Today we’re invited to return to Rutherford Falls for eight new episodes that build and improve upon the solid groundwork of the sitcom’s first season. We last saw Reagan (Jana Schmieding) preparing for exciting new ventures as the manager of the cultural center and Nathan (Ed Helms) grappling with the fact that his family lineage isn’t quite what he thought it was. The former ends up becoming more of a focal point, and this season shines primarily because Reagan takes center stage instead of Nathan. Thankfully, Nathan has also grown up a good bit, making his scenes less cringeworthy.
But we’ve had a lot of white guy redemption stories over the years. As Terry (Michael Greyeyes) tells Nathan while trying to convince him to run for mayor: “People love a redemption story. Well, a white redemption story.” Nathan’s arc takes a backseat to Reagan’s in Season 2 as she grapples with the enormous task of running the cultural center (“The cultural center was my dream but I think it’s slowly killing me,” she confesses in the first episode, a sentiment that rings true as we’re told to pursue our dream jobs at any cost to our own health), attempts to get land, and pursues a new love interest. Schmieding is utterly charming and hilarious as Reagan, and we haven’t had enough stories about women as complex as her, never mind indigenous women.
The writers exceed the expectations set by Season 1, treading the same delicate line of packing in jokes and addressing serious issues. The first episode alone kills it as Sally (Julia Jones) and Wayne (Bobby Wilson) go hunting for a white ghost, attempting to trap it with items sacred to white people (a Cheers DVD, white wine, and Malcolm Gladwell books). Overachieving high schooler Bobbie (Jesse Leigh) gets some of the best lines, just as they did last season (“I can be very persuasive, like when I convinced Sarah G. to go down into that well to fetch my bracelet. I didn’t even lose my bracelet.”). The level of continuity is satisfying, like the fact that Reagan and Nathan still give each other fruit bouquets to commemorate special occasions. And in between these hilarious and touching moments, this season properly explores (rather than simply pays lip service to) bureaucracy, appropriation, corporate wrongdoing (Rutherford Inc. changing its name to Züvis has big Meta vibes), and how single and childless people are often left behind in community planning. It’s an impressive feat, but the writers make it look effortless.
Season 2 also gives more time to the supporting cast and further fleshes out the world of the Minishonka Nation and Rutherford Falls. Bottom line-minded Terry becomes even more of a main character, and for the better. Greyeyes’ subtlety and comic timing perfectly complement Schmieding’s depiction of the harried Reagan, so much so that it feels like they should be the focal duo rather than Nathan and Reagan. Bobbie gets their due as they run for mayor, spotlighting just how hyper-competent they are in between one-liners. The new characters don’t disappoint, either. Potential museum curator Nelson is played by Dallas Goldtooth, a member of the Native sketch group the 1491s who made a hilarious turn as William “Spirit” Knifeman in Reservation Dogs. Nelson is a know-it-all, but Goldtooth gives him a dry sense of humor and sweetness that make him endearing. Casino workers Sally and Wayne are the perpetual peanut gallery, always throwing underhanded comments Reagan’s way, but with hearts of gold underneath.
In a world so rich, Rutherford Falls could get away with solely exploring character moments, with little or no plot to speak of. Nevertheless, the show is incredibly story-driven, right through to the Season 2 finale. There is the occasional episode that focuses on emotional arcs; for example, the episode “Aunt Sue” delves into Reagan’s family’s dynamics, but still includes salient seasonal arc developments. All this to say, Rutherford Falls keeps the momentum going up until the credits roll.
Not only is Rutherford Falls an enjoyable watch, but the sitcom thoughtfully dissects American culture and centers Native stories. There’s no dearth of excellent television right now, but this heartwarming, funny, and boundary-breaking show is a must-see.
Season 2 of Rutherford Falls is now available on Peacock.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.