When the audience first meets Terry Thomas, the manager of Running Thunder Casino at Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls,” they see a stoic, intense native man with a commanding presence.
The character is set up to be the bad guy, or so it seems. As each 30-minute episode of the 10-episode season unfolds, viewers meet the real Terry — a loving father with a knack for entrepreneurship and a dedication to his community.
He is calculating and cunning, but also sincere, honorable and sometimes quite funny. Episode four of the series, titled “Terry Thomas,” was a particularly emotional experience for actor Michael Greyeyes.
“Very often people who are businessmen, casino owners or bosses are corrupt and greedy people,” he said. “With Episode Four [Sierra Teller Ornelas] and the other writers erase that stereotype.”
For Hollywood, diversity and inclusion have become a hot-button issue. In recent years, the traditionally white industry has begun to take official initiatives to foster a culture of inclusiveness. While some of these goals were created as a result of public outcry, studios quickly discovered that having these unique and different voices was good for business.
Movies with women or people of color in the center have proven successful at the box office, bringing billions of dollars to studios over the past five years. Blockbuster films such as ‘Captain Marvel’, ‘Wonder Woman’, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Black Panther’ have shown that audiences will look forward to quality films with diverse characters.
For streamers like Peacock, who monetize subscribers and ads, the payout is a little different. The shows that gain popularity with the public may result in higher subscription rates or may convince a subscriber who was thinking of leaving the service to stay for another month or two.
“Rutherford Falls” is an anomaly in the industry, though the writers and actors hope that will change. The show has a staff of 10 writers, five of whom are indigenous. The team is led by Michael Schur – one of the industry’s most prolific sitcom creators, whose credits include “The Office”, “The Good Place” and “Parks and Recreation” – and Ornelas, the first native content- creator who is a television comedy.
On Peacock, which has 42 million subscribers to its service, the Native creators can share their stories with a wide audience – and their authentic voices are already being rewarded. The show currently has a 94% “Fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes out of 32 reviews, and fans of the series are already clamoring for a second season.
“We’re starting to see a shift, especially with the Hollywood Foreign Press and the like. We’re starting to see some real and current systemic challenges now,” said Jana Schmieding, who works in the writer’s room for “Rutherford Falls” and as well as stars in the series.
“It’s actually a financially viable decision to bring new voices into the industry,” she said. “We have more nuanced stories, we have more engaged viewers and we have more literate viewers.”
This is Schmieding’s first appearance as a writer in a TV series and her groundbreaking role as an actress. Although she was widely acclaimed for her role as Reagan Wells on the series, it was a role she initially had no intention of playing.
After a decade as a public school teacher in New York City, spending her nights performing sketch and improv comedy, Schmieding finally made the move to Los Angeles in 2016. For the better part of three years, the Lakota Sioux writer and actress tried to get a staff position.
After befriending Ornelas, Schmieding was finally offered a seat at the table.
“It took an indigenous woman to see me and see my talent and lift me up and hire me,” she said.
The table was “Rutherford Falls,” a show about two lifelong best friends, Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) and Reagan Wells (Schmieding), who find themselves at a crossroads when the city calls for the removal of a historic statue in Nathan’s honor. family lineage. Both the town and the native tribe are fictional, but brought to life through the real-life experiences of the show’s writers.
Known as “Big Larry,” the statue commemorates the deal Lawrence Rutherford, an American settler, made with the Minishonka tribe to create the town of Rutherford Falls. Through a series of missteps, Nathan accidentally opens the door for one of the leaders of the Minishonka tribe, Terry Thomas, to sue him and a multimillion-dollar company founded by the Rutherford family for years of unpaid rewards.
The ordeal puts a strain on the relationship between Reagan and Nathan, as Reagan must choose between standing next to her old friend or siding with her native community.
“What some people may not realize is that there is tremendous pressure on such a sitcom,” wrote Vincent Schilling, an Akwesasne Mohawk and associate editor and senior correspondent at Indian country today. “If it’s not funny, or somehow clashes, Indigenous people may not get a chance for a long, long time because the executives in the TV networks may argue that Indigenous content won’t sell.”
Ornelas, Schur and Helms, who co-created the series, balance the heaviness of the tension between the Minishonka and Nathan with light comedic moments. The satire of watching a white man fight for his history (and country) against a group of people who have been subjected to similar conditions for a long time gives a surprising lightness to the show.
“As a Native journalist, this is exceptional,” Schilling wrote in his review of the series. “The writing is exactly what I’ve wanted to see for decades, my whole life actually.”
That sentiment was shared by Greyeyes, a Plains Cree from Canada’s Muskeg Lake First Nation. The Indigenous actor has three decades of experience in the entertainment industry and only in the last five years has he seen a real shift in the portrayal of Indigenous characters in film and on television.
Throughout his career, he said he’s seen “the good, the bad, and the ugly” when it comes to indigenous representation in the media.
“What I saw in Hollywood for a very long time was that they were just willing to look at the native person as a metaphor or as a foil for something else where white characters would learn from us or come to their own emotional realization because of our presence in the story,” Greyeyes said. “Or worse, they would just take it out of our cultures, out of our stories, out of our history and use it for whatever purposes they needed.”
“What I’ve seen change is the idea that indigenous people aren’t pigeonholed, that we’re everywhere,” he said.
For those studying Indigenous culture and representation in the media, the biggest shift in the portrayal of Indigenous peoples in film and on television has come in the wake of the Standing Rock protests.
In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline was diverted near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Tribe members opposed the pipeline because it would disrupt the headwaters of the Missouri, the reservation’s only water supply.
While the protests started that year, it wasn’t until mid-2017 for the media to begin to understand the story. A video showing people being treated while protesting the pipeline went viral and contained evidence that Dakota Access watchdogs had attacked protesters.
Dustin Tahmahkera, a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, and an interdisciplinary scholar of North American natives, critical media, and sound at the University of Illinois, said the Standing Rock protests were the first major event of Indigenous activism to hit mainstream media had chosen in decades on.
It was a reminder to the country that Native people are modern Americans and go beyond the stories and histories taught in public education.
“There was so much more awareness and heightened awareness,” he said. “And so much further to go.”
Joanna Hearne, a professor of Native American film studies at the University of Missouri, also pointed to Standing Rock as a pivotal moment in changing perceptions in the entertainment industry. She added that the rise of streaming platforms has opened up more space for these voices outside of a traditional cable scheme, and the success of other Indigenous people, some outside of North America, has helped show what Indigenous talent can do.
Hearne used writer and director Taika Waititi as an example. Waititi are Maori, an indigenous people of New Zealand. While he made his start in the industry and told stories that reflected his experience in New Zealand, his most recent work, including the blockbuster Marvel film “Thor Ragnorak” and the Oscar-winning feature film “Jojo Rabbit”, shows that Indigenous people can use their unique experiences to tell universal stories.
“This is a really exciting time for us and there’s room, there’s room for it and there’s an audience for it,” said Schmieding. “‘Rutherford Falls’ is like a fun little stepping stone to even more nuanced, more engaging, exciting diverse Native and Indigenous content.”
Disclosure: Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, a subsidiary of CNBC owner Comcast.
Disclosure: Peacock is the streaming service of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.