"It takes some time to adjust to the tempo of Reservation Dogs," says Kathryn VanArendonk says of the Native American comedy created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo. "The new FX on Hulu series, about a quartet of Indigenous teenage friends in a tiny town in Oklahoma, takes the Tarantino movie Reservoir Dogs as its title reference, and the idea of that movie creates the expectation of motion. The show’s opening scene plays on that expectation — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) are in the midst of a Tarantino-style heist, peeling off down the road in a stolen delivery van full of spicy chips. There’s a feeling that Reservation Dogs might be fast, propulsive, full of dramatic escalations. It is not that kind of show. It is slow and aimless, meandering through the lives of these four teenagers, lingering on small details. And once it’s clear that the series is moving at this deliberate pace, it’s easier to see Reservation Dogs as something special. It is a distinctive mood; a show unhurried by unnecessary things. Even better, you start to see its circling, contemplative aimlessness as key to its characters’ anxieties. It’s a show about four teenagers trying to find something to do. The rhythm of the show is a drifting, unimpulsive storyworld, and its teenage characters shoulder against it resentfully, looking for adventure and escape."
Reservation Dogs makes its boldest statement by not making a statement at all: "FX has touted Reservation Dogs, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, as revolutionary," says Allison Keene. "In many ways it is; it features an all-Indigenous writers room, for one. But the show makes its boldest statement by not feeling like it’s making a statement at all. It’s an easy-going show, foul and funny, specific and accessible. It’s not about the kids being noble heroes or crime-loving villains; they’re just people. But they are also Indigenous people, which does mean something, and is all-too-rare to see on television—especially portrayed in such a wonderfully casual way. The series also acknowledges and lampoons native stereotypes, including Bear being given a disappointing spirit guide every time he gets knocked out (which is a fair and somewhat concerning amount). The warrior who appears to him is largely a goof, one who proudly says he was at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but didn’t get to see much because his horse tripped on a gopher hole and squashed him. Reservation Dogs has a lot of sly humor like this; it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it crackles with mirth."
It’s rare to see a series that conjures up a sense of place quite as well as Reservation Dogs: "The series, set in and shot in Oklahoma with a cast, set of directors and writers’ room made up entirely of Indigenous people, lets us into a world television too rarely goes," says Daniel D'Addario. "The title reservation, a rural place where the only fun is what one makes for oneself, is a place our characters are keen to escape. But it’s also a community where the incidental magic of connection lies around every corner. This show’s ambitions in its first four episodes are narrower than those of FX’s great Atlanta, but there’s a similar willingness to push into the crannies of the American landscape and find moments of character worth exploring." He adds: "In all, Reservation Dogs is a lovely, eminently watchable triumph. It’s an overdue tribute to a sort of community it doesn’t mythologize. Instead, the show treats the reservation and its residents on their own terms, as worthy of being explored for just what it is, and just who they are."
The best part is that Reservation Dogs and fellow new Native American comedy Rutherford Falls don’t need to be pitted against each other: "Heck, Rutherford Falls breakout Jana Schmieding even guest stars in an early Reservation Dogs episode," says Daniel Fienberg. "You can and even should watch both, because they’re really good and because encouraging Hollywood to eventually make a third Native American-centric comedy really isn’t too much to ask." He adds: "None of this would work without the ensemble, recruited from Canada and the United States and proving, just as Rutherford Falls did, that there’s an Indigenous acting pool that TV and movies have been ignoring for far too long. Woon-A-Tai, admirably comfortable being silly, and Jacobs, tough and soulful, look like stars; they’re just stars who would never get opportunities like this without a creator like Harjo forcing the issue. Alexis has a distinctive comic delivery all her own, as do Lil Mike and Funnybone, who steal every scene they’re in. With Podemski and McClarnon leading the way, the veteran side of the cast is packed with familiar and unfamiliar faces all reveling in being part of a world so removed from noxious Native cliches."
What could have been a thin and familiar premise is elevated by a striking sense of authenticity: "Throughout, the series uses rusted buildings and decaying rural streets to explore the geography of its characters’ lives in all its prickly, go-nowhere ennui, which makes unmistakably clear why these kids want to get out of Dodge," says Steven Scaife. "But they want out on their own terms: When a rival 'gang' shows up like an invading force, they hesitate because they don’t want to seem like they’re being chased away." He adds: "The show’s homage to Tarantino, who so frequently works in pastiche, is both funny in its deployment and a clear and sturdy statement of intent. Indeed, the Rez Dogs’ upbringing is informed by the vestiges of popular culture, and Reservation Dogs sees them as fusions of native and outside influences. The kids’ speech and style of dress has clear roots in black culture, to say nothing of how Bear’s father attempts to convey staples of native culture through rap. The series captures a feeling more successfully than it develops its characters, but there’s a thematic power to that aimlessness: Even if the kids run away, where can they share these specific, mashed-up values except among themselves?"
