The Library of Congress holds one collection with an odd assortment of items that one might evaluate as junk. A button. A pocket knife. A handkerchief. A few newspaper clippings. But the pocket knife is made of silver and ivory, the button bears the initial “L”, and the handkerchief is embroidered with “A. Lincoln”.
These were among the items found in the pockets of Abraham Lincoln on the night he died. Archivists, museum curators, and family historians know that provenance—an object’s origin and/or chain of ownership—can make even the most ordinary item an important historical artifact.
In the first episode of Peacock’s ten-episode first season of Rutherford Falls, Nathan Rutherford (show co-creator Ed Helms), a descendant of the town’s founder, bursts with excitement as he leads schoolchildren on a tour of his family’s museum, which includes a chair that a famous person once sat in. A few episodes later, he reverently shows Native American businessman Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes in what is arguably the show’s best performance) a chew stick enclosed in a glass case. Nathan values these objects because of who came into contact with them and what they mean for the town’s—and, it goes unsaid, his—history.
Reagan Wells (newcomer Jana Schmieding, also one of the show’s writers), who runs the cultural center for the town’s fictional Minishonka tribe, spends the sixth episode learning that people’s stories imbue everyday items with meaning. When community donations pour into the cultural center following a Facebook request, Reagan and her boyfriend, NPR reporter Josh (Schitt’s Creek’s Dustin Milligan), find themselves looking at a pile of junk, including a blender and a VHS copy of Young Guns II. Disgruntled, Reagan flips the VHS tape into a garbage can.
“So, what are you gonna tell people whose stuff we threw away?” Josh asks.
“Um… that I’m putting it into the [air quotes] archives? Which is the name of the dumpster that we’re throwing it into,” she replies.
Reagan and Josh eventually find themselves inside the dumpster on a hunt for the discarded blender that had been used by protesters at Standing Rock. When all the community’s “junk”, accompanied by the personal stories that give them meaning, goes on display and draws enthusiastic crowds to her formerly sad and deserted cultural center, Reagan is thrilled.
In addition to its groundbreaking cast and writers’ room of Native American talent, Rutherford Falls benefits from the perspective of its co-creator and writer Sierra Teller Ornelas, an accomplished Navajo weaver who previously worked at the National Museum of the American Indian. As she told NPR’s Ophira Eisenberg, her background taught her the importance of objects and their stories: “Just being at art markets and being able to sell, and trying to quickly distill the story of your nation, your family, this piece that you’re selling and explaining the importance of it, it really did help in terms of pitching.”
As viewers have come to expect from co-creator Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place), Rutherford Falls uses sly humor and flawed, lovable characters to tackle serious issues. The show confronts racism, colonization, historical erasure, and cultural appropriation in society at large, but it also addresses these issues as they relate to archives, museums, and public history projects. Whose history is prioritized? “Did they make a statue of any Minishonka?” a schoolboy asks during Nathan’s museum tour in the first episode. Should the winner of a high school history contest be a white boy who made a video about the “voiceless” Minishonka? Is the well-known story of town founder Lawrence Rutherford a whitewashed version of history? Do tourists care if a butter churn is from the wrong period?
Protagonists Nathan and Reagan love history, but this positive trait becomes the source of their conflict. Nathan, a man who is the epitome of white privilege, must learn that his passion for his family’s history should not blind him to the equally important heritage of his Minishonka best friend. He must also learn to separate his love for his family and his respect for the truth. Reagan, meanwhile, moves past her own snobbery and starts working for her people’s future as well as their past.
Rutherford Falls is a show with diversity at its core, making it a story about many different stories. It features complex Native American characters, a town with a Black woman mayor, a nonbinary character (Bobbie, played by Jesse Leigh) who delivers some of the best lines, and a fat woman in the lead female role. Better yet, each of these characters is a person rather than a token.
With the exception of Bobbie, who could certainly benefit from more development in future seasons, every main character is driven by history. Whether it’s family history, tribal history, the town’s history, their own history, or some complicated mix, history is personal, diverse, and poignant. And very funny.