'Reservation Dogs' Is a Revolutionary Hangout Comedy You Really Must Watch
The FX on Hulu series should be at the top of your list.
The FX on Hulu comedy Reservation Dogs starts out with a heist. Four teens who live on a Native American reservation in the fictional town of Okern, Oklahoma steal a truck full of Flaming Flamers chips. They sell the truck to some meth heads and keep the chips for themselves. But that opening is something of a fake out. The new must-watch comedy from creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi is not action packed. Instead, it's a hangout comedy with a dose of magical realism that's one of the best series airing right now.
At the center of Reservation Dogs are friends Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Elora (Devery Jacobs), named after the Willow character. A year prior, the fifth member of their cohort died, and in the months since they've been running small-time operations with the idea of making enough money so they can eventually go to California. Bear is naive; Elora is cynical. Willie Jack has a sarcastic comeback for every comment, while Cheese has a deep well of empathy that reveals itself as the show goes on.
The central conflict of the episodes involves the appearance of a rival gang who call themselves the Indian Mafia, labeling our protagonists the Rez Dogs. But this war just hovers on the edge of the narrative, popping up occasionally, but mostly serving as a way to explore the day-to-day lives of these characters.
In the second episode, Bear is jumped by the Indian Mafia, and winds up with a bloody nose, which takes him and the Rez Dogs to the local health clinic. As Bear waits for his check-up, trying to avoid his mother, who works at the facility, Elora and Willie Jack try to sell meat pies outside, and Cheese stumbles into an eye doctor appointment. It's an episode that's full of little grace notes, like Cheese, with his eyes dilated, befriending an elderly woman who thinks he's her grandson. It's also ridiculously funny, finding humor in the very specific bureaucracy of this institution.
Authenticity is a tricky thing to talk about. What is authentic to one is not to another. And for those of us outside a community—as I am writing about Reservation Dogs—it is impossible to say what makes something resonate. At the same time, Reservation Dogs brims with a specificity of place that is rarely seen on television. Unlike Rutherford Falls, another new streaming series that centers on Native American life, Reservation Dogs doesn't have any white people to pop up as an audience surrogate. Without exposition, it lets this world exist as it is. There's no need to tour Okern or explain the various roles held by its residents. It just drops viewers into the action and lets them figure it out as they watch.
Similarly, when it borrows from Native American mythology and history, it doesn't do so by having some figurehead recount these sagas. The fantastical elements of Reservation Dogs exist alongside the verité stylings. Bear has visions of a warrior who is not Crazy Horse or Sitting Blue, just an anonymous guy from the past. The episode that drops Monday finds Cheese doing a ride along with Big (Zahn McClarnon), the Lighthorse police officer, whose life, we learn, was shaped by the appearance of the Deer Woman, a creature out of various tribes' legends. When these kinds of figures make appearances in Reservation Dogs, they seem as at home in the fabric of the episodes as anything else. There's a groundedness to everything on screen that makes the tonal shifts seamless.
Reservation Dogs is at times melancholy, and at times deeply irreverent. But whatever mood it's going for at any given moment, it's some of the most unique, enjoyable, and artistically satisfying television available to watch.