When Sierra Teller Ornelas was in pre-production on her new Peacock comedy “Rutherford Falls,” she found inspiration in a quote she read from showrunner Prentice Penny describing his movie “Uncorked” as “This is Black people on a Tuesday.”
The film, which follows a young man on his quest to become a master sommelier, did not take place at a major life event such as a wedding, nor did it result in tragedy; it told a slice of life story. And that was what Teller Ornelas wanted to do with “Rutherford Falls,” a show that centers on the relationships between members of a Native American reservation and the residents of the neighboring titular town.
“We were very fortunate to show Native people as complex people who have multiple points of view,” she tells Variety. “For us to be mundane, to not be trauma porn people, to just be human beings that are complex and have families and jobs and friends, that is revolutionary.”
When the show begins, Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), a descendant of the founder of the fictional titular town, refuses to allow the relocation of a statue of his ancestor despite it literally being in the middle of a road. Although he may be picking the wrong hill on which to die, Nathan is not a bad guy, as evidenced by his friendship with Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), who works at the tribe’s cultural center. As episodes unfold, the town’s history with the reservation gets further explored, as do other characters’ issues with the way things are run.
“We talked a lot about, ‘What is American history, and what is the narrative we cling to? And clinging to the narrative, what are the histories that are erased or ignored by the mainstream culture?’ ” Teller Ornelas says.
Teller Ornelas is one of three co-creators of the show, alongside Mike Schur and Helms. The idea for the show started with Schur and Helms, who came up with the character of Nathan, and then Teller Ornelas helped flesh out the world and formed their trio. As a Navajo and Mexican American woman, she remembers going into the show thinking, “I don’t know if we’re the first [TV show to feature so many Native stories], I just don’t want to be the last.”
With more than 500 recognized tribes in the United States alone, Teller Ornelas notes “there are shared experiences” that the show endeavors to capture, but while “we are very excited to tell some of the pan-Native stories, we are not a monolith.” The show does not set out to perfectly represent one specific tribe, but through collaboration in the writers’ room, which featured four other Native writers in addition to Teller Ornelas. They also had directors, consultants and speakers on issues ranging from tribal law to representation in the media. “We made this with a real attention to Native joy because I feel like that’s something we really need right now,” Teller Ornelas says.
The “Rutherford Falls” writers’ room also includes Bobby Wilson, who is Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota; Tai Leclaire, who is Kanien’kehá:ka/Mi’kmaq; Tazbah Chavez, who is Nüümü/Diné/San Carlos Apache; Schmieding, who is Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux; Eric Ledgin; Rupinder Gill; Matt Murray; Marcos Luevanos and Lauren Tyler.
“We hired Native people specifically from different regions of the country,” Teller Ornelas shares. “Each nation has its own religion, its own government, its own sovereignty. So [the room rule was], if it made all five of us laugh or if it was a conversation all five of us wanted to have, then it went into the show.”
But, “beyond the four other Native writers, we had other writers of color, other women,” she continues. “It was really important to me to not just have diversity at the bottom of the system but throughout. It really helped to empower the room, and I think true diversity is achieved that way — where it’s not top-heavy or bottom-heavy.”
She wanted to structure the room “almost like a teaching hospital,” where there would be people in the upper-level positions eager to help shepherd the next wave of writers. This was inspired by her time on ABC’s “Happy Endings,” which was her first writers’ room experience as proof of concept. Nine writers on that show went on to become show creators (and many more to become executive producers).
Teller Ornelas is no stranger to hearing some television producers say they “can’t find” Native writers to hire, but that is an antiquated notion. The “Rutherford Falls” room was staffing during the dispute between the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood’s largest talent agencies, which meant that there were no agents involved in submitting writers. Instead they relied on other channels, including managers, social media, personal recommendations and initiatives such as Sundance Institute’s Native American & Indigenous Program, proved invaluable.
“You do have to go and find people,” she says, “but it was a really interesting staffing season because there were people ready to really hit the ground running. We were all compiling these lists, these databases.” Case in point: the WGA has one now, she notes, and “there’s actually a substantial amount of Native talent at 3Arts.” (Teller Ornelas is repped by 3Arts.)
After laughing so hard at something she saw on Wilson’s Instagram (he is a member of the 1491s sketch group), Teller Ornelas’ husband told her she should reach out to him for the show, which she did. With Schmieding, Teller Ornelas had been on her podcast and asked her for a writing sample. Schmieding ended up cast as the female lead opposite Helms.
“The beauty of Mike Schur shows and working with him, he came from ‘The Office’ where Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak and all of these people could be true cast members and writers at the same time; it just wasn’t seen as odd,” Teller Ornelas says. “The Reagan character is a reflection of so many writers in the room. But when you’re picturing this character in your mind, you’re seeing someone you can immediately root for, and Jana is that person.”
Similar to the myth about Native writers being hard to find, Teller Ornlelas says, “You’re told there aren’t enough Native actors, but we had an abundance.”
While “Rutherford Falls” was still in its earliest days, Teller Ornelas had conversations with Sterlin Harjo, who co-created the upcoming series “Reservation Dogs,” saying, “If my show goes, I’ll staff you,” while Harjo shared the same sentiment. Both of the shows ended up getting picked up (and other series centering Native characters, such as Marvel’s “Hawkeye” spinoff “Echo” are in the works, as well). So, even ahead of “Rutherford Falls’” April 22 premiere on Peacock, Teller Ornelas already has her wish of being one of many shows to come to celebrate Native stories.