Reservation Dogs

5 out of 5

Created by: Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi

covers season 1

A lot of stations are trying and occasionally succeeding, but FX has managed to corner the market on the creme-of-the-crop slice-of-life dramadies, shows in which the funniest people and the funniest scripts attack the very real worlds in which we live; real to the extent that they almost shouldn’t be funny… except, of course, they are, highlighting the absurdities all around us.

Reservation Dogs is even clever up front with that name, and its focus on a group of indigenous teens in Oklahoma, forever plotting how to escape their small town – perhaps to California – and scheming up small crimes to gather funds for that cause in the meantime. The show seems like it’s going to lean in a particular youthy rebellion direction at first, opening with Elora, Bear, Cheese and Willie Jack (Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis) doing a little carjacking a dropping a lot of slang and playing it off all very cool, but the show immediately opens up in the aftermath, when the “gang” wrestles with the impacts of their act, and how this circles around a shared tragedy – the recent death of another gang members – pinged off of the other amusing residents of their town, such as clueless local officer Big (Zahn McClarnon). Everyone is given their due dilligence in the show – Big included – with episodic focuses majestically bouncing between casual and ridiculous comedy and the sudden emotional pangs of living: of being a human being surrounded by friends and family and culture and tradition, and sometimes wanting to break from it all but being given reminders why they’re also all important.

Reservation Dogs is unapologetically steeped in the latter two from that list, but it’s never presented pedantically; white viewers like me aren’t having a lifestyle explained to us, just shown. Its reach is further extended by some playful magical realism – when some of the crew seem to see or interact with various spirits, which are themselves mixed bags of stereotypes and lore, playing off of how much of a melting pot are our influences, especially as extended over these many years. Our writers have also given the series something of a througline that even the best of these dramadies can be said to lack: that off-in-the-distance goal of California isn’t a lark, but a real destination, with different motivations behind it for different characters. It gives weight and urgency to a lot of their experiences, and further contextualizes that past tragedy, which we also learn more about as the season progresses.

The main actors are all gifts. They each have fronts of toughness, or appear more or less naive, but the scripts and actors flesh this out immensely; it is ridiculously easy to love and feel for these characters within a single episode, even when they’re acting variously like brats or participating in some form of foolishness. McLarnon’s Officer Big is also a highlight – often playing a tough, it’s a joy to see the actor flex some great comedic skills and timing. He errs toward goofball, but manages our sympathies as well.

Reservation Dogs joins Better Things (and the quickly evolving Breeders) as not only one of the best of the “grounded” comedies on FX, but also one of the best shows, period, of the recent past.