In recent years, we’ve seen coming-of-age stories on TV through the lens of the adventure-comedy (Netflix’s On My Block), the horror/sci-fi hybrid (Stranger Things), and the teen sex romp (Sex Education). Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo might make the boldest play with the “bildungsroman by way of a heist film” approach of Reservation Dogs. Ahead of its premiere, the new FX series was hailed, and rightly so, for its commitment to Indigenous talent, on and offscreen. Even the photographer for the show’s gallery images (an example of which you’ll find below) is Native American: Ryan RedCorn, who’s from the Osage Nation. Reservation Dogs is making important strides, not least of which is being one of the best new shows of the year.
The series premieres with two episodes, “F*ckin Rez Dogs,” which introduces the four misfits of Okmulgee, the capital of the Muscogee Nation (Harjo is from Holdenville, OK), and “NDN Clinic” (sound out the first word for a colloquialism). Harjo and Waititi teamed up to write the script for the pilot, which establishes a sense of place with great efficiency and whimsy. A radio DJ in Indian Territory (the northeastern part of Oklahoma) jokes that The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” sounds like a “shapeshifter song” just before we’re dropped smack-dab in the middle of a daytime heist run by four teens barely old enough to drive: Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor). Willie Jack muses about how “badass” they must look pulling off their caper. Bear doesn’t care; he insists Elora buckle her seatbelt before they roar off in the truck. Young Cheese is just along for the ride. They keep their cool as they sell the truck to Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox), who runs a salvage yard that’s also the center of a meth operation. But as Kenny counts their cash, they’re not thinking of California, their dream home. They want to know if they can keep the Flaming Flamers—spicy chips—that are in the truck.
It’s a sweet and funny reminder that, despite their knack for petty crime, these are just teenagers. And just a few minutes in, we already have a sense of this group’s dynamic. Bear is the de facto leader, though, as time goes on, that will require willfully overlooking the quiet authority emanating from Elora. Willie Jack is smart, but a wild card, while Cheese is the sweet and abiding one. The foursome is prepared to do whatever it takes, including stealing trucks midday, to make the money to travel to California—not a specific city or town, just the state, which holds some ineffable allure. It could really be anywhere, as long as it’s not the rez, their home and the place they blame for the death of their friend Daniel one year prior.
The two-parter doesn’t elaborate on how the rez led to Daniel’s death, but it does explore why these kids are straining to get away. That’s one of the most powerful elements of the series early on, the way it captures the push-pull of home. How many teenagers have pondered leaving home, whether due to tragedy or the sense of restlessness that comes with a shifting identity? How many have wanted to leave knowing perfectly well they can’t? Reservation Dogs lets those feelings breathe, along with the anger and grief welling up in Bear, Elora, Cheese, and Willie Jack. A push comes from local cop Big (Zahn McClarnon, goofing it up with aplomb), who all but tells the kids he’s watching them, followed by the pull of Rita (Sarah Podemski), Bear’s mom who is still trying to nab a “lawyer dad” to help look after her son (and, as she admits, herself). When Bear sneaks some of his ill-gotten gains into his mom’s wallet, he’s not waffling on the move or thinking he’s getting one over on his mom; he’s conflicted in the same way so many other kids his age are, particularly Indigenous kids and other young people of color. Leaving home can be so much more loaded—it’s a rejection, not just a move. It’s why, even after recommitting to their plan to get away, Bear and his friends swear to be “vigilantes” and look after their home.
That’s far from the only dilemma Bear and his friends will face throughout the season; in the first episode alone, they struggle with the consequences of their heist and a “gang” called the Indian Mafia. A rivalry springs out of nowhere between the Rez Dogs (a name that comes about as an afterthought) and the Indian Mafia, culminating in a drive-by shooting that bears Waititi’s mark, just as sure as Bear wears the paint from the pellets fired at him and the group. Reservation Dogs smartly plays with our expectations of any coming-of-age story that takes place outside of the pasty suburbs.
