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A Bright New Teen Comedy Tackles Life on an Indian Reservation

Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, and Lane Factor as Cheese in Reservation Dogs (Screenshot via Youtube)
FX’s Reservation Dogs is funny, touching, and full of promise.

Based on its fresh and wonderful pilot, FX’s new half-hour comedy series Reservation Dogs has the potential to be something special. But after wandering away from its four central characters in subsequent episodes, it will need a little nudge back in the right direction.

Co-created by Sterlin Harjo, a Seminole from Oklahoma, and Taika Waititi, a half-Jewish, half-Maori New Zealander who has become one of the most in-demand talents in Hollywood after directing Thor: Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit (for which he also won a screenwriting Oscar), the series is drenched in funny, surprising, sometimes moving details about teen life on an Oklahoma Indian reservation. Its texture alone is reason enough to watch; there’s nothing else like it on television.

Especially in the pilot, the show offers a winsome combination of innocence and absurdity. The Dogs of the title are four frustrated, rebellious Indian teens, two boys and two girls, who embark on a spree of banditry in hopes of saving up for a move to California. They steal copper from utility poles and pull off a mad caper involving a truck full of crispy snacks that they proceed to sell by the unit as if they were drug dealers. (Their language is R-rated but their souls are wholesome, and they seem not to drink or use drugs themselves.) The four teens, each lost and wounded and floundering, are adorably courageous and endearingly weird: “My name is Cheese. My pronouns are he, him, and his,” one boy (Lane Factor) keeps saying with impeccable deadpan. Cheese’s pals are Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), a coolly competent born leader who has to deal with the indignity of being named after a character in the movie Willow; Bear (D’Pharaoah Woon-a-Tai), a forlorn boy whose rapper dad has drifted off to Los Angeles; and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), an aggressively combative girl who speaks as though she learned English from hip-hop records.

The writers of the show (the creative team is billed as 100 percent indigenous peoples) have built in some smart, original touches rooted in tribal culture, notably an interest in spirits and a yearning for guidance from lost elders. A recurring character is the ghost of a brave who died in ignominy at Little Big Horn when his own horse fell on him, and the kids wonder whether their enemies can be felled by a curse. There’s a beautiful moment when a boy happens to come across his own grandmother’s hospital bed, and wheels her out so she can feel the sun on her face again.

The first episode, by far the best, funniest, and most touching of the five I’ve seen so far (each episode appears on FX on Monday nights, then becomes available for streaming on Hulu), was co-written by Harjo and Waititi, but Waititi doesn’t appear in the writing credits for the rest of the first season. Minus his comic energy, the show flattens out a bit in subsequent episodes, each of which focuses on a different peripheral character in the kids’ world and none of which has the dry zaniness of the pilot. Waititi has two movies in post-production as a director, does a lot of acting (with notable roles in Free Guy and several other recent movies and TV shows), and is an executive producer of What We Do in the Shadows, also on FX. He may be stretched too thin to give this show the attention it deserves.

After the pilot, we meet an intermittently berserk uncle (Gary Farmer) who is trying to sell a jar of antique weed and has some information on Elora Danan’s departed mom; Bear’s mother (Sarah Podemski), who is attempting to land a suitable new husband and step-father for her angst-ridden son; and a gentle, not terribly competent local federal cop (Zahn McClarnon) who never seems to arrest anybody and has a habit of locking his keys in his squad car. All of them are reasonably fun to get to know, but the show meanders around as though flipping through a book of portraits.

Reservation Dogs — love that title — would be wise to re-focus on the four teenage Dogs themselves and their quest to escape out into the world, infused as it is with a universally recognizable yearning that has a very specific resonance here. Many teens feel suffocated by their surroundings, but these four probably have better cause than most to feel oppressed. On the reservation, virtually everything is controlled by the heavy hand of the federal government, and feelings of helplessness become endemic. There’s a running joke about how everyone hates going to the federally run clinic, managed by Indian Health Services under the rule of Washington: It’s a despondent, colorless, vaguely Soviet place. (It’s also a chilling glimpse of a possible future for the whole country should the Left succeed in implementing socialized medicine.)

The kids have lost their friend Daniel to some undescribed cause and they poignantly dress in suits when visiting his shrine. “This place killed him,” they say. That isn’t hard to believe. Finding yourself as a young person is hard enough without the federal government’s attempting to help you.

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