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The creator of 'Rutherford Falls' wants to show 'Native joy' through comedy

"Once Native people are in on the joke, it’s a really wonderful experience for any viewer coming into the show,” Sierra Teller Ornelas told TODAY.

In the second season of the sitcom "Rutherford Falls," which premieres on Peacock on June 16, co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas (who is Navajo) got to skewer what had been her experience in Hollywood, as a Native creator, until that point.

Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes, who is Plains Cree) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding, who is Miniconjou and Sicangu Lakota), both members of the show's fictional Minishonka Tribe, are summoned to New York City to be cultural consultants on a prestige TV show called "Adirondack." Terry is a casino CEO; Reagan runs the tribe's cultural center — and neither are "Adirondack" fans.

From the start, Terry and Reagan both object to how the ceremony is going to be depicted. But "Adirondack's" show runner and writer (played by the same actor, a nod to the "type" of person seen in these spaces) dismiss them, while giving false compliments meant to distract.

“Every Native person we know in Hollywood has been asked to be a cultural consultant,” Ornelas told TODAY, describing the “weird handcuffs” of the experience, “as someone who’s trying to tell a story, champion and fix things that you feel are very important.”

Rutherford Falls - Season 2
Michael Greyeyes and Kimberly Guerrero in "Rutherford Falls."Tyler Golden / Peacock

Terry — in a twist that won’t be spoiled — ends up outsmarting the "Adirondack" showrunners, and proving how off-the-mark their depiction of the indigenous experience is.

Speaking to TODAY, Greyeyes said the sequence underlined how different an experience "Rutherford Falls" is from past projects he's been involved in.

"'Adirondack' is literally one of my favorite episodes of the season because it was a map of my career prior to the last five years in this industry. As an indigenous actor — frankly, as an actor of color —Hollywood positions us to be guardians of cultural authenticity. With 'Rutherford Falls,' I was placed in a position where I didn't have to do that. The writing was authentic. The writing came from our communities. That allowed me as an actor to really be a better actor," Greyeyes said.

Ornelas co-created the show with Mike Schur ("Parks and Recreation," "The Good Place") and Ed Helms, and serves as the showrunner. Set in the fictional New York town of Rutherford Falls, which has a significant Native population, the show follows characters grappling with the town's problematic past and its future.

With its smart storylines about American identity and its lovable, though far from perfect, characters, “Rutherford Falls” stands out in the media landscape — precisely because of how funny and joyful it is. "Rutherford Falls" is effectively TV’s first Native sitcom.

Though recent shows like “Rutherford Falls” and “Reservation Dogs” are changing the status quo, indigenous populations have historically been underrepresented on-screen: According to the University of California Los Angeles’ 2020 “Hollywood Diversity Report,” Native Americans were in 0.3 percent of all top film roles in 2018 and 0.5 percent in 2019.

When storylines about indigenous populations are are featured, they’re often tragic, like projects directed at the high rates of missing and murdered indigenous women, like “Wind River.”

"Season One of 'Rutherford Falls,' one of the big questions we got in interviews was our thoughts about Native representation. It’s a hard question to answer because it’s like, “Not good.” It's never going to be a complicated answer," Ornelas said.

Ornelas and the other writers, many of whom are Native — including star Schmieding — set out to disrupt the feeling of heaviness and emotional inaccuracy they often felt while watching Native stories unfold on TV that were written by non-Native people.

Rutherford Falls - Season 2
Another day in Rutherford Falls. Pictured: Ed Helms as Nathan Rutherford, Jesse Leigh as Bobbie Yang, Jana Schmieding as Reagan Wells.Tyler Golden / Peacock

"There’s always an element of ‘hold for applause’ or it feels like homework and you're like, Oh God.' We’re always like, ‘Lets avoid the ‘ooo’ kind of feeling at every turn,'" Ornelas said.

And so, Season Two of "Rutherford Falls" has brawls between women fighting over an eligible Native suitor; parents quietly applauding their kids defacing a statue of the town's white founder; high jinks involving the legal weed industry; and more. It's irreverent and heartwarming at the same time — and has Greyeyes smiling on his way to work most mornings.

"It’s truly one of my great artistic pleasures in my career, to be on the show," Greyeyes said. "The support I received on the show. The palpable joy that comes off the page, comes into the room, comes onto the set."

Greyeyes has found the response to his character, a go-getter casino owner who seems programmed to look only on the bright side of life, to be empowering, because it contrasts with the depiction of many Native men he's seen onscreen.

"Behind the image of the drunken Indian or the dispossessed Indian is that these are powerless characters. That’s the message that people are getting. What’s so beautiful about Terry, Renee and Jana is that they are incredibly powerful," Greyeyes said, speaking to the show's Minishonka characters. "They’re vulnerable. They’re human. But they don't apologize for their power."

Rutherford Falls - Season 2
Jana Schmieding as Reagan Wells, Bobby Wilson as Wayne, Julia Jones as Sally, Mitch Rouse as Shep Swiftwater -- (Photo by: Tyler Golden/Peacock)Tyler Golden / Peacock

Greyeyes recalled a tweet from someone saying they planned to "Terry Thomas" a meeting, and approach work like Terry would. "That is the greatest accolade any actor could ever receive," Greyeyes said.

Essentially, there’s no way “Rutherford Falls,” with its insider perspective, could have been manufactured via the use of “cultural consultants,” like Reagan and Terry are employed to be on "Adirondack."

Ornelas said the show's comedic approach is truer to the Native experience than heavy drama, like "Adirondack."

"In our lives as Native storytellers, often complex things will happen to us and they'll be coupled with comedy. It’s in our saddest moments that my uncle would crack a joke or my mom would say something super sarcastic. Those two elements feel coupled in my life. If we could just tell our story as we experience it, I think not only people would get a real view into our experience and they would also be entertained and find it funny. Once Native people are in on the joke, it’s a really wonderful experience for any viewer coming into the show," Ornelas said.

Rutherford Falls - Season 2
Pictured: Dallas Goldtooth as Nelson, Jana Schmieding as Reagan Wells.Greg Gayne / Peacock

Schmieding added, “Historically, Native stories have been relegated to drama, in this industry. It's been very fun and easy to elevate us into a comedy space and utilize the writing of Native and non-native comedians.”

And while the show is inviting for all audiences, there are a few subtle details for people within the community. Take a sequence in the first episode, when Terry and his wife, Renee (Kimberly Guerrero) perform a dance routine from "Dirty Dancing."

"When we mixed that episode, we got to add in hoots and hollers and applause. I realized that none of the applause was Native. I was like, 'We need to have Native specific applause for this dance, because people would be losing their minds.' We called writers to get on their phones and start mimicking Native hoots and hollers, because it's that good," Ornelas said.

All eight episodes of "Rutherford Falls" premiere on Peacock on June 16.