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Reservation Dogs Review: Taika Waititi's Comedy Benefits From the Authenticity of Its Indigenous Creators

It's the chillest TV-watching experience you'll ever have

Candice Frederick

Slowly but surely Hollywood is beginning to expand its ideas of inclusion to sign off more projects that center the experiences of Indigenous people. Earlier this year, Rutherford Falls made a big splash when it premiered on Peacock, and now, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi have brought us Reservation Dogs, a laid-back comedy about young Native Americans living, for the meantime anyway, on an Oklahoma reservation. It is perhaps the chillest time you'll spend watching TV.

Part of that is because Reservation Dogs hinges on a vibe. One year after four jaded teenagers -- Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie (Paulina Alexis), Bear (D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), and Cheese (Lane Factor) -- lost their friend, they together decide to escape the drudgery of their hometown to seek out, hopefully, a better life for themselves. But instead of trying to find upstanding jobs that are few and far between for young people like them, the crew turns to petty crime to build up their piggy banks -- stealing a truck filled with potato chips, selling meat pies outside the Indian Health Service clinic. You know, whatever they have to do to get to where they want to go, which is anywhere but here.

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This sense of dissatisfaction about, among many other things, the lack of attention paid to young people whose lives are invariably cut short is something to which many youths can relate. But it is the specificity of Reservation Dogs that makes the narrative cut through more sharply.

It helps tremendously that both creators are Indigenous and can speak to these experiences, including Waititi being from New Zealand and of Māori ancestry. A native of Oklahoma, a state that the U.S. Supreme Court deemed half a Native American reservation, and part of the Seminole and Creek nations, Harjo helps to infuse the story with amusing coming-of-age hijinks that are indicative of growing up on a reservation. Those include navigating a pair of misfits (Lil Mike and Funny Bone) that always pop up out of nowhere to offer their unsolicited two cents on whatever shenanigans the crew gets themselves into, and dodging a cop (Zahn McClarnon) constantly sniffing around their path whenever any crime goes down.

Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, and Devery Jacobs, Reservation Dogs

Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, and Devery Jacobs, Reservation Dogs

Shane Brown/FX

The most endearing aspect of the characters' journey is the fact that, as they hustle to escape their surroundings, they must contend with the natural order of things until they make it out. There's also a rival crew that intimidates them, and targets Bear especially. But, wait for it, they use paintball guns to make their point. This is the same type of humor that polarized audiences in Waititi's Hitler comedy, Jojo Rabbit, referencing the rampant gun violence in Native communities with a punchline. But just as in Jojo, Reservation Dogs is clear about who its protagonists and villains are, as well as the impact such brutality has on kids.

That is especially so as the series follows its lead characters as they find ways to toughen themselves up so that they're less of a target. They turn to an older family member for some advice and, of course, hilarity ensues when said guidance doesn't exactly come in the form they expect it. Meanwhile, Bear tries to find some sense of solace when a warrior presence materializes in his life.

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When it comes to its young protagonists, a lot of Reservation Dogs rests on ideas of adulthood, masculinity, toughness -- all the things presumed to survive a place like theirs. But then there's Bear's mother, Rita (Sarah Podemski), who also deals with issues of identity. She has to put up with Native stereotypes in her workplace and dating on the reservation where Native women are fetishized by the white women who also reside there. That's on top of raising a teenage boy in the absence of his unreliable father.

Though it wrestles with some heavy, but not overtly political, themes, Reservation Dogs seems to mostly have fun with young life on a reservation. Yes, things are tough, even scary at times. But mostly, these are just kids shooting the breeze and waiting for a break. It's just that wild things keep getting in the way.

Judging by the four episodes made available to press, the series shows a particular interest in young male masculinity, though the female characters on the show, as well as Willie Jack, who is non-binary, are equally as interesting to explore, and hopefully their stories unfold in greater detail as the series goes on. Still, Harjo and Waititi have presented a promising and welcome contribution to teenage malaise and misbehavior on the small screen. For that, it's well worth the watch. 

TV Guide rating: 4/5

Reservation Dogs Season 1 premieres Monday, August 9 on FX on Hulu.