Reservation Dogs proves that Native American stories don't need to be serious: "There’s a lot of heart in this mystically realistic character, who helps to cement the soul of this series," says Kimberley Ricci. "The show’s very cheeky and lighthearted, and in that way, Reservation Dogs pushes against the assumption that one must be overly serious when forging ahead to tell stories from communities that found themselves steeped in tragedy not too terribly long ago, against the backdrop of history. This community is one of survivorship, yet one must remember that identity should not be singularly defined by trauma. In that way, Reservation Dogs recognizes the value of telling textured stories, even if (at least in the four episodes screened for critics) the commentary doesn’t yet reach Atlanta levels. There’s a lot of room to grow here, and this show’s characters get some fine setups for future development. The group’s ringleader, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), is entirely ineffectual, and Elora Denan (Devery Jacobs) could probably do a better job as frontwoman, but that’s part of the charm here, too. Paulina Alexis (Willie Jack) and Cheese (Lane Factor) round out the group."
Reservation Dogs shows why having Native Americans in key positions behind the camera are so important: As Nina Metz points out, Martin Scorsese’s Apple TV+ movie Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann about the greed-driven murders in the 1920s of at least two dozen members of the Osage Nation, is currently filming in Oklahoma with the use of tribal leaders as cultural advisors to ensure authenticity. "But as I wrote at the time, consultants are just that: Consultants," says Metz. "They do not receive screenwriting residuals. Or major awards consideration. Or more importantly, occupy a power position to determine how a story is told. Why should any non-Natives — even those with the best intentions — get the benefit of the doubt when TV and filmmakers have such a long and sordid history of trampling over Native Americans to tell their stories? Shows like Reservation Dogs are a wonderful rebuke to this and it’s long overdue. As showrunner, Harjo has rooted the series in his own experiences growing up in Oklahoma, but he has also surrounded himself with other Native American writers and directors (including the aforementioned Freeland). This will always result in something more nuanced and complicated and true — and ultimately more interesting."
The delicate balance between innocence and precarity is the key to Reservation 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," says Inkoo Kang. "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."
Reservation Dogs feels like it's trying to deliver nothing but "special, breaking from the mold" episodes: "It's a confident, even cocky approach to introducing a series, a move that trusts we'll accept their base reality quickly before accepting the oddness seasoned atop it — or even eschew needing one," says Gregory Lawrence. "The approach in many ways feels appropriately tracked to its characters' journeys and vibes; their growing-but-confused adolescence, bursting at the seams, facing constant societal repression, trying desperately to 'be free.' It often yields fascinating, gripping television. But it often yields confusing, jagged, and over-reaching television, too. It throws everything and the kitchen sink at the screen, seemingly without realizing that its best moments come when we slow down and get to know these people before we start chucking appliances around them."
Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs illustrate that a "Native show" can be anything: "Right now, you have a whole bunch of people on the come-up that have a much different point of view than has been seen in the world so far," says Migizi Pensoneau, an actor on Rutherford Falls and writer on Reservation Dogs. Tazbah Chavez, a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe and a writer on Rutherford Falls and writer-director on Reservation Dogs, adds that networks and studios "feel like they’re running out of stories — it’s because they have a 200-year-old story. We’ve got thousands of years.” Pensoneau adds: “The fact that we’re all Native doesn’t preclude us for from being in a global space — it actually makes us much richer.” As Chavez notes, "even two and a half years ago, to be a Native writer or have any Native characters on any show was a big deal. We went from feeling blessed then, to now being on these shows where you have half or full Native writers’ rooms, Native directors, full casts of Native actors. Part of that has to do with the way that we all function as community. There’s Indigenous values that are operating within our come-up, opening doors and mentoring each other. There’s going to be this huge rise of Native artists and creatives, because we would never leave each other behind. We just were not in a position of hiring power before, which is where we are now with people like" Native American Reservation Dogs co-creator Sterlin Harjo and Native American Rutherford Falls co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas.
Creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi wanted to upend the Native American stereotypes shown in TV and movies: “We are making fun of non-Native audiences’ expectations while acknowledging aspects of that part of Native culture,” says Harjo, 41, a founding member of the Native American comedy troupe The 1491s. “We’re teasing the audience using the history of cinema. Native Americans grow up on pop culture — it’s how we learn what rest of the world is up to.” Waititi adds: “We’re tired of seeing ourselves out there wandering through forests talking to ghosts, putting our hands on trees and talking to the wind as if we have all the answers because of our relationship with nature. And there’s always flute music...I don’t know any ghosts and I don’t talk to trees. I grew up loving comic books and being interested in girls just like the other kids.”
Harjo and Waititi bonded over telling funny stories of their shared experiences growing up in similar areas: “All of the stories (Taika and I) would tell were funny," says Harjo. "They were never sad and depressing, which are the only stories that ever get told about Native people. So, when we were doing the show, it, from the beginning, was going to be a comedy.” Waititi adds: “Sterlin and I have known each other for many years. When we first met, we connected through sharing stories from when we were growing up. We know a lot of people from Indigenous communities… and all of those people share the same experiences.”