Go watch Rutherford Falls

We have a simple message to all HP readers! Watch the new series Rutherford Falls.

Created by Michael Schur (who brought us The Good Place, Parks and Rec, and Brooklyn 99) and Sierra Teller Ornelas (who brought us Superstore), and actor Ed Helms, RF has all the amazing characteristics of these shows: deeply engaging with very difficult and complex intellectual and spiritual topics with humor and ease.

We particularly think of The Good Place, which engaged fundamental moral questions, including what it means to be “good”, what will and intention have to do with morality, the purpose of an afterlife, how to make valid moral judgments, and moral relativism, while definitively solving (at least for one member of the HP) The Trolley Problem. All while being very funny, very humble, not preachy, and very brave. Few prime-time sitcoms would dare to question the validity of the Christian afterlife; fewer still (none?) would dare to conclude that it is so deeply flawed as to be immoral in itself.

Rutherford Falls takes on the big, big topic of American history. Just to write that is pretty mind-blowing. Nathan Rutherford, played by Ed Helms, is the 12th-generation descendant of Lawrence Rutherford, a puritan colonial settler who founded the town through a “fair and honest” deal with the Minishonka people who lived on and tended the land. The location is deliberately blurred, but seems to be western Connecticut. We won’t give away the plot, which unfolds very quickly, but Nathan is depicted as a great guy who is passionate about his family’s history and proud of “his” town. Nathan’s best friend from childhood is Reagan Wells, a Minishonka woman who, as Nathan says, “gets it.” His nemeses are Terry Thomas, a Minishonka man and CEO of the Minishonka casino, and mayor Deirdre Chisenhall, the first black and first female mayor of “Nathan’s” town.

The unbelievably good writing moves immediately into extremely complex issues: whose history is told and preserved; whose history is buried or left untold or deliberately destroyed; what native people are “supposed to be like”/what is “authentically” native; and, importantly, how seemingly good, nice people can hold beliefs that are extremely harmful and hateful.

When does unknowing ignorance–the unquestioning acceptance of white-washed histories–cross over into deliberate ignorance–refusal to listen to those who tell the truth? How are those who suffer at the hands of that ignorance made to feel like it’s “not nice” to challenge it? Why do we let myths about the past dictate our actions? The show artfully illustrates how short a walk it is from “good person who doesn’t know the whole truth–what’s the harm in letting him believe what he believes?” to “person who, confronted with unpleasant truths they really have no excuse for not knowing about, fights to preserve the myth.”

Making public history–acts that impacted hundreds, and eventually thousands and millions of people living in what became America–the untouchable private property of individuals/descendants who get to control the narrative that perpetuates inequality is an action that goes on everywhere in America. Nathan’s passionate desire to honor “his family” makes any attack on their bad actions an attack on him–a nice guy. This is the trap set for those who seek to reclaim history from the victors.

We won’t spoil the plot–go watch it! The majority-native cast is a relief, it’s funny, and it’s the most powerful education in the history of this continent that you could ever get.

(And then start reading Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, by Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks.)

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