The four teens at the heart of the new Native American comedy “Reservation Dogs” have organized their lives around a shared conviction: The place they call home is trying to kill them. They have no reason to believe otherwise; the previous year, the group lost Daniel, the fifth member of their crew. In order to escape Okern, Okla. — a colorful rural town where passersby are equally likely to be in a car, on a bike or atop a horse — the two boys and two girls steal whatever it takes (trucks, steaks, copper wiring from street lamps) to grow their California fund.
Created by Oklahoma filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and “Jojo Rabbit” director Taika Waititi, FX on Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs” is the second show to debut this year with a Native American focus (the other being Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls”). But “Dogs’” closest analogue might be its corporate cousin “Atlanta” (FX), Donald Glover’s seldom laugh-out-loud half-hour series about a small cadre of friends struggling to “make it” in their own idiosyncratic ways. “Reservation Dogs” skews decidedly younger — its cast of charming, comically deft newcomers play high-schoolers — but both shows find their main characters on unexpected sojourns within their hometowns. While Glover’s Earn encounters the bizarre and the transcendent in his urban adventures, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai’s Bear and his friends inadvertently introduce us to their quirky, often tender community, which envelops them so completely they have trouble seeing it.
Are they a gang? Bear wouldn’t have thought so, but suddenly he — along with hard-nosed Elora (Devery Jacobs), tomboyish Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and clueless Cheese (Lane Factor) — find themselves described in those terms by a band of outsiders who’ve recently settled in Okern and are determined to prove their mettle by taking down the local toughs. To his shock, the local toughs turn out to be them, even though he’s thus far flown under the radar of dopey sheriff Big (Zahn McClarnon of “Fargo”), and for a teenage boy, he’s very nearly a sweetie to his single mom, Rita (an underutilized Sarah Podemski).
This delicate balance between innocence and precarity is the key to “Dogs’” wistful winsomeness. There’s a subtle but resolute refusal to sugarcoat the lives of young people in dusty, empty Okern; at least two of Bear’s friends have dead or absent parents, and his own father (played by real-life hip-hop artist Sten Joddi) abandoned him for a fledgling novelty-rap career. Set at a health clinic, the second episode — guest-starring Jana Schmieding of “Rutherford Falls” — reveals an alarming fleet of medical issues already faced by the teens. (One, inevitably, has to do with the boxes upon boxes of Flaming Flamers spicy chips they stole as part of a delivery truck heist.)
With Native American pop cultural representation so lacking, the creative team behind “Reservation Dogs” — the first TV series to boast an all-Indigenous writers room, director corps and central cast — surely had a lot to say. But the spirit of the show is exploratory, not sociological.
Larks and capers drive the show, as in the third episode, when the teens visit Elora’s elderly Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), a storied barfighter, in the hopes that Bear can pick up some brawling tips for when the rival gang decides to give him another beatdown. They end up zigzagging across town hopelessly trying to find a buyer for Brownie’s 15-year-old marijuana stash, which the old man proudly brags isn’t “government-sanctioned weed.” (Turns out, the people like state-approved ganja just fine.)
Hollywood typically depicts Native American stories as sad and one-note. The ‘Rutherford Falls’ creators had other ideas.
From the pilot on, “Reservation Dogs” arrives fully formed, with a cinematic eye for its sun-baked environs (shot on location in Oklahoma) and sourced from what feels like a close-knit network of talent. Harjo is, for example, a comedy partner of Dallas Goldtooth, who plays a somewhat inept 19th-century warrior ghost encouraging a knocked-out Bear to strive for more than grand theft auto. (He died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he says, but it was only because his horse tripped over a gopher hole on the way to the conflict and landed on top of him.)
Bear’s journey is engagingly detailed in the four episodes screened for critics (of eight total), so it’s a bit disappointing that the show fails to deepen any of the other characters, even to establish their friendship dynamics. Given the “Smurfs”-like gender ratio of Waititi’s otherwise superb FX series “What We Do in the Shadows,” it would be a missed opportunity to continue underdeveloping especially the promising female roles.
But it’s always a treat to see Okern’s identical unofficial town criers (Lil Mike and Funnybone, the 4-foot-8 rapper brothers who appeared on “America’s Got Talent”) popping out of nowhere to give Bear disheartening updates on his own feud with the other gang. Perhaps more than anyone else in town, they embody Okern’s knack for surprise. Sometimes it’s the places where nothing ever seems to happen where anything can happen.
Reservation Dogs premieres Monday on FX on Hulu. New episodes stream weekly.
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