With its comedic timing as sharp as it is, Reservation Dogs couldn’t have been co-produced by anyone other than Taika Waititi. The New Zealander of Maori descent, after getting his start writing New Zealand films such as Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is now an internationally-recognized director and actor. He met widespread attention after directing the zany Marvel flick Thor: Ragnorak, and won an Academy award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his film Jojo Rabbit just two years later.
Now, with the world at his fingertips, Waititi has turned his attention back toward his roots. He, in collaboration with Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, has created the first TV series with all indigenous writers and directors.
Reservation Dogs is set in Oklahoma and was filmed on the Muscogee Nation reservation. The characters themselves represent a hybrid of indigenous backgrounds, and the town they live in is fictional, but Harjo is intent upon depicting real experiences of teenage life on a reservation.
Starting out as a simple and jokey coming-of-age story, the first season gradually leans into its dramatic tendencies. The four main characters, Bear, Elora Danan, Cheese and Willie Jack, operate as a found family of petty criminals who are trying to leave the “res” and move to California.
There’s some degree of adult supervision to be found, but it appears that once the kids drop out of school, there’s not much else that can be done to monitor their activities. The parents themselves are busy trying to make ends meet, and occasionally the parenting occurs in reverse if the guardians are ever in need of some extra cash.
For the first couple episodes, the series’ direction is impulsive, like the characters themselves. Cheese meets an elderly woman who thinks he’s his grandson, Elora hunts down her “uncle” to learn about self-defense and Willie Jack sells meat pies to make a few extra bucks. But by episode 4, it’s clear that those seemingly random plot points are deliberate parts of the design.
The most ingenious part of the first season is that each character is offered a “day in the life” episode. The show establishes early on that there used to be a fifth member of the gang. However, the relevance of his loss isn’t clear until some personal time is spent with each of the main cast. Episode 4 revolves around Bear and his barely-there, rapper father. Episode 5 sees both Cheese and the brusque town cop, Big, going on a ride-along around town. Episode 6 explores Willie Jack’s relationship with her father and the grounds, and episode 7, boosted by a revelatory performance by Devery Jacobs, is the emotional climax of Elora Danan’s trauma arc.
By the final episode of the series, when the gang comes back together once again, there’s a distinct and pointed clarity to the characters’ motivations. The viewers’ “one-on-one time” with the group members contributes to a wide-reaching empathy, whereby no person plays the villain. The static has become dynamic. The strength of the reservation community is fully visible.
The writers’ inclusion of pop culture elements (the title of the show itself being a spoof on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) is significant. There’s a Platoon parody within the first 15 minutes of the season and a whole episode dedicated to the stylings of the Native American band Redbone.
The sporadic visual gags would fit right in on a sketch show. There’s a scene in which Bear’s mom, Rita, has found herself in a wealthy man’s house “the morning after.” Things seem to be going well as she sits down for coffee. However, he then mentions that his home is on Native American land. His Lynyrd Skynyrd Confederate tattoo should be a red flag by itself, but then he goes ahead and proclaims that “he loves Indian women.”
The more that he talks, the worse it gets. Suddenly, Rita envisions the man wearing Antebellum garb, laying back smugly in his chair, while being catered to by Native American servants. The design changes between the vision and her reality are surprisingly subtle, which elevates the plausibility of the scene and makes it really easy to identify with her apprehension. It’s a stroke of sober acumen that helps the show stand out, even with its already original, authentic premise.
The season finale is ambiguous, perhaps out of fear that the show would not be renewed, similar to the ending of one-season-wonder Freaks and Geeks. However, it was confirmed in September that the show will see another day. Viewers are interested to see what direction the showmakers take with the tone.
Although there are references to “land back” rhetoric and the encroachment of the white man on indigenous territory, it’s very probable that the first season played it a little bit safe in order to appeal to more viewers. Whether or not it’s a political show, the series is bound to delve into different perspectives that affect the livelihood of Native Americans today.
That observation is not to undercut the principle themes at play, which already encompass generational differences, the clash of heritage and the desire for new opportunities and a broader sense of nature-based spirituality. Reservation Dogs provides unique insight to a part of the country that had yet to see its day in the sun.
Reservation Dogs is streaming on Hulu. Season 2 is set to release in 2022.