Here are some things that happen in the first six minutes of the first episode of FX/Hulu’s Reservation Dogs, before the opening credits even start:
- A group of rascal teens steals a potato chip truck — the entire truck, with the spicy chips inside — and drives off with it in broad daylight
- They speed past a police car in the stolen truck but the cop doesn’t notice because he is fully distracted by conspiracy theory videos he’s watching on a tablet
- The rascal teens sell the stolen truck to a salvage yard owner named Kenny, which is mostly notable because Kenny is played by Kirk Fox, Sewage Joe from Parks and Recreation, who appears to have found a wonderful sewage/salvage niche on television
This is good. This is exactly how you should start your television show. It’s crazy that no other show figured this out already. And I am pleased to report that the good news does not stop there, not even for a second, because after all that happened the show pulled out a Wu-Tang needle drop as it displayed the title.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a show zero in on my exact interests this efficiently. I love rascal teens and snack heists and incompetent police officers and Sewage/Salvage Joe/Kenny and when shows slip in Wu-Tang songs. It’s even better because this is the same song that was used in the trampoline scene of The Leftovers, so it also led to me remembering how good that show was. I have nothing to complain about with any of this. It’s all just about perfectly ideal.
But let’s stop here and zoom out a little. Let’s move from the specific to the general. Let’s talk about Reservation Dogs as a whole. The show — created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi — follows four Indigenous teenagers as they run around Oklahoma committing small-scale crimes and pocketing the proceeds as part of a long-term plan to eventually bounce to California. Is there a rival gang of teens? Of course. Are there paintball shootouts that are edited to look like dramatic death scenes from classic movies? At least one. Is one of the rascal teens named “Cheese”? Yes, and please know I would never lie to you about something that important.
The show is more than just rascals teens stealing stuff, though. It is funny and sweet and sad and strange as all hell in places. There’s really very little you can even compare it to. I’ve been cranking away on it for a while and the best I’ve come up with is “Atlanta but in Oklahoma and sometimes there are female serial killers with deer hooves for feet,” which is both a fun thing to type and just terrifically unhelpful. Maybe that’s for the best. It’s always nice to have something truly original on television. Reservation Dogs is nothing if not original.
It also features one of my favorite television characters of the year. While all four of the young leads are good at delivering jokes and carrying heavier moments in a way that most actors twice their age could struggle with, the standout here, for me, is the character named Willie Jack, played by Paulina Alexis. Willie Jack is a blast, all sharp edges and cuss words and rough exterior until someone digs a few layers deep to hit some vulnerability. She has at least one line each episode that makes me laugh out loud. She might be television’s second-best f-word-sayer, just behind Roy Kent from Ted Lasso, which is as high a compliment I know how to give.
Look at Willie Jack work.
Look at Willie Jack work.
Every now and then you’ll see something that makes you realize you’ve been living your life wrong. That’s how I felt when I saw this scene and realized I’ve never held a bag containing the hair of my enemies. I need to rectify this as soon as possible.
You know what else is cool about Reservation Dogs? I’ll tell you: It is inclusive in the right way. Sometimes a show will pay lip service to inclusion by, like, casting people from different backgrounds (good!) but then writing those characters in the same boring and/or stereotypical ways (bad!). Reservation Dogs goes the extra step, with a cast and crew and creative team filled with Indigenous voices. This allows the show to have it both ways: they can tell a true story with all the little shading and shadowing that makes it feel real, and they can also blast through the stereotypes to show you that the characters are also just regular kids at heart. Ones who steal trucks filled with snacks. And collect the hair of their enemies.
Hmm. I’m not sure I’m explaining that well, this idea of maintaining an identity while also depicting relatable human experiences. Luckily, the creators have explained it all much better. Here they are in the New York Times.
“We are making fun of non-Native audiences’ expectations while acknowledging aspects of that part of Native culture,” said Harjo, 41, a founding member of the Native American comedy troupe The 1491s. “We’re teasing the audience using the history of cinema. Native Americans grow up on pop culture — it’s how we learn what the rest of the world is up to.”
Waititi added: “We’re tired of seeing ourselves out there wandering through forests talking to ghosts, putting our hands on trees and talking to the wind as if we have all the answers because of our relationship with nature. And there’s always flute music.”
“I don’t know any ghosts and I don’t talk to trees,” he continued. “I grew up loving comic books and being interested in girls just like the other kids.”
And here’s Taika Waititi — who, between this show and Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows and Jojo Rabbit, really does not miss at all these days — putting a finer point on it at in a chat with Deadline.
“Now we don’t want to tell stories like that, we don’t want to depress people. There’s so much humor in our communities, so many jokes,” Waititi said. “All they want to do is see us riding whales, talking to the trees, playing flutes on mountaintops and talking to ghosts and learning something from our grandmother. To subvert expectations is such a powerful thing.”
This rules. As a member of another group whose stories are not often told well on television (I’m in a wheelchair and stories about people in wheelchairs are often depressing or gratingly inspirational), I dig this approach. It doesn’t have to feel like taking medicine. It just takes some cool stories told by people who have the right perspective on things. It helps if one of those people is Taika Waititi.
What I’m getting at with all of this is a pretty simple point: I think you would like Reservation Dogs. It’s good and fun and introduces you to characters that are wholly original. These characters steal snacks and get in fights and go through some real-life stuff. One of these characters is named Cheese. I know I said that already but I really like saying it, so here we are. And each episode is only 30 minutes long, which is nice. You’re pretty busy. And there are so many shows. I try not to recommend things lightly. But I do think you would like this one.
Go watch Reservation Dogs.