Michael Greyeyes stars in a scene from the TV show "Rutherford Falls" streaming on Peacock April 22, 2021. CNS photo/Colleen Hayes, Peacock
Michael Greyeyes stars in a scene from the TV show "Rutherford Falls" streaming on Peacock April 22, 2021. CNS photo/Colleen Hayes, Peacock
NEW YORK – The sitcom "Rutherford Falls" breaks new TV ground with its representation of, and degree of participation by, Indigenous people.

Jana Schmieding of the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux tribe, for instance, is among its lead actors. And five Native Americans are on the show's writing staff.

The creators of the series, moreover, have impressive track records behind them. Schmieding's co-star, notable comedic actor Ed Helms ("The Office"), partnered with Michael Schur ("Parks and Recreation") and Sierra Teller Ornelas ("Superstore") to launch the program.

Despite this pedigree, the fledgling show – the first five episodes of which will be available to stream on Peacock beginning Thursday, April 22 – is uneven in tone and execution.

Those behind the program demonstrate commendable courage in confronting the tragically fraught history of tension between Americans of European ancestry and their indigenous counterparts. But as a comedy, the series strains to hit its mark.

Helms plays Nathan Rutherford, the last descendant in a lineage stretching back 12 generations to live in the upstate New York town named after his ancestor – and the community's founder – Lawrence Rutherford.

A statue of his great-and-then-some-grandfather, affectionately known as "Big Larry," marks the precise spot where Lawrence brokered a 1638 agreement with the fictitious Minishonka tribe that led to the establishment of Rutherford Falls. The monument's inconvenient placement in the middle of the hamlet's main street, however, leads to numerous fender benders.

As a result, Mayor Deidre Chisenhall (Dana L. Wilson) wants to move Big Larry. But she won't succeed in doing so without a fight from Nathan.

Nathan runs a heritage museum honoring his family's legacy while his best friend, Native American Reagan Wells (Schmieding), works at the gift shop of the Running Thunder Casino. Running Thunder's owner, Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), who also belongs to the Minishonka, becomes both pals' nemesis.

Believing that "the history of indigenous people is the greatest story never told," Reagan wants to transform the gift shop into a cultural center. She feels this would uplift her people more than gambling dens – which she considers "cesspools of blind capitalism" – have done. Thomas naturally resists Reagan's idea.

The tribe, meanwhile, aims to sue Nathan to make his family belatedly honor Lawrence's deal with them by paying the Minishonka what they were promised in goods and services. Given Nathan's connection to the vast conglomerate his clan oversees, a successful suit could prove a game-changing windfall for the indigenous Americans.

Along with the mature themes with which it deals, including racial conflict, "Rutherford Falls" includes some references to mental illness and substance abuse as well as off-color and crude dialogue. A secondary character is identified as gay, but his sexuality doesn't factor prominently in the plot. The show is thus acceptable as adult fare.

There's a likable goofiness to Helms' persona, but this can only take him so far. He often creates the impression that he's laboring for a laugh.

Other members of the cast seem too pleased with the supposed cleverness of the jokes they're delivering. Consequently, numerous exchanges between them register as unnatural and lacking in authenticity.

Still, it may be too early to say whether viewers will want to pass though "Rutherford Falls" or tarry there a while.

Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.