After having watched so many teen-fronted series breathlessly escalate into exceptional amounts of violence, sex, and drug use, Reservation Dogs is a welcome respite. The lived-in, slightly surrealist FX comedy series (airing on Hulu) is a low-fi exploration of an Indigenous community in Oklahoma, whose leads shuffle around the “rez” among other misfits and sundries, and stumble into a variety of adventures that range from stealing a chip van to dealing with a snarky and overworked healthcare system.
FX has found its niche in telling close-up, intimate stories extremely well, and Reservation Dogs is no exception. It focuses on four friends—Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor)—who accidentally form an unofficial “gang” dubbed the “reservation bandits,” because of their penchant for light crime. Their hope is to get enough money to get to California, an ideal that’s always just out reach. Mainly they just want to get out of their town, whose general, suffocating existence they blame for killing their friend Daniel the previous year. It’s an incident that is neither explained nor dwelled upon, but one nevertheless deeply felt by each of them.
FX has touted Reservation Dogs, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, as revolutionary. In many ways it is; it features an all-Indigenous writers room, for one. But the show makes its boldest statement by not feeling like it’s making a statement at all. It’s an easy-going show, foul and funny, specific and accessible. It’s not about the kids being noble heroes or crime-loving villains; they’re just people. But they are also Indigenous people, which does mean something, and is all-too-rare to see on television—especially portrayed in such a wonderfully casual way.
The series also acknowledges and lampoons native stereotypes, including Bear being given a disappointing spirit guide every time he gets knocked out (which is a fair and somewhat concerning amount). The warrior who appears to him is largely a goof, one who proudly says he was at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but didn’t get to see much because his horse tripped on a gopher hole and squashed him.
Reservation Dogs has a lot of sly humor like this; it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it crackles with mirth. In an exchange between the town’s dopey sheriff (played by Zahn McClarnon, who finally gets to exercise his comedic chops) and Bear—who is buying a Coke from a vending machine—McClarnon’s character asserts, “That’s the white man’s bullet, yo. Sugar, invented to defeat us because they knew we had a sweet tooth. We’re still fighting that chemical warfare, and you’re funding it.” Bear asks him what he’s getting, and he replies, “Energy drink. It’s natural, made of energy.”
Each episode of the four available for review are essentially vignettes that highlight rez life for this particular community, doing so with a warmth that’s unexpected after its heist-focused beginnings, which introduced a gang of meth heads as well as a new rival “gang” of teens. (“They can’t decide if they’re Blood or Crips. Maybe Blips.” “Or Crud, hey!”) But the show doesn’t just play these moments for laughs, joyously filmed and reference-filled as they may be. In a later episode, Elora is approached by the other gang’s female leader who suggests she’s too serious for her current group of friends and should join up with her. She initially laughs it off, but later takes it to heart. If she really wants to get out of here, she needs a real plan.
A show like this lives or dies on the chemistry of its cast, and Reservation Dogs has talent in spades. Not only are its leads believable as friends (and actual Young People!) but the inspired use of real-life rappers LiL Mike & Funny Bone alongside veterans like McClarnon makes the show’s world feel genuine and grounded, even in its more comedically-augmented moments.
But more than anything, Reservation Dogs is a perfect summer series, one that takes places on languid afternoons and moves at an unhurried pace. The kids make plans, scrounge for food, wander around, get into fights. They don’t talk or act like adults, and they’re not beaten down by cynicism. They have hopes and dreams, a love for family, an un-ironic embrace of community, and make a lot of silly mistakes. To say there is an innocence or even wholesomeness to Reservation Dogs would not be to quite hit the mark on how casually crass the show can be (it is ultimately a comedy for adults); but like its leads, it has a good heart. The friends are trying their best and hold each other close, even as they rib one another for their choices. It’s this balance that the show gets so right; not overly precious nor incredibly vulgar, just truth with an edge. Or as they would say, “Love ya, bitch.”
Reservation Dogs premieres Monday, August 9th on Hulu (as part of the FX on Hulu partnership).
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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