"It’s really rare for a TV comedy to know exactly what it is from the first scene of its first episode," says Emily VanDerWerff of the FX on Hulu comedy from Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo. "Usually, these shows take at least half a season to hammer out the core relationships, the best stories for them to tell, and the strongest possible punchlines. Even some of the best comedies spent a lot of their early seasons tweaking things. (Parks and Recreation, for instance, spent its first two seasons shedding elements that just didn’t work and zeroing in on those that did.) Comedies that are sure of themselves from the first scene exist (Cheers, Arrested Development, Atlanta, etc.), but they are few and far between. I’ve only seen one season of FX’s terrific new comedy Reservation Dogs, but I’m happy to add it to the list. (Season one is now available on Hulu.) From the first scene of its premiere to the last scene of its finale, the show’s first season is eight episodes of sharp-witted, perfectly balanced comedy, with just enough dramatic heft. It gives the teenage characters, who are all small-time criminals trying to save up enough money to leave their Oklahoma reservation, much more weight than you might expect." VanDerWerff adds that "despite Waititi’s bigger name, Reservation Dogs is very much Harjo’s show, with a unique and witty visual style all his own. One sequence set during a hunting expedition is shot entirely using wildlife cameras in a series of still shots, almost like comic panels. Dream sequences unfold with a woozy sense of the characters being trapped amid the stereotypes of Indigenous people still so common in other films and TV shows. Shots are chosen to subtly highlight the poverty and natural beauty of the characters’ surroundings, sometimes with frames that isolate the characters in one small section with the setting overwhelming them. Lest that all sound very heady, Reservation Dogs is also tremendously funny."
Reservation Dogs is the worthy successor to Atlanta: "Reservation Dogs wears some influences on its suit sleeves," says Alison Herman. "The teenage protagonists share a wardrobe, an industrial hideout, and a penchant for lawbreaking with the namesakes of Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut, an homage that imbues the show with an infectious sense of adolescent bravado. But once the high of the heist wears off, there are predecessors closer to home. FX’s buzziest launch of the past half-decade is undoubtedly Atlanta, Donald Glover’s surreal saga of family and fame; in the yearslong hiatus between Atlanta’s second and third seasons, the network has also hosted Lil Dicky’s Dave, another self-reflexive spoof of masculinity and the music industry. Despite those similarities, Reservation Dogs has proved itself as Atlanta’s worthy successor. Atlanta starts as something of a bait-and-switch. The pilot positions it as straightforward hustle story—two cousins scraping their way to the top, one harebrained scheme at a time. Quickly, though, it takes a turn for the slow and surreal. In the world of Atlanta, Justin Bieber is Black, Michael Vick lurks in parking lots, and episodes are just as likely to take place in a pop star’s haunted house as a recording studio. It’s this stealth expansion that Reservation Dogs takes to heart. The show begins as a coming-of-age caper loosely centered on Bear, a budding filmmaker who starts seeing a sorry excuse for a spirit guide after a paintball fight—and if that’s all it were, dayenu. But Reservation Dogs zeroes in and zooms out, building a collection of character studies into a group portrait of a whole community."
Reservation Dogs is a near-perfect study of dispossession: "Chips are the least of what has been stolen," says Doreen St. Félix. "Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Elora (Devery Jacobs) are teen-agers living on a reservation in rural Oklahoma. The madcap quartet harbor pipe dreams of escaping rez life for the foreign land of California. To leave would be to honor the memory of their friend Daniel, who planted the idea in their heads before his death....To finance their trip out West, the kids commit petty theft, like peddling stolen vehicles to meth heads for parts, and swiping steak from the market, so that Willie Jack can sell pies outside a health clinic. The chips get sold, too, to neighbors. That’s how survival works in this small town. Anyone can get got. Like the series Search Party, which spirals unpredictably out of the bounds of the noir genre, Reservation Dogs evolves beyond the confines of the heist comedy. The Tarantino reference is front and center, but the show’s general vibe is more influenced by indie movies and hood films, and is reminiscent of the washed-out palette of FX’s Atlanta, with occasional swerves into the surreal. From the actors to the crew, the whole operation is run by people of Indigenous descent. The show may boast the single most exciting cast of the fall television season. The acting is confidently slight. As Bear, Woon-A-Tai is a mess of young masculine contradiction, desperate for the attention of his deadbeat father, Punkin Lusty (Sten Joddi), a rapper, and tentative in the embrace of his mother, Rita (Sarah Podemski), who protects Bear from his father’s empty overtures. Jacobs plays Elora as a wounded disciplinarian, keeping everyone on task, and Factor, as Cheese, is the squinty-eyed wise man. Alexis, as Willie Jack, is the true original. Sardonic, ambitious, and a little butch, she is the loner among the loners. Never has 'f*ck' or 'love you, b*tch' been mumbled with such spiky finesse. The cool humor of Reservation Dogs is a welcome downshift from the look-at-me joke density of some of its peers; it’s the kind of show that never forces a punch line."
What Reservation Dogs can teach us about laughing through pain: "No matter the pace at which audiences choose to digest Harjo’s story, that distinct blend of hurt and hilarity will come through," says Joanna Robinson. As Sterlin Harjo puts it: “We laugh in the face of darkness. Our humor butts up against tragedy a lot of times. I think that’s something that’s been true through our history and our survival. We always had to keep our humor intact to survive.”
Sterlin Harjo knows how he wants Season 2 to end: "I know where I want Season 2 to end and I think with anything you have to have room to learn things, right?" he says. "Because you don’t know what you got when you’re first making it, you know. You write these parts and you cast them and then all of a sudden, you’re looking at the edit and you’re like man, I want to watch Wes Studi longer, you know what, like I want to watch more Uncle Brownie. So, sometimes these things shift and it’s like well, what’s Auntie B doing? Sometimes these things shift and expand and I think it’s good to have a sort of loose idea of where you’re going. It’ll be really nice to reflect on this first season and you know, take that knowledge and go into Season 2 and expand."