Hollywood Made Rutherford Falls’ Jana Schmieding Feel “Invisible.” Now She’s TV Smooching Your Schitt’s Creek Crush
“Dating and love and romance on-screen is something, as a woman of size, I never thought would happen,” Jana Schmieding, star of Peacock’s flagship spring comedy Rutherford Falls, tells Refinery29 over the phone, before the new sitcom’s April 22 premiere. Schmieding is being extremely candid: “I didn’t think that would be part of my career trajectory. It was challenging.”
But, as you ease into Rutherford Falls, you’ll find just that: A grand love story for Schmieding’s lead character, Reagan Wells, that is so enthralling you may be left nursing a pang of jealousy. At a time when real-life dating is tanking so thoroughly that even 79-year-old married senator Bernie Sanders is alarmed, Reagan enjoys one of the most charming and relatable meet-cutes of 2021 so far. The object of her affection, Josh Carter (Schitt’s Creek dreamboat Dustin Milligan), is also so handsome, as Reagan’s teen pal Bobbie Yang (Jesse Leigh) finds, his mere presence could compel you to blurt out your social security number.
Reagan and Josh’s romance is a breath of fresh air during the gloomiest era in recent memory — and a necessary step forward for comedy.
The beginning of Reagan and Josh’s romance takes root in Rutherford Falls’ third episode, “Aunt Ida’s 90th Birthday.” Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) — a flailing man child and Reagan’s oldest friend — has left town for his Aunt Ida’s 90th birthday, leaving Reagan in charge of the Rutherford museum. It is at this exact moment that pesky (and quite hunky) reporter Josh comes to Rutherford Falls to interview Nathan over a recent embarrassing trending video. In an effort to deflect any possible media attention, Reagan works to convince Josh that Rutherford Falls is a snooze, and therefore he should head back to the bustle of New York City. Then Reagan sees Josh’s Northwestern hoodie. Reagan, a fellow Northwestern alum, suddenly isn’t so sure she wants hot Josh to leave.
“Want to get a drink?” she asks (remember asking people for drinks on a whim?). Soon enough, Reagan and Josh are sitting in a dark bar booth reminiscing over their shared hipster college bar. “Working with [co-star Dustin Milligan] and us laughing together off-screen helped so much in the flirtatiousness of the characters on screen,” Schmieding says. “It’s like when you make a new friend and you really like your new friend. It feels like you’re dating them.”
From the bar, we see Reagan and Josh make out at Reagan’s place of business after hours and then take an unseen trip back to her place. In the morning, it’s Josh wearing Reagan’s T-shirt, a winking update to the old “woman stealing a guy’s hoodie” trope.
“I challenged the popular narrative that fat women aren’t attractive. That our stories about romance and love aren’t imaginable for the screen, unless it’s about our fatness — and overcoming it to fall in love,” Schmieding, who is also on the Rutherford Falls writing staff, explains. “I really was intimidated by it. I realized like, ‘Wow. I have internalized a lot of those messages. Damn.’”
Native babes be snagging. We really do.
Schmieding credits Rutherford Falls’ co-executive producer and showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas with ensuring Reagan had a central romance from the very beginning of the sitcom. The duo met when Schmieding “was at the end of her dang rope with the industry,” as she tells Refinery29, and Teller Ornelas was a guest on the former’s podcast, Woman of Size. Schmieding had over a decade of New York comedy experience, but was facing “erasure and lack of acceptance” in Hollywood. Then Teller Ornelas — who is Mexican-American and Navajo — asked to read Schmieding’s writing samples after the podcast interview. Quickly, Schmieding was in a staffing meeting with Teller Ornelas, now-costar Ed Helms, and Rutherford Falls executive producer Mike Schur, who also executive produced The Office. Teller Ornelas’ Woman of Size interview debuted in mid-November 2019, Around Thanksgiving of that year, Schmieding was staffed on Rutherford Falls.
“It literally required another Native woman to pull me up,” Schmieding, who identifies as Lakota Native, says, “I felt like no one was interested in my writing until another Native woman read it. It’s evident enough to say, ‘Oh wow. I’m invisible. And my narrative is invisible to this industry unless there are more Native people in positions of power — and have producer credits.’”
It is only through the collective strength of the Rutherford Falls writers room — which had five Native writers, including EP Teller Ornelas — that viewers are able to get the honesty and authenticity of something as charming as Reagan’s romance with Josh. As Schmieding explains, both she and Teller Ornelas pulled from their own lives for inspiration in telling the “validating” tale.
“I’m a Native woman who happens to be fat and happens to have romance in my life. [Sierra] is, too,” Schmieding begins. “These things shouldn’t be monumental; we’re living them every day. But to see them reflected [on-screen]… gives me butterflies to think about it. I didn’t really realize until doing this project how invalidated I have been as a Native person in this culture.”
Rutherford Falls works diligently to ensure it will not add to the magnitude of damage decades of television have created for fat women, Native women, and the people who live at that intersection. Reagan and Josh fall into flirty banter easily — everything about Reagan is treated as what it ultimately is: attractive. In fourth episode “Terry Thomas,” Reagan’s cousin Jess (The Order’s Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs) praises her for hooking up with someone as alluring as Josh. Jess uses the term “snagging,” which Schmieding explains is a popular word in Native communities for anything between dating and making out.
“A lot of our experiences as writers are like, ‘Yeah. We think the people we have dated and slept with are hot,’” Schmieding laughs. “You know, Native babes be snagging. We really do. We can pull in really hot tail. And also cool people. I think the important part is not necessarily that Josh is hot, but that he’s also cool.”
While everyone can delight in the hot and cool nature of Reagan and Josh’s burgeoning relationship, Schmieding feels “privileged” to bring such an unfortunately rare on-screen journey to Native viewers. “I overflow with love for our people,” she concludes. “I’m so honored to be bringing a little bit of joy and levity to our folks.”