It’s a bad day for Miles, a mild-mannered trucker. Just two minutes into the pilot of “Reservation Dogs,” when boosters jack his delivery van, full of Flaming Flamers hot chips, he loses his job. His wife leaves him, taking all of their money. He recounts the tale to the owner of a local catfish joint. “Only thing left in the house was a bag of sugar. Now you know what’s gonna happen. Diabetes.”
It is infrequent for a television comedy series to get its point across in its first episode confidently. Usually, shows tend to take at least the first half of a season to plot out relationships, carve character arcs and set up strong themes. Reservation Dogs somehow manages to do this in the very first scene of episode one.
From the first scene of its opening episode to the last scene of its finale, Reservation Dogs is eight episodes of perfectly timed, sharp-witted comedy with a considerable amount of dramatic weight. The series gives its teenage characters, who are small-time criminals trying to save up enough money to leave their Oklahoma reservation, the task of carrying the entire story, and they do it with ease.
It’s crucial to talk about the groundbreaking nature of Reservation Dogs, which was shot entirely in the Muscogee Nation, Oklahoma. It is the first American TV series ever with a writers room and directors composed entirely of indigenous people from North America and only the second with an Indigenous showrunner. Said showrunner is Sterlin Harjo, who co-created the series with Taika Waititi and wrote five out of eight of the seasons’ episodes and directed three.
Harjo and Waititi met early on in their careers. Waititi helped to get the show made, having a previous relationship with FX after he executive produced the Emmy-nominated “What We Do in the Shadows”, a spin-off from his film of the same name. Despite Waititi being the better-known of the pair, Reservation Dogs is very much Harjo’s show, with a unique and witty visual style all his own. One sequence set during a hunting expedition is shot entirely using wildlife cameras in a series of still shots that feel like comic panels. There are dream sequences of the characters being trapped amid the stereotypes of Indigenous people still common in other films and television. Shots are carefully chosen to subtly highlight the poverty and natural beauty of the characters’ surroundings that make them appear isolated and overwhelmed.
Although there are clear, serious social themes present throughout, Reservation Dogs is tremendously funny at its core. It opens with its four central characters pulling off a heist on a truck full of chips. They manage to get away and avoid apprehension because the local police officer is distracted by a Youtube video about conspiracy theories. The show’s casting could probably be considered its riskiest element. The only four recurring characters appearing in every episode are four teenagers, all played by unknown actors.
Paulinas Alexis, who plays the dry and energetic Willie Jack, only has one previous acting credit to her name, while Lane Factor, who plays Cheese, the little brother of the group, has his first acting role in the series. The other two main stars, Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora, a girl who wants nothing more than two to leave town, and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, the group’s leader, may have more acting credits to their name but are still relative unknowns.
However, the four young actors form one of the best ensembles of teen characters in recent years. All are capable of both comedy and drama. Jacobs, in particular, adds a new edge to a familiar story: small-town girl longing for something better. Some of the strongest scenes are those where the four sit around and chat with an easy chemistry that never feels forced, which is hard to do in a show this young with actors relatively new to the game.
The cast is also supported by some great guest stars. I loved Zahn McClarnon’s performance as Officer Big, the local police officer distracted by conspiracy theory videos in episode one, who seems uninterested in his job. Beyond McClarnon, the cast brims with outstanding performances. Indigenous rappers Lil Mike and Funny Bone pop us, as does veteran actor Gary Farmer as goofy Uncle Brownie. Comedian Bill Burr also makes a surprising appearance as a driving instructor who helps Elora to process some of her most complicated emotions.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Reservation Dogs is yet another story about the tragic lives of people living without opportunity because it’s not. The series is a hilarious comedy, first and foremost, that tells a moving story about teenagers who aren’t sure about the limited options that they have and a community where resources are stretched tighter and tighter every day.
Reservation Dogs is as hilarious as it is beautiful, and the risks taken with casting young newcomers in lead roles pays dividends, making this one of the best first seasons of a comedy series I’ve seen in a very long time.
Reservation Dogs Arrives on Disney+ on Wednesday 13th October, premiering with episodes 1 & 2 and new episodes releasing weekly.