Teller Ornelas, Jana Schmieding, Tai Leclaire. (Zoe Tennant)

Originally published on February 7, 2020.

On the Paramount Studio lot in Los Angeles, five Indigenous writers and comics are rewriting the Hollywood script. 

"I would say this is the first TV show that has this many staff writers that are Native," said Tazbah Chavez, who is the story editor on the upcoming sitcom, Rutherford Falls

"I could be wrong, but I won't back down," joked Chavez, who is from the Nuumu, San Carlos Apache and Diné tribes. 

I figured there'd be like one Native writer, and I'd have to fight for it.​​​- Sierra Teller Ornelas

Rutherford Falls was created by Sierra Teller Ornelas, Mike Schur and Ed Helms. The show is set in upstate New York, in a small town that borders on a reserve. "And the town is sort of turned upside down when there's talk of moving a statue that commemorates the founder of the town," explained Ornelas, who is Navajo.

"Say something big"

Rutherford Falls is setting out to do something big, she explained. 

Like other shows that Mike Schur has co-created, explained Ornelas, "he sets out to really try to say something big, in a super funny, super accessible way." From talking about the bureaucracy of government with Parks and Recreation, to asking what it means to be a good person in The Good Place.

The writers of Rutherford Falls are reflecting on big questions, too. 

"We're talking a lot about 'What are our first stories? What is the American narrative? How does that American narrative affect all of us?' And I think we've found a way to make a funny, interesting version of that," said Ornelas. 

Ornelas is also the showrunner, "[Which is] sort of like the boss," she explained, "sort of a short stop position." She's the conduit between the co-creators, producers, the network, and the writers, and she was central to putting the writing team together. 

"I figured there'd be like one Native writer, and I'd have to fight for it," said Ornelas. "And Mike [Schur] was like, 'Oh no .... half the room should be Native. It's a two-hander between a Native woman and a white guy, it should be half and half.'"

Ed Helms will play the lead character Nathan Rutherford, while the actor who will play the show's main Indigenous character, hasn't been announced yet. 

"It's really just been like, I sound like a Pollyanna, but like a dream come true," said Ornelas of the writing team. 

There are 12 writers on the show, including Ornelas, Schur, and Helms. Alongside Ornelas and Chavez are Indigenous writers and comics: Tai Leclaire, Jana Schmieding, and Bobby Wilson.

Inside the writers room 

On the first day of working together, explained Chavez, she "really had a moment." 

"This is the first time that I've had Native colleagues in any workplace. And it's so cool to come to work, especially in TV, and be around other Native writers," said Chavez.

"It influences the vibe and the culture of the [writers] room," added Schmieding. "It also is, I think, influencing the storytelling quite a bit. It's pretty magical." 

Rutherford Falls is currently in production and will air on NBCUniversal's streaming site, Peacock.

"It's a really exciting time," said Ornelas.  "We're all getting to do something that is genuinely funny, genuinely interesting, but also very much from a Native perspective."