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TELEVISION 'Rutherford Falls' returns for season two with double the diversity
by Jerry Nunn
2022-06-19

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Peacock's hit comedy Rutherford Falls is back with season two. (It started June 16.) The story follows two lifelong friends—Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding)—as they navigate life in a small town bordering a Native American reservation.

Several of the cast members and creatives of Rutherford Falls spoke exclusively with Windy City Times for interviews before the debut of season two.

Helms began by saying that Schmieding was originally hired as a writer: "When we went to hire for the role of Reagan, Jana was in the mix. She stepped in and nailed the character."

Schmieding reminisced with a story about listening to Dolly Parton's music on her way to the original audition, "The music kept things fun and I told Ed I had been listening to "Islands in the Stream," so we began singing together. All the executives in the room started singing along with us too!"

Schmieding spoke about the overall Native American representation currently in media, saying, "I feel it is a necessary shift and reclamation of our native sovereignty. It has been part of the plan. We are honing our craft in our own venues. Now we are in a position where we can collaborate with our powers combined to move things forward. Our showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas has been working in television for a long time. The biggest shift I have seen is that there are Native people with power in upper-level positions, who can then bring in young talent to the writer's room. That's been a big change."

Ornelas elaborated more on her own background: "I have worked in situational comedy for over 10 years now. I started with a show called Happy Endings, then Just Shoot Me and Veronica's Closet. These were shows I grew up loving and wanted to be a part of the writing team. Rutherford Falls is half Native writers and half non-Native writers. It was fun to watch seasoned writers get excited about Native stories that they had never heard before."

Michael Greyeyes plays Tribal Casino C.E.O. Terry Thomas and acknowledged the representation shown on Rutherford Falls: "We have been advocating for a greater share on control of our images and stories since cinema began. The success of Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs is because of being helmed by indigenous creators who are given opportunities and license to tell their own complex stories."

Ornelas agreed with Greyeyes, saying, "There were always conversations in the past about working on this level and now it is finally happening. Audiences can see the fruit from so much labor. This is from generations of Native American media makers. It is exciting and also bittersweet because of the shoulders of past performers we now stand on. Charlie Hill should have had a sitcom the way Roseanne Barr did. We feel a calling and an obligation to tell our stories because of the people who didn't get to do it."

Windy City Times inquired about two-spirit storylines and Ornelas said, "The concept of two-spirit is very specific to certain nations and it has been used as a catch-all term for a lot of different concepts that are similar. I think there is an assumption that in small towns there isn't very much diversity or representation of LGBTQ+ folks. Growing up in a small town and going back to my reservation, I saw that these were the people we relied on for traditions and still do to this day. There is more LGBTQ+ representation in small towns than mainstream media would have people believe. It was very important to me to have characters like Jessie Leigh's character Bobbie because that is reflective of my life and my family"

The Bobbie Yang character was not originally written to be non-binary and Ornelas explained that by having LGBTQ+ people in her family she wanted to depict that in Rutherford Falls and also include the immigrant community as well. "If we are telling the story of America, that is a huge element," she said. "When Jessie Leigh came in they represented many communities. Jessie blew us away with classic comedy timing while bringing in youthful energy. We are championing for that character to run for mayor and also be a teenager. Being who they truly are is incredible to watch and witness. I think about my family members who would have benefitted from that if Rutherford Falls had come out 20 years ago."

Jessie Leigh, who uses they/them pronouns and is non-binary in everyday life, went into the audition for Bobbie Yang in March 2020. They recounted the experience," saying, It is my job as an actor to bring myself to the character. The writers made the character of Jessie Yang non-binary, which means the world to me. It feels great to play a non-binary character onscreen because we haven't seen that many, especially younger ones. I got the role and a week later the world shut down due to COVID. We had to wait until November to film season one and now we are here with season two!"

Leigh has some input on the on-screen character's fashion choices and found the '70s to be a source of inspiration. "We had multiple fittings with our costume designer. It was a dream walking in to see racks and racks of retro clothing. I feel comfortable wearing the costumes and they bring power to the character." When asked if they had taken any clothing from the set, they said, "Yes, I kept the pants I am wearing right now! After we wrapped season two I snuck back to the costume trailer and asked if I could keep the pants."

WCT asked if Leigh was mayor of a small town and what laws would be important to them and they declared," I would have gender nonconforming bathrooms in every establishment."

Leigh received a letter describing a non-binary fan who after watching Bobbie Yang on television was able to make their parents fully understand the scope of being non-binary.

In terms of a possible spinoff for Bobby Yang, Leigh liked the idea and replied," Bobbie has a fun character arc in season two and that will at least make a good storyline for season three, if not a spinoff one day!"

Helms reported that working with Jessie Leigh is "always a blast" and went on to say, "Nathan and Bobbie Yang are both so human and catalysts for each other. They call each other out and make each other laugh. Jessie is so funny and their instincts are spot on. It is a beautiful dynamic when our characters build each other up. Sometimes they build each other up for dumb things, but that is really funny!"

When questioned about possible plot lines for season three, Schmieding said," Some big things happen in season two and there are plenty of stories we could follow up with. We could go deeper into Bobbie Yang's story or Wayne and Sally's home life. We will see!"

Visit Rutherford Falls at peacocktv.com to stream all eight episodes of season two.


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