The question of personal responsibility sits at the heart of Reservation Dogs, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s new FX series. Filmed on location in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the half-hour comedy follows four Indigenous teenagers as they steal, rob, and save in order to get to the promised land of California. But what does it mean to scam your own community, particularly one that prioritizes collective action, tradition, and respect?
Teenagers (most of them upper-middle-class and white) have been grappling with their identities on-screen for decades, but Reservation Dogs gives the coming-of-age genre a much-needed makeover. The series serves as a major milestone for Native representation: every writer, director, and series regular is Indigenous, including Harjo, a Seminole-Muscogee filmmaker from Holdenville, Oklahoma, and Waititi, who is of Maori descent.
A talented cast of actors bring Harjo and Waititi’s vibrant world to life on screen. The foursome, still reeling one year after the death of their fifth member, Daniel, is ostensibly lead by Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), who begins coming into his own with the help of a questionable spirit guide (Dallas Goldtooth). As “William Knifeman,” Goldtooth satirizes the stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in film and television, injecting a small amount of absurdist humor into an otherwise very real series. “Now, I’m meant to travel the spirit world, find lost souls like you,” he tells Bear, after recounting the long, unlucky story of his death. “The spirit world is cold. My nipples are always hard.”
Nipple issues aside, William Knifeman does impart some important wisdom to Bear and his “thuggy-ass friends,” and his presence is a galvanizing force for the lost teen. After a successful potato chip heist, Bear’s conscience gets the best of him, and he convinces his friends Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) to adopt a vigilante, rather than criminal, mentality. With that, the newly-dubbed “Reservation Dogs” set out to defend their community from a rival gang with a penchant for violence.
While its teens form the backbone of the show, Reservation Dogs also boasts a memorable performance from Zahn McClarnon, best known for playing Hanzee Dent in another FX series, Fargo. McClarnon is typically thrust into the most dramatic of all dramatic roles, but here the show's writers play him for laughs as a tribal cop, Lighthorseman Big, with a keen interest in conspiracy theories and the supernatural. True to form, McClarnon makes the most of every scene he’s in, and his inherent goofiness makes him the ideal foil for a group of kids who see low-stakes crime as the only way to escape their community.
Reservation Dogs’ supporting cast also includes Sarah Podemski (Tin Star, Love Alaska) as Bear’s mother Rita, an independent woman who prefers tough love over idealism, Kirk Fox (Parks and Recreation) as Kenny Boy, the owner of the salvage yard on the edge of town, and Lil Mike and FunnyBone as neighborhood rappers Mose and Mekko. Reservation Dogs serves as Lil Mike and FunnyBone’s acting debut, and they don’t disappoint, using their limited screen time to consistently deliver laughs as they cruise around town in search of good gossip.
It’s refreshing to see this much representation on screen, but what Harjo and Waititi have done with it is even more impressive. Reservation Dogs resists the urge to glorify or mythologize its Indigenous community; instead, it presents the reservation and its many personalities, warts and all. The FX comedy is at its best during its “slice of life” scenes, which both expand the unique world of the show — Episode 2 takes place in the packed waiting room of the Indian Health Service (IHS) clinic, for example — and drive home the relatability of its central themes. These four Indigenous teens are asking the same questions as their white counterparts, but the answers are complicated by centuries of dispossession and abuse.
With its diverse cast and crew, Reservation Dogs takes viewers into a space that coming-of-age film and television has often ignored, and it’s every bit as vibrant — if not more — as Lady Bird’s Sacramento or the college haunts of St. Elmo’s Fire. Reservation Dogs may be the first series to explore the realities of Native life, and the first to boast an entirely Indigenous cast, but here’s hoping it won’t be the last.
The first two episodes of Reservation Dogs premiere Monday, August 9 on FX on Hulu, with new episodes streaming weekly.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.