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This is a slice-of-life comedy about four Native American teenagers with big dreams of escaping their dreary, impoverished Oklahoma hometown for California. That costs money, though, and it’s hard for them to get enough without stealing it or doing some kind of hustle. So the show follows them as they go about their days of trying to get money, fighting off another crew that’s encroaching on their turf, and just generally hanging out. It’s about the things that happen while they’re waiting to be seen at the health clinic, which takes all day because there’s only one overworked doctor for the whole town.
The most famous name involved in the show is Jojo Rabbit and Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, who co-created and executive-produces the show with Native American filmmaker Starlin Harjo. The most recognizable face in the cast is Zahn McClarnon, who’s best known for his notable recurring roles on Longmire, Fargo, and Westworld.
You’ve never seen anything quite like Reservation Dogs before. I mean this literally; it’s the first scripted series to film an entire season in Oklahoma, so it’s a location that’s never been depicted like this before. More importantly, you’ve never seen a story like this told from this perspective. It’s a show about contemporary Native American life made by Indigenous people–all of the show’s writers, directors, and series regulars are Indigenous, and there are Indigenous people in below-the-line roles like stunt coordinator and production designer as well. It’s hilarious, authentic, and tonally unique. It feels like it could only have come from members of the community it represents, but also could only have come from the specific individuals who made it, because its sense of humor is so deliberate and endearingly odd.
Reservation Dogs has a sort of gallows humor that comes from living in unrelentingly difficult conditions, which comes out as deadpan silliness. The show is not a dramedy; in the four episodes sent to critics it never stops being a comedy even when it’s dealing with heavy topics. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in a way that’s impossible to convey by just describing what’s funny about it. Like, the way a random side character says “mustard gun” had me laughing so hard I had to rewind the episode to catch the next line. The show comes out of the gate so confident in its own identity that it gets you on its wavelength almost immediately. It’s a meandering show where nothing much happens, but the fact that nothing much happens is the point. It’s what life feels like in a place like this.
Reservation Dogs’ way of building its own world makes me think of FX’s greatest comedy, Atlanta. Not because it feels like Atlanta, but because it feels like nothing else. Both series show you the world through a new pair of eyes. They find under-explored corners of America and depict them with respect and affection but without romanticization. FX’s great comedies, from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to What We Do in the Shadows (a project that also involves Waititi), always have a strong and distinctive point of view. Reservation Dogs is another triumph for the studio.
Reservation Dogs is a fresh comedy series from a community that’s never made a show like this before. It’s one of the best new comedies of the year so far.
The show is TV-MA mostly for language, and it’s not particularly violent or racy. Older teenagers and young adults feel like the intended audience. But anyone who likes offbeat comedy with a distinct identity will enjoy it. Watch it with a cold cup of slush and tater tots from Sonic (you’ll get that after you watch it).
The first two episodes are now streaming on Hulu. Further episodes will be released weekly on Mondays.