Creators: Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi
Cast: Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, Sarah Podemski, Zahn McClarnon
Elora, Bear, Cheese and Willie Jack, the four Native American teens at the centre of Reservation Dogs, desperately want to leave small town Oklahoma. In the opening scene, they are stealing a truck of Flaming Flamers (a cheese flavoured snack) to fund their their escape to LA, where they are certain a better life awaits. If at first they seem like anarchic juvenile delinquents who might get sucked into a world of much worse crimes, like City of God, such notions are overturned when a new ‘rival gang’ ambushes them and we realise that it’s just paintball.
After getting ‘shot’, when Bear gets a vision of a Red Indian man on horseback claiming to be an ancestor, the effect is comical and we are in Taika Waititi territory—poking fun at Hollywood’s depiction of indigenous people while reclaiming it. The Maori director of such films as Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit is the co-creator of this FX Hulu show along with Sterlin Harjo, who is in charge here and has grown up in one such town in Oklahoma. Over the next 7 episodes, it draws us into the lives of these characters, their families—someone’s stoner uncle, someone’s rapper father, or the light horseman, a term for the local ‘tribal cop’, who drives around to keep a check on the crimes. It’s the kind of town where everybody knows everybody, and almost everybody in Reservation Dogs is a Native American (the title is a slang that refers to the residents of an Indian reservation).
The show has been praised for the authenticity it brings to its depiction of Native American life on screen and it owes hugely to the fact that it has been made by actors and writers who are Native Americans themselves. Harjo is part of the sketch comedy group The 1491s—named after the year before Columbus set foot in America and began its European colonisation—which describes itself as “a gaggle of Indians chock full of cynicism and splashed with a good dose of indigenous satire”. Reservation Dogs, certainly a kind of comedy, is rough and rebellious like its teen protagonists, but it’s also surprisingly sincere and warm a well-rounded look at life in an Indian reservation town.
This sense of balance reflects in the storytelling as well. It follows a logical, if straightjacketed, episodic format, with specific episodes focussing on specific characters. We spend the entirety of episode 4 with Cheese (who wants to be a police detective) training with the cop; and episode 5 is all about Willie Jack going hunting with her father. But it doesn’t feel repetitive because Harjo’s storytelling is assured and confident and his emotions are rooted in a place of truth. Although there are interesting things going on under its deceptively simple surface, like the recurring motif of cars, that becomes both a vehicle to show us around as well as a symbol of escape for the the protagonists. Or how seamlessly Native American myths like the Deer Lady—a vigilante spirit with the body of an attractive woman and hoofs like stilettos—is woven into one of the plot.
By the time we are in the final episode, the place and its people have grown on you—the effect is similar on our protagonists. Ultimately, Reservation Dogs is anchored by their dilemma of whether they want to leave their hometown or stay back, a concern as local as it’s universal. The finale leaves us at a crossroads that paves the way for a second season, which it has been renewed for.