There comes a moment in the pilot of FX’s new comedy series, “Reservation Dogs,” when you realize something special is happening. It’s while series lead Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is talking to a dream representation of his indigenous ancestors, who tell about him staring down General Custer… kinda. From far away. The entire story culminates in hilarity when one speaker mentions that he didn’t die in battle, but because his horse stepped in a gopher hole and squashed him. The scene, both surreal and rooted in history, feels like something co-creator Taika Waititi would create, and yet it could only come to fruition in a world crafted by Sterlin Harjo, who based the series around his own experiences.
“Reservation Dogs” follows the lives of four Native teens living in Oklahoma. After their best friend’s death, the quartet is determined to leave home and reestablish the group in California. In order to secure the money for their trip, they’ve taken to pulling off petty crimes around their neighborhood, starting with the hijacking of a chip truck.
Harjo and Waititi concoct a show just as accessible for the TikTok generation as their parents, filled with movie references any film lover worth their salt can spot as well as a story that feels original and relatable. It’s a universe that takes an episode or two to get into because the comedic sensibilities are so different. This is a series with a main character named Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) after all, so whether you find that fun is indicative of how you take in the rest of the series.
The trip to California is the catalyst for the series, but as things unfold “Reservation Dogs” is able to balance the humor with deeper implications of growing up on a reservation. As Bear says, the reason their friend is dead is because of where they live, though it’s unclear what that actually means. Was it the lack of opportunities? The sense of confinement? Based on how Bear and his crew spend their days, it was probably a mix of everything. The town itself is small and dusty, the biggest news being when a crew of teens arrive in town hellbent on destroying the “reservation dogs,” as Bear and his gang have been dubbed.
Various episodes have a standalone quality akin to the likes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” One episode sees the group travel to the local clinic, both to sell meat pies and to deal with individual medical issues. As Bear and Elora Danan say, they hate this place and it’s easy to see why. Much has been said about healthcare in the U.S. in general, but it’s at another level in how the camera captures this clinic. One doctor acts as both ophthalmologist and medical professional, wonderfully played by Bobby Lee, while the receptionist openly mocks Elora Danan for selling meat pies while complaining of a stomach ache.
The teens assembled here are all fantastic, conveying so much about their characters’ true selves even if they don’t know it yet. Woon-A-Tai’s Bear believes he’s the leader when he’s anything but; he’s mixed about the trip to California yet so desperately wants to make something of himself. When his father — a local rapper who goes by Punkin Lusty — says he’s going to visit, it galvanizes Bear to entice his father to bond with him. It’s easy to see that despite his 16 years, this is a young man desperate for guidance who’s still forced to blaze his own trail.
He’s tempered by Jacobs’ fantastic Elora. Like Bear, she too is absent a parent, losing her mom at a young age. So much of this series is about how children find themselves when they’ve had no anchors, and Jacobs crafts a perfect toughened exterior for hers. A trip culminates with a poignant moment between uncle and niece that, similar to Bear’s, emphasizes how much these children want to be grown but, more importantly, yearn for a deeper connection to their family.
Outside of references to films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Platoon,” situational humor and guest stars make the series feel like a bizarre hodgepodge both lived-in and fantastic. Outside of Bear’s Native dream sequence and the robbing of the chip truck, there’s an episode focused on Bear’s mother (wonderfully played by Sarah Podemski) and her one-night stand with the presumably perfect guy, played appropriately enough by Garrett Hedlund. How that narrative ends is easily one of the show’s funniest moments. Also, shoutout to Zahn McClarnon as the town’s policeman with delusions of grandeur.
“Reservation Dogs” is kooky, hilarious, and just what you’d expect from the minds of co-creators Waititi and Harjo.With a cast of newcomers you’ll want to watch weekly, this is a surprising series that illustrates why everyone’s story is worth telling.
“Reservation Dogs” premieres Monday, August 9 on FX with two episodes. New episodes will be available the next day via FX on Hulu.