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‘Reservation Dogs’ Comes of Age

The comedy’s stellar first season, which wrapped Monday, proved to be much more than a tale of small schemes and bigger dreams, as it carved out its place in FX’s lineup of immersive, existential comedies

FX/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

Reservation Dogs ends with a dream deferred. Throughout the FX comedy’s first season, its namesake crew has set its sights on California, a fantasy solution to some very real problems. Every scheme, from stealing a truck full of potato chips to hawking meat pies outside a health clinic, was supposed to save money for the foursome’s fresh start, far from the Muscogee reservation they call home. But by the end of the eighth and final episode, only Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs)—the group’s most harshly pragmatic member, named after the character from Willow—has made her escape. Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) have chosen to stay; Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) was ready to go, only for Elora to leave him behind. She’s partnered up with the leader of a rival group instead, correctly sensing a kindred spirit beneath the meaningless turf war.

It’s a sad ending, but also a fitting one. Reservation Dogs may be named after people, but it’s a show about a place—a specific place, one it would never abandon for a setting as overexposed as L.A. The decision mirrors that of its showrunner. Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, who cocreated the series with Taika Waititi, has made inroads into Hollywood through hubs like the Sundance Institute, where Harjo first met Waititi after being recruited by Bird Runningwater. But he’s never lived there, choosing instead to remain in Oklahoma. Today, Reservation Dogs is the first scripted series from a major distributor to shoot the entirety of its season within the state, which has the highest Native population of any in the continental U.S.

Earlier this year, the Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls set a new precedent for Native representation both on- and off-screen. Set in a New York town bordering a reservation, much of the cast and about half the writers were Native—a bar now raised by Reservation Dogs, which boasts an entirely Native roster of actors, writers, directors, and more. This isn’t to pit the shows against each other; Harjo has openly discussed seeking advice from Rutherford Falls’ Sierra Teller Ornelas when stepping into the role of showrunner, a new gig for the indie feature director. For starters, they’re fundamentally different projects: Rutherford Falls applies the rhythm and tone of a network sitcom to a new subject, while Reservation Dogs uses the freedom of cable to forge its own path. But it’s a testament to Reservation Dogs’ novelty that it manages to break a record so recently set.

It’s both accurate and somewhat lazy to praise Reservation Dogs as a breath of fresh air, the kind of story you’ve never seen before—or if you have, not on a platform of this size. (FX has promoted the show as part of its FX on Hulu initiative, giving FX series a singular streaming hub for the first time in network history.) After all, how many shows have the knowledge, let alone the inclination, to work legends like the Tall Man or Deer Woman into the plot? Many actors, including leads like Factor, are first-time performers, adding to the sense that Reservation Dogs invents itself in real time. But just as many are veterans we’ve seen elsewhere in more clichéd, less nuanced roles. There are cameos by celebrated Native actors like Wes Studi, of Avatar and Dances With Wolves; Zahn McClarnon, a series regular as tribal police officer Big, is best known as a host on Westworld who anchored a series highlight but otherwise suffered from the show’s typical emphasis on plot over character. It’s not that Reservation Dogs’ component parts, from mythology to cast members, are complete unknowns. They’re just not typically presented from this point of view—which is to say, with Native characters as subjects, rather than objects.

Reservation Dogs wears some influences on its suit sleeves. The teenage protagonists share a wardrobe, an industrial hideout, and a penchant for lawbreaking with the namesakes of Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut, an homage that imbues the show with an infectious sense of adolescent bravado. But once the high of the heist wears off, there are predecessors closer to home. FX’s buzziest launch of the past half-decade is undoubtedly Atlanta, Donald Glover’s surreal saga of family and fame; in the yearslong hiatus between Atlanta’s second and third seasons, the network has also hosted Lil Dicky’s Dave, another self-reflexive spoof of masculinity and the music industry. Despite those similarities, Reservation Dogs has proved itself as Atlanta’s worthy successor.

Atlanta starts as something of a bait-and-switch. The pilot positions it as straightforward hustle story—two cousins scraping their way to the top, one harebrained scheme at a time. Quickly, though, it takes a turn for the slow and surreal. In the world of Atlanta, Justin Bieber is Black, Michael Vick lurks in parking lots, and episodes are just as likely to take place in a pop star’s haunted house as a recording studio. It’s this stealth expansion that Reservation Dogs takes to heart. The show begins as a coming-of-age caper loosely centered on Bear, a budding filmmaker who starts seeing a sorry excuse for a spirit guide after a paintball fight—and if that’s all it were, dayenu. But Reservation Dogs zeroes in and zooms out, building a collection of character studies into a group portrait of a whole community.

Bear remains the informal center of the show; after all, it’s him we end with after Elora heads West. In between, though, we get episodes focusing on his mother, Rita (Sarah Podemski), a single mom who encounters a white suitor with a Native fetish; Big, a well-meaning bumbler with a surprising origin story; and Elora, who takes her driving test with her onetime basketball coach, played by comedian Bill Burr. It’s a loose, rambling framework that gives Reservation Dogs the feel of an anthology, even as every chapter fits within the larger narrative. The Reservation Dogs first set their sights on California as a tribute to their friend Daniel, who died by suicide about a year before the events of the show. We see Daniel as he lives on in the memory of his loved ones: his cousin Willie Jack, who goes on an annual hunting trip without him; his friend Elora, whose barbed ferocity turns out to come from an even deeper well of trauma than the rest of her clique. By looking at reservation life from all angles, Reservation Dogs also captures the totality of grief—an underlying sadness that only amplifies the comedy.

No series with an A-list director for a cocreator was ever going to come out of nowhere. (Though there’s a pleasant whiplash in toggling between Reservation Dogs and the supernatural silliness of What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi’s other project on FX.) Still, Reservation Dogs built from promising debut to one of the best series of the year with startling efficiency, making even a highly anticipated show a pleasant surprise. There’s a confidence that comes from specificity; Harjo and collaborators give the sense that we’re eavesdropping on real people, not having characters spelled out for us. And when the show returns for Season 2, there’s only more to discover. The Reservation Dogs once pined for California, but with a palpable affection for its setting, their namesake show sells the audience on Cheese and Willie Jack’s decision to put down roots. As for Elora, she’ll be back. There’s unfinished business at home.