There’s Nothing on TV Like Reservation Dogs
Though FX on Hulu launched the first season of its dramedy Reservation Dogs shortly after the close of eligibility for the last Emmy awards, many had hoped it would break through and earn some nominations this year. But while the explosion of original series across countless networks and platforms has meant we may literally never run out of new things to watch, it also means there are now more titles to get snubbed by the Emmys than at any other point in human history—and, sadly, Reservation Dogs was overlooked. I would never be so coarse as to react by calling Emmy voters “shit-asses,” but every character on Reservation Dogs definitely would.
Viewers spent the first season getting to know the titular Dogs—Indigenous teens Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor)—and the titular Reservation, on Oklahoma’s Muscogee Nation. Until fairly recently, their gang had a fifth member: Daniel (Dalton Cramer), who died by suicide before the events of the series, but still appears in flashbacks, dreams, and visions. The kids pull off schemes and scams to raise money so that they can all move to California, but a season-finale dispute ends in division: Bear and Elora Danan argue over which of them is doing a worse job honoring Daniel’s memory; Willie Jack and Cheese both declare their intention to stay in Oklahoma; and Elora Danan ends up blowing town with Jackie (Elva Guerra), member of a rival gang. It’s lucky for Bear that he still has the support of Spirit (Dallas Goldtooth), a deceased warrior of dubious achievement; Spirit’s advice may sometimes be suspect, but it’s better than nothing.
The first season showed us the gang in a liminal period — processing the death of a friend, something that shouldn’t happen until adulthood, while also doing the dumb shit that is the privilege of youth. In the second, it’s clearer not only that the gang is starting to grow up, but that they’re figuring out what kind of grownups they want to be.
Spirit gives Bear some tough love about determining his place in the community and making something meaningful of his life, so Bear gets a job on a roofing crew that happens to include Daniel’s dad, Danny (Michael Spears). Initially, Bear shies away from him; then, he lashes out with an impulsively cruel reference to Danny’s shortcomings as a father. But Bear ends his day with more empathy for Danny, and a deeper understanding of what it takes to support a family. The symbolism is not especially subtle: on the roof, Bear is in a potentially perilous position, and while the gangster in him doesn’t want to betray any vulnerability, Danny both instructs him in the technical aspects of the job, and demonstrates by example that admitting error and attempting to change are signs of strength.
Meanwhile, Elora Danan and Jackie have taken off in Elora Danan’s grandmother’s “rezzy-ass car” (per Jackie), which is not fit for the journey. While disastrous road trips are reliable sources of comedy, this one both avoids expected tropes and encompasses a guest role by Oklahoma’s own Megan Mullally as Anna, a stranger who opens her empty nest to the girls. Soon after circumstances have forced them back home, Elora Danan must face a family crisis so urgent that even her long-gone aunt Teenie (Tamara Podemski) returns to town for the vigil.
Elora Danan regards Teenie with as much suspicion as Bear does Danny: Teenie moved away after the death of Elora Danan’s mother, Cookie, and has apparently never been back. Now, Elora Danan also sees that while Teenie’s old friends are happy to see her, Teenie’s long absence has opened a space between them that can never really be bridged. Going to California is an exciting idea, but which side of this divide does Elora Danan want to end up on?
Sterlin Harjo, who co-created the series with Taika Waititi, told VF’s Joanna Robinson last year, “I think that Native comedy is a sophisticated comedy….It’s not punchline, it’s about the silences and then it’s about teasing.” In the second season’s first four episodes, that ethos comes through. One shows how centuries-old traditions are still practiced when a member of the community is on her deathbed; in another, Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) improvises a spiritually questionable riverside curse-breaking ceremony. The majority of Reservation Dogs viewers don’t have Harjo’s intimate knowledge of its setting and characters, but we know he does, or he couldn’t send it up this convincingly.
And, of course, some of the truthful moments the show portrays are universal—as when Willie Jack complains to Elora Danan that Jackie isn’t helping in the kitchen. When Elora Danan calls her over, Jackie readily joins them, but it's still not good enough for Willie Jack: she mutters that Jackie shouldn't have had to be asked to pitch in. If you’ve never said or heard that kind of petty bitching at a family gathering, it’s because someone was saying it about you.
Amid and around these quietly shattering emotional beats, Reservoir Dogs is hilarious. Spirit’s advice to Bear about supporting Elora Danan through her family emergency involves the story of an unlikely medical issue he experienced on the battlefield, and ends in an anatomical analogy so shockingly funny that whoever came up with it in the writers’ room should have been given the week off as a reward.
Given the timing of its season two premiere, Reservation Dogs may once again miss the awareness window for next year’s Emmys, which would be a shame. Still, lots of extraordinary shows never win awards; it doesn’t matter as long as they find the right audience. This is one that richly deserves your attention, and which you should not snub.