Thursday, 25 November 2021

Reservation Dogs: Season 1

Bear, Willie Jack, Cheese and Elora Danan (named for film Willow) are four youngsters frustrated with their life on a small reservation community in Oklahoma. In honour of their friend Daniel, who died a year previously, they plan to save up some money and escape to California. But their hopes are interrupted by a series of challenges, including the arrival of a new, rival gang; family issues; and Bear acquiring a somewhat incompetent spirit guide who tries to give him useful life advice.

Reservation Dogs is an off-kilter, low-fi comedy series created and showrun by Sterlin Harjo, with Taika Waititi attached as co-creator and producer. The show is noteworthy for being the first American scripted series to entirely be written (or co-written) and directed by an indigenous North American team, as is the majority of the cast (Waititi is notable as the only non-indigenous creative involved, and notes his job was using his name to get the show set up and then getting out of the way of everyone else). Set on a reservation in Oklahoma, the show attempts to show how people live in an isolated rural community, making the best of things or, in some cases, not.

The show centres on four key protagonists: Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear Smallhill (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), who plan to escape their small town existence by fair means or foul, whether that's selling dodgy meat products or robbing vans. At the end of the first episode the gang gain a name and identity, the "Rez Dogs," which fires them up in their mission. Several of the eight episodes involve the Rez Dogs getting into various scrapes in the closest the show gets to acquiring a traditional format. However, the series also eschews that to focus on each character at a time, as they each get a solo mission which explores their character and backstory in which the other members of the gang don't appear, or appear only briefly. Other episodes focus much more firmly on supporting castmembers, such as local cop Big, Willie Jack's father Leon, Elora's uncle Brownie, or Bear's mother who is anxiously trying to find a happier life for herself.

The show is also not afraid to change gears and tones. The show is ostensibly a comedy, but several episodes are more serious, dealing with more dramatic issues. One episode is even something of a tragedy. At least one episode conjures up a genuine horror movie vibe with some decidedly disturbing moments.

Where Reservation Dogs works is by making all of this work so absolutely effortlessly that it's genuine pleasure to watch. Each episode is exactly what it needs to be in tone and style. The direction is frequently original and fresh, the young cast is absolutely on point, the supporting cast is brilliant and the comedy moments are genuinely hilarious (especially Dallas Goldtooth's brilliantly incompetent spirit guide). The show's low-fi, laidback vibe and the way the action unfolds very slowly through long, lazy summer afternoons in the middle of nowhere gives it a chill feeling, but the short running time and tight focus means it's never boring.

In fact, although the subject matter and characters are completely different, Reservation Dogs recalls FX sister show Atlanta, which similarly uses off-kilter humour, drama, tragedy and horror to explore the lives of a small number of characters. That's a high bar to raise as a point of comparison, but Reservation Dogs rather handily meets it. 

The debut season of Reservation Dogs (*****) is brilliantly-executed television. At times strange and artistic, at others accessible and riotously funny, it mixes and matches styles, stories and tones with assured ease and a confidence that belies its status as a debut show. The show is available to watch on FX and Hulu in the United States and Disney+ in most of the rest of the world.

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