“We’re saving our money so we can leave this dump before it kills us.” That goal — and maybe it’s just a pipe dream — is forever on the minds of a group of disaffected Indigenous teens at the center of “Reservation Dogs,” a half-hour comedy from FX on Hulu that is at once distinctly its own thing and distinctly familiar.
Bored and left to their own devices, four friends — Bear, Elora Danan, Willie Jack and Cheese — have tough exteriors that bely all kinds of vulnerabilities and there’s little structure to their days. In the pilot episode they boost a delivery truck carrying a snack chip called Flaming Flamers. In the next episode, they’re selling homemade meat pies in front of the local health clinic and rolling their eyes at the annoying presence of the local lawman, played by Zahn McClarnon (“Westworld”) in a role that is quietly goofier than we typically see from this actor. In the next episode, the kids seek out an elder known for his bar brawling skills and end up driving him around town as he tries to offload a mason jar filled with marijuana buds, which he’s had buried in his backyard for 15 years; of course, no one wants whatever’s in that jar when you can get stronger stuff from the dispensary.
These are the low-key and absurdist moments that fill the otherwise empty hours of their days, both cementing and testing their bonds of friendship. The show’s title may be a wink in the direction of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” but the comparison ends there. If anything, the show’s episodic, site-specific misadventures will bring to mind another FX series, Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” and there’s a loose, throwback ‘70s feel to here, as if a scraggly teenage Matt Dillon might wander into the frame at any moment looking for trouble.
Bear (played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is who we learn about the most: He’s rangy and contemplative. He occasionally has visions of an ancestor who is neither stereotypically stoic or wise, but more of a knucklehead. And Bear is the one — mid-snack truck heist — who insists that Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) think about safety first and fasten her seat belt. She gives him an incredulous look. “If we crashed right now and you smashed through the windshield, would that be cool?” he asks.
Created by Sterlin Harjo (who is a member of the Seminole Nation and has Muskogee heritage) and Taika Waititi (the New Zealander filmmaker behind “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Jojo Rabbit”), this is a project with a deep bench of Indigenous talent not just in front of the camera but behind it as well.
The show comes on the heels of the recent Peacock sitcom “Rutherford Falls,” which is also largely a Native American project (writer and star Jana Schmieding shows up here in a guest role as the droll front desk receptionist at the health clinic) and there are more projects on the way: AMC has ordered to series a psychological thriller about two Navajo police officers called “Dark Winds” (McClarnon will star and executive produce) and Netflix just announced writer-director Sydney Freeland’s “Rez Ball,” a coming-of-ager about a Native American basketball team she cowrote with Harjo.
There’s also another project shooting in Oklahoma right now: Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann about the greed-driven murders in the 1920s of at least two dozen members of the Osage Nation. But no credited Native American screenwriters are involved. The project, which is being made for Apple TV+, has relied on tribal leaders to introduce the filmmakers to cultural advisers and others “to assist in their efforts to portray the story with authenticity and honesty,” according to a press statement issued In April when filming began.
But as I wrote at the time, consultants are just that: Consultants. They do not receive screenwriting residuals. Or major awards consideration. Or more importantly, occupy a power position to determine how a story is told. Why should any non-Natives — even those with the best intentions — get the benefit of the doubt when TV and filmmakers have such a long and sordid history of trampling over Native Americans to tell their stories? Shows like “Reservation Dogs” are a wonderful rebuke to this and it’s long overdue.
As showrunner, Harjo has rooted the series in his own experiences growing up in Oklahoma, but he has also surrounded himself with other Native American writers and directors (including the aforementioned Freeland). This will always result in something more nuanced and complicated and true — and ultimately more interesting.
The show was shot in Okmulgee, Oklahoma (the historic home of the Muskogee Nation) and there’s a working class quality to the surroundings. You can see it through the eyes of these teens and you understand why they feel stuck in a situation that’s never been of their own making, while dodging the glares (and paintball projectiles) of a rival group of kids. Real-life rappers Lil Mike and Funny Bone play neighborhood fixtures who function as a Greek chorus of sorts, riding around on their classic Schwinn bicycles with tall handlebars and serving up very funny, very blunt assessments of the foursome’s predicaments.
FX made the first four episodes available to critics and I hope subsequent episodes give us a deeper look into the home lives of Elora Danan as well as Willie Jack (played by Paulina Alexis as a kid with a sharp bull you-know-what detector) and Cheese (Lane Factor as the sweetest of the group, who has yet to full amour himself with a tough exterior).
So few Indigenous writers have full time jobs writing about TV and film and that’s another oversight that needs to be remedied. In the meantime, I encourage you to seek out writers at outlets like Indian Country Today and others who are most assuredly covering the show.
“Reservation Dogs” — 3 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Hulu
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