August 10, 2022
'Reservation Dogs,' now in Season 2, remains one of the most original shows on TV
Fresh Air | By John Powers
We all want to tell our own stories — not have them told by people who don't understand us or take our lives seriously. But that is often the fate that Native Americans have had to endure for countless decades. So when Reservation Dogs came out last year, the series was rightly hailed as groundbreaking. With a cast, production crew and primary creator, Sterlin Harjo, who were all Indigenous, it offered a view from the inside of lives that are usually ignored.
As Reservation Dogs begins its strong second season, it's worth emphasizing that the series, co-created by Taika Waititi, is also one of the best and most original shows on TV. Set in Oklahoma's Native American territory, it blends dumb jokes, smart jokes, satire, pathos, social realism, magical realism and tribal lore — not to mention American Indian history — into a series that is fresh, funny and heartfelt.
As you may know, the series centers on a gang of four teenagers, known as Rez Dogs. There's Bear (played by emo-faced D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), who longs for the father who abandoned his family. There's soulful Elora (Devery Jacobs), who's the group's true center of gravity. There's the foul-mouthed Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and the affable one known as Cheese (Lane Factor), who gets along with everyone. They are surrounded by grown-ups who range from Uncle Brownie, a one-time bar fighter who's now a hermit, to a kookily benign cop named Officer Big, played by Zahn McClarnon, the star of AMC+'s terrific Navajo mystery series, Dark Winds.
In Season 1, this gang of four was busy accumulating money — sometimes illegally — in order to leave the reservation and get to California. But their plans got flattened when a tornado hit town, and only Elora headed out, along with one of the gang's enemies, the tough, deadpan Jackie. As Season 2 begins, these young women are trying to get out of Oklahoma in their ramshackle car, while back home, Bear looks for work as Willie Jack and Cheese seek a way to rescind a black-magic curse that backfired.
Now, I always get nervous when a series I love enters Season 2, and I feared the worst when episode one tilted a bit too sharply toward the comic whimsy that is sometimes its failing. But the show quickly regained its balance and began doing what makes it special.
Working in a loose, indie film style, Harjo and company build around moments, not plot points, and avoid the temptation to make a grand statement about the situation of American Indians. They use their young heroes' daily life to offer glimpses — some silly, some profoundly moving — of a modern Native American reality that goes beyond the familiar narrative of victimization and misery.
Although they live with poverty and fractured families, the show's characters are vibrantly alive. And there are episodes — like Cheese doing a ride-around with Officer Big; Willie Jack hunting with her dad; or Bear learning to become a roofer — that glow with a warmth and wisdom rare on television. I can think of no other show that gives a clearer sense of what it means to live in a community that feels like a community.
Reservation Dogs evokes a culture in which age-old tribal curses exist alongside discussions of gender pronouns, and the legacy of Crazy Horse sits side-by-side with hip-hop and references to Star Wars. The show is wised up enough to laugh at classic tropes, like the stoic and taciturn Indian, and to make light of the notion of spirit guides. Yet these are jokes from the inside. Even as the show has fun with Native American tradition, it finds a way of doing it honor, as in this season's beautiful episode when everyone comes together in a death watch for Elora's grandmother.
Back in Season 1, Willie Jack gets to talking about all the seemingly uncontrolled dogs running the streets. "Nobody cares about Rez dogs," she says, referring as much to herself and her friends as to their four-footed namesakes. But she's wrong. This show cares, and I suspect it will make you care too.
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