‘Reservation Dogs’ Is A Rip-Roaring Ride Through Indigenous Rural Life In America (With Some ‘Atlanta’ Vibes)

Reservation Dogs, the new FX (on Hulu) series from Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, is a slice-of-rambling life portrait of four “criminals.” I put that word in quotes because you’ll never be able to forget that this is a Waititi work on FX (also home to What We Do in the Shadows, one of the funniest shows on TV). This life of crime is an absurd one, and this gang of Indigenous teens can’t go about their hustlin’ and thievin’ in an effective way. Meanwhile, their reservation life oozes multiple obvious not-so-subtle homages (a semi-pastiche of a pastiche, if you will) to a certain Quentin Tarantino work, but these kids can’t even get things off the ground to fathom some enormous diamond heist. They’re comically low-stakes, and they’re ostensibly the story’s main characters, although there’s another big one. That would be the show’s Oklahoma setting (the show was shot outside of Muskogee, the Creek Nation headquarters), which Harjo (a member of the Seminole Nation who also has Muskogee Creek heritage) and Waititi (who has delighted in dropping nods to his own Māori heritage) deftly use in their bid for authenticity.

The bid is a serious one, despite the not-so-serious subject matter at hand. The show exclusively builds itself from the minds of Indigenous writers, cast, and crew members, who know that feeling of identifying with one’s own close-knit community while also, at times, feeling those confines. And the project itself is a tremendous display of not only Indigenous representation, on and offscreen. It’s also what happens when a community comes together to tell the stories that they want to tell in the way that they want to tell them. And so, these characters didn’t burst fully-formed onto the screen. I wouldn’t say there’s massive character development (we’ve got some breezy episode runtime), but layers do show themselves. These teens also aren’t in service of propping up anyone else’s stories (or any other community’s stories) but their own. That’s huge when one reflects upon how Indigenous characters have been represented in Hollywood projects throughout pop culture history.

All of this is happening after Native Americans endured atrocities and were pushed into reservations and still, at times, find themselves marginalized against the mainstream community. And the way that the show maneuvers against stereotypes is bitingly funny. What transpires builds upon what Peacock’s Rutherford Falls is doing, respectably, while still, you know, revolving on Ed Helms (who co-created and stars) to be the focal point through which the show’s cultural commentary reverberates. Yet Reservation Dogs commits itself to Indigenous ownership and reclamation from the ground up. Furthermore, the show’s tone embraces surreal, what-the-f*ck elements, which underscore realities for Indigenous communities in the U.S. If that sounds familiar to you as a fan of Atlanta‘s FX, then yes, you should put this show on your list. Likewise, those who recently loved Betty will enjoy similar come-what-may vibes here.

It must also be noted that what might seem like a niche project shot in Oklahoma could carry a lot of appeal. (Don’t hate on Oklahoma, man. Marty Scorsese is there and shooting a movie with Brendan Fraser and some guy named Leo as we speak.) One can easily surrender to how this show touches upon the cultural shackles of Indigenous people while also embracing a rambling approach to exploring what these teens do (surprisingly a lot yet not much at all) on a daily basis. They find themselves in some ridiculous scrapes and situations that are written, and acted, with a sensational approach, like a paintball attack by a rival group — known as, yes, the Indian Mafia — that rolls in slo-mo. The scene ends with the group’s apparent ringleader collapsing and awakening to his warrior-spirit guide, who’s a nod to almost every Native American cultural cliché out there.

Yet there’s a lot of heart in this mystically realistic character, who helps to cement the soul of this series. The show’s very cheeky and lighthearted, and in that way, Reservation Dogs pushes against the assumption that one must be overly serious when forging ahead to tell stories from communities that found themselves steeped in tragedy not too terribly long ago, against the backdrop of history. This community is one of survivorship, yet one must remember that identity should not be singularly defined by trauma. In that way, Reservation Dogs recognizes the value of telling textured stories, even if (at least in the four episodes screened for critics) the commentary doesn’t yet reach Atlanta levels. There’s a lot of room to grow here, and this show’s characters get some fine setups for future development. The group’s ringleader, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), is entirely ineffectual, and Elora Denan (Devery Jacobs) could probably do a better job as frontwoman, but that’s part of the charm here, too. Paulina Alexis (Willie Jack) and Cheese (Lane Factor) round out the group.

“Cheese” must be the coolest/uncoolest character name of all time, right? You’ll dig Cheese (he’s adorable), but the group is mourning a fifth member (weirdly named “Daniel,” who sounds too ordinary) and desperately want to build their savings up and get the hell out of dodge, lest they suffer their lost friend’s fate. There aren’t a whole lot of ways for teens to rustle up cash in rural Oklahoma, so they decide to evade the law, such as it is in tribal terms. Enter the heisting of snacks and edibles and other very ridiculous efforts. So far, the show weaves a humor-filled tapestry while diving in and out of realities that often plague reservation life (the medical clinic frequently attended by Bear, for example) while still somehow tying into a broader mainstream set of references that a larger audience can appreciate. Reservation Dogs doesn’t try too hard to impress, either, and that’s the beauty of this show. It’s authentically impressive and (so far) a ride to nowhere, but what an enjoyable ride to take.

Reservation Dogs premieres on FX on Hulu on August 9.