Reservation Dogs Is as Fresh as It Gets

FX’s comedy, about four Native teens coming of age in Oklahoma, draws on familiar storytelling beats but feels completely new.

The four teenagers at the center of 'Reservation Dogs' wearing suits
Shane Brown / FX Networks / Hulu

Reservation Dogs wears its pop-culture influences proudly, and not just in its title. FX’s new comedy series abounds with cinephilic homages: A paintball shoot-out in the pilot ends with an absurd remake of a scene from Platoon. The four teenage protagonists suit up like the thieves in Reservoir Dogs, their gang’s namesake. One of the characters is even named Elora Danan, after the baby in the cult fantasy film Willow.

Like these references, the show’s premise is classic: Reservation Dogs tells a coming-of-age story, with its young heroes searching for purpose and a life away from their eastern-Oklahoma community. Each episode sees them learning useful lessons and pursuing youthful antics—stealing a truck, selling meat pies—that belie a deeper shared sadness over their friend’s death a year earlier. And yet, while the storytelling beats are familiar, the show itself feels completely new.

That’s partly because Reservation Dogs, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, is a series about Indigenous characters made by a team of predominantly Indigenous directors, writers, and actors. But Harjo and Waititi have accomplished something trickier and riskier than simply centering the faces of people rarely seen on TV. They steep the audience in reservation life and allow episodes to unfurl in stylish, off-kilter ways that play with viewers’ expectations of Native characters and narratives. With unflinching specificity, Reservation Dogs delivers a mix of grounded and fantastical elements. That dissonance could have been disorienting. Instead, two episodes in—upcoming installments will be released weekly on FX on Hulu—it’s the fuel for the show’s singular charm.

This particular alchemy can be found in the plight of Bear (played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), the quartet’s self-proclaimed leader. Raised by a single mom, the 16-year-old searches for a male role model, naively looks up to his absent dad—a rapper who left the reservation in pursuit of fame—and presents himself as tougher than he is. (After a rival gang beats him up, Bear insists to anyone who’ll listen that he “got some good ones in.”) He’s a lanky, curly-maned ball of misguided hubris and insecurity—in other words, an average teenage boy—but Reservation Dogs takes Bear’s struggle further by having him hallucinate, in surreal sequences, an “unknown warrior” on horseback (Dallas Goldtooth) who’s ostensibly his spirit guide and a representative of his ancestors. At first Bear is awed, until the apparition reveals that he never truly saw battle; he just glimpsed General Custer from afar before getting squashed to death by his own horse. The character becomes a darkly funny running gag as well as an unusual mentor, someone Bear begrudgingly humors whenever he appears.

The writers never define which tribal community Bear and his comrades might belong to—a pointed move that delivers a clear message: Reservation Dogs isn’t interested in gesturing at the subject of identity, but in being true to life. The show focuses on rendering the town and its inhabitants realistically, while also playfully capturing the characters’ inner lives and contradictions. An Indian Health Services clinic, a notoriously frustrating place for reservation residents to visit, is populated with memorable characters, including a sarcastic receptionist and an overworked doctor who treats every patient and every ailment. Bear’s mother (Sarah Podemski) imagines speaking with two versions of herself—one good, the other not so good—anytime she needs advice. When the Rez Dogs seek out a “legendary” recluse they call “Uncle Brownie” (the excellent Gary Farmer) for self-defense training, the episode flashes back to Farmer in a remarkably silly wig, knocking people out inside a bar.

Some of the best jokes, though, aren’t about the characters’ situations, but about how they might be perceived. Reservation Dogs knows that American pop culture is filled with works that depict Native people as tragic figures or relics of history—so the writers delight in challenging these tired notions. Bear’s “unknown warrior” is a man who cared so strongly about fighting for his people that he didn’t see the gopher hole that would trip his horse. The town’s sheriff, known as Big, isn’t a stoic elder, but someone who’s more interested in watching videos about the Kennedy assassination than in catching criminals. The fact that Big is played by Zahn McClarnon only drives this point home: McClarnon is best known for playing inscrutable Indians on prestige series such as Westworld and Fargo, but here he gets to toy with that image. In one of the show’s funniest scenes, he advises Bear not to buy soda, because sugar is chemical warfare—”white man’s bullets,” Big deadpans—before purchasing an energy drink himself because it’s “natural, made out of energy.”

For all its quirkiness, Reservation Dogs remains emotionally resonant because its central foursome is so instantly, vividly drawn. Lonely Bear, tough Elora (Devery Jacobs), brusque Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and sweet Cheese (Lane Factor)—they’re all just teenagers desperate for a better future after the loss of their friend Daniel. They’re trying on new identities, learning from a community they thought they knew everything about, and renegotiating their approach to life and death. They’re coming to terms with painful realities by making their own fun. You know, like the Goonies.