The indie film aesthetic that Harjo and Sydney Freeland, who direct “F*ckin’ Rez Dogs” and “NDN Clinic,” respectively, bring to the show could just as easily be used to frame a tragicomic tale. But while the show is steeped in the reality of life for Indigenous people in the U.S., it’s just as committed to highlighting the humor that’s been essential to their survival. Mose and Mekko (rappers and comedians Lil Mike and Funny Bone) ride around town, providing wit and levity in the aftermath of confrontation. When Bear is “shot” or beaten down (as he is in “NDN Clinic,” necessitating the trip to the eponymous medical center), he’s visited by the spirit of William Knifeman, a Native warrior felled by an ornery horse, who’s no more competent in the afterlife.
Reservation Dogs subverts Native stereotypes, much like Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, another winning 2021 comedy. The two series share a few actors, too, including Jacobs and Jana Schmieding, who plays a smartass intake receptionist in “NDN Clinic.” The second part of the premiere reveals more about the kids’ home lives and sharpens their characterizations. After the Indian Mafia jumps Bear, he tries to put on a brave face for the group, which they immediately see through. They know each other too well to dissemble well, though it’s also just fun for Willie Jack to tease Bear for “crying” after the beating. Willie Jack also shows how enterprising she is, selling meat pies outside of the clinic, thereby emptying out her grandmother’s freezer. It’s one of the many subtle references to the kids’ individual family dynamics, which all look different. Bear has a mom and estranged dad; Willie Jack, a grandmother; Cheese, an uncle, possibly; we’ll have to wait to learn more about Elora’s. We’ll no doubt learn more about their relatives as the season unfolds, but this is another poignant reminder of how complicated the concept of home is.
During a panel for the 2021 TCA summer press tour, Harjo cited movies like Friday, with its low-turned-high-stakes and its underseen setting, as influences for the show. Reservation Dogs makes a cohesive dramedy out of the group’s solemn mission—honor their friend by getting out of the place they believe claimed his life—and their tendency to be, you know, kids. When they declare their intention to protect the town, they walk together (in suits, in one of several references to Reservoir Dogs, the series’ sorta namesake) while lightheartedly arguing over everything from the label of “vigilantes” to the name of their “gang” to who gets to be Mr. Camouflage. Waititi and Harjo’s writing is key, but what holds everything together right now is this young cast. Woon-A-Tai, Jacobs, Factor, and Alexis are believable as friends and kids who might be in over their heads; they’re sweet and formidable, naïve yet all too aware of how the world works. You can already feel that this show is just the beginning of their bright and varied careers (it had better be, Hollywood).
With its playful and stylish two-part debut, Reservation Dogs is already on track to be one of the best comedies (and shows) of the year. As much as I want to keep these kids safe, I can’t wait to see what other scrapes they get into.
- Welcome to Reservation Dogs coverage! I’m still figuring out the schedule/shape this will take, but after watching the first four episodes, I knew I didn’t want to just write a pre-air review and then forget about the show until finale time.
- The teen cast is phenomenal, but I also want to recognize Schmieding, Podemski, and McClarnon’s work. It’s tough to be the buzzkill adults, who so often represent the opposition for teens, but they manage to shade that role with some humanity.
- Still, I felt serious secondhand embarrassment for Elora when Schmieding’s receptionist observed how ill-advised it was for her to try to hawk her meat pies when she’s complaining about a stomachache.
- McClarnon is so funny in Big’s most serious moments, like when he warns Bear away from the “white man’s bullets,” i.e., sugar, while getting ready to drink an “organtic” energy drink.
- These kids already remind me so much of family members in New Mexico and Oklahoma, but then Willie Jack said “what’s up, putos?” and brandished a chancla at the Indian Mafia…
- Bets on whether Bear will ever tell William Knifeman to “piss off, ghost?”
- There is really so much Native talent behind the scenes, including Tazbah Rose Chavez, Blackhorse Lowe, Migizi Pensoneau, Dylan Brodie, Tommy Pico, and Bobby Wilson (of The 1491s, the sketch comedy group co-founded by Sterlin Harjo).
- The Lactaid at Daniel’s shrine was a nice, poignant touch.
- Cheese might seem like he has his head in the clouds, but when he observes just how many Indigenous people suffer from depression, he’s just speaking facts.