With the debut of “Rutherford Falls” on Peacock in 2021, Sierra Teller Ornelas became the first-ever Native American to serve as a comedy showrunner. It’s a title she doesn’t take lightly — though it did create a certain degree of pressure for the show to succeed. With Season 2, however, Ornelas was able to have a bit more fun.
“In Season 1, we felt this real responsibility to make something that was the first of its kind. But with such love that we got from viewers, [by Season 2] we felt the confidence to tell stories we really want to tell,” Ornelas tells Variety. “Like, how do Native people do Halloween?”
It’s a serious question. Because of the offensive, oft-sexualized costumes of Native historical figures like Pocahontas that pop up every year, Reagan (Jana Schmieding) calls Halloween “the Super Bowl of cultural appropriation” in Episode 7. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t also Native people who count down the days to the holiday. “A lot of Native families cannot wait to start decorating their houses,” Ornelas says. “My nephew dressed up as Jason, and he’s four. It was way too accurate.”
Pitched by writer Tai Leclaire, who comes from a Mohawk reservation where Halloween was a huge deal, the episode sees the people of the Minishonka Nation celebrate in their own ways. Some gather to craft Minishonka beadwork together; some go to classic costume parties; some paint anti-colonialism graffiti. It’s an example of the kind of Native humor the show’s writers had more freedom to tackle this season.
The Season 1 finale of “Rutherford Falls” left Reagan and Nathan (Ed Helms) in difficult positions. Reagan breaks up with Josh (Dustin Milligan) for releasing a podcast revealing that Nathan isn’t a Rutherford by blood. The realization that he isn’t biologically related to the family whose history he’s devoted his life to preserving sends Nathan spiraling into an identity crisis, and he leaves Rutherford Falls with no destination. Reagan begins to succeed at work, finally securing backing to expand her Minishonka cultural center, but must do so without the support of her best friend.
Ornelas found the flipped dynamic between Reagan and Nathan to be the best starting point for new jokes. “What does it look like to see a man who’s lost everything rebuild from scratch, while his best friend — who is normally a beta support system — has leveled up in this huge way in her community and occupation?” she says.
In the Season 2 premiere “White Men in the Cupboard,” Nathan emerges from a Harry Potter-style hiding place in the cultural center, where Reagan has been hiding him from the rest of the town as he read books like Robin DiAngelo “White Fragility” to learn how to “de-center” himself (while also doing chores for the center). His foray into whiteness studies obviously goes horribly wrong, as he decides to reintegrate into Rutherford Falls by crashing Terry’s (Michael Greyeyes) birthday party with a video speech about how humble he’s become. But eventually his progress becomes genuine, leaving room for the show to focus on subjects beyond a white guy’s self-absorption: for example, the dirty details of small-town political feuds within Native communities, in this case between Terry and Feather Day (Kaniehtiio Horn).
“Up until this year, the villains of the show have been systemic. It’s been corporations, governments, larger bodies,” Ornelas says. “So it excited us to have a true, formidable villain this season through Feather Day.”
The owner of a posh gym and a staunch detractor of the Running Thunder casino, Feather’s run for mayor creates real problems for Terry, the well-respected community leader who owns the casino, and therefore Reagan, whose cultural center is funded with casino money.
“I always thought, if anyone was gonna take down Terry Thomas, who would make Terry Thomas nervous? It would be an Indian woman,” Ornelas says with a laugh. “It was really interesting to have a character who was unapologetically confident and willing to win, but at the same time is a mom, has layers and is not a cartoon. Kaniehtiio has such great comedic timing, and she was like, ‘This is the first time I got to be funny, like broad, network-comedy-funny, with other Native people.’”
At one point in the season, Terry and Feather realize that their children are secretly dating each other, which Ornelas credits to her desire to play on the trope of star-crossed lovers from a Native lens.
“I always have fun with Hatfield and McCoy-type [stories]. I grew up on classic TV, so I can veer into that, but we always want to make sure people have layers and textures,” she says. “You’re taking these people who are fighting within a community, but humanize them by reminding their parents that they have the same issues that everybody else has.”
Feather’s arc in Season 2 also enables growth for 18-year-old Bobbie (Jesse Leigh), who was Nathan’s unpaid intern in Season 1. Terry needs someone to run against Feather and initially approaches Nathan, who rightfully turns him down but suggests that Bobbie is someone people could get excited about. Because Bobbie is Asian and nonbinary, their candidacy allows the show to dispel common stereotypes about what places like Rutherford Falls really are.
Ornelas — who grew up in Tucson, and regularly visited family members in rural locales — has always been struck by the way mainstream depictions of small towns are overwhelmingly straight and white.
“I grew up around a lot of people from various African countries and Middle Eastern countries and a lot of LGBTQ folks,” she says. “In a lot of ways, ‘Rutherford Falls’ is a show about America. To me, you need the first peoples of that land, Native people. You need white people. You need Black people. You need immigrants.”
“What I love about Bobbie is that they were originally written as a gay teen boy who was Asian. We opened up casting to Latinos and Asians, and Jesse came in with classic ‘80s sitcom timing. We were just howling with laughter, so we switched [Bobbie’s gender] to better reflect the performer. But I also feel like saying that we switched does a disservice to all that Jesse does. Mainstream audiences often feast on [Native] trauma, and the same could be said for the nonbinary and trans community. I’m so proud to have such a joyous character. I have a lot of LGBTQ folks in my family. They’re the glue of our communities. It’s not just aspirational; it’s also a real reflection of small town life.”
Ornelas, who says she grew up “wanting to be Navajo Nora Ephron,” also found it important to spotlight what it looks like when Native people fall in love. Thus, Dallas Goldtooth was cast as Nelson, a Dakota man who comes to Rutherford Falls to work at Reagan’s cultural center — and becomes her new love interest.
“We always joked on set that like Native romance always ends with a guy behind prison glass holding his hand against a window [before] the credits. Or someone has PTSD, and they hold hands at a bus stop for a minute, and then credits,” she says. “You never get sweeping crane shots with kisses, or they can’t stand each other and then they fall in love, like classic screwball rom-coms I love.”
Part of the uniqueness of Reagan and Nelson’s relationship, and of “Rutherford Falls” as a whole, is the backdrop of Native art surrounding them. After Season 1, Ornelas told Variety about the “power jewelry” used in the show from cast and crew members’ personal collections. As the Minishonka cultural center grows in Season 2, so does the list of artists the show is able to support, with acquisitions from all over — various items from the Santa Fe Indian Market; a painting by Richard Glazer-Danay, who Ornelas met at the British museum when she was four; and even a cradleboard made by Horn’s own boyfriend.
“It’s a very exciting time for Native art and fashion and media right now,” Ornelas says. “We really, really love showcasing our excellence.”