Creators: Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi
Cast: Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, Sarah Podemski, Zahn McClarnon, Dallas Goldtooth
Genre: Dark comedy
8 episodes, approx. 25 mins. Each
The star-studded Golden Globes ceremony is going to be held on January 9 in Los Angeles. But many celebrities will be boycotting this awards show due to the massive controversy last year of the HFPA (Hollywood Foreign Press Association) having no black members. And again, there is the issue of the nominations lacking diversity. In fact, there will be no television broadcast either and the ceremony will be held quietly in a low key fashion.
While award shows like the Golden Globes continue to be confronted for not only its lack of diversity but its widespread corruption, let’s not forget some of the memorable content that have garnered nominations at the Globes this year. ‘Reservation Dogs’, an eight-episode FX series, is sort of like the underdog show of the year with Native American (Muskogee) characters at the centre of its story and with a majority indigenous crew behind it.
This show is charming and dryly humorous with a deeply emotional story which confronts many issues facing the young generation today in America and the world around: family dysfunction, economic depression, disenfranchisement, drug use, mental health struggles and suicide, and friendship. So while it is a very specific story about the Native experience, it is also universally relatable.
But ‘Reservation Dogs’ does not sink in its misery despite depicting these heavy issues nor does it try to sensationalise or glamourize the heavy issues. The show, written by Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi and Bobby Wilson, has a deep well of love, warmth and generosity for its many characters. The quirkiness and dry humour, in fact, reminds one of the FX show ‘Atlanta’.
It makes an attempt to be light-hearted and uses dry wit to lighten the many heavy issues in order to make them more consumable for viewers. And perhaps that is the best way to go. After all, do we really need another ‘Euphoria’ (HBO TV show) which heightens teen problems and makes them extreme in order to shock audiences in order to get people to talk?
While watching ‘Reservation Dogs’, we understand the depressive economic state of the four teenagers and their families without getting bombarded with straightforward
political commentary everywhere. Indigenous American communities have faced intense levels of oppression, racism, political disenfranchisement, genocide, eugenics, forced religious conversion and cultural brainwashing for centuries. That, along with the recent statistics of high domestic abuse and murder which the women in the community face compared to the national American average has given a very dark and bleak picture of the indigenous community.
So it is impressive to see Harjo and Waititi portray the community in the show in a way that is realistic but not hopeless. The lack of parental presence and the normality of domestic fighting and alcoholism faced by many characters is shown subtly or hinted at. The town they live in (rural Oklahoma) is depressing and soul-deadening. So the four tight-knit bunch of friends consisting of Bear, Elora, Willie Jack and Cheese, make it their goal to collect enough cash (in whatever means necessary) to flee their homes and drive to California.
This they do by stealing a food truck and selling it, selling chips and meats in their backyard or at the hospital as well as other ways. These kids are not malicious or cruel. They’re just desperate to get out of the town that killed their dear friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer) so as to not end up like him. They have little guidance from their families and have learned the tough lesson in the gritty neighbourhood: eat or get eaten. Or finder keepers, losers weepers.
Or something along the lines of that… Either way, their actions are always understandable as they have a motive. Gangster movies are another big influence on their lives as we notice the poster of Quentin Tarantino’s classic crime caper ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in Bear’s room and of course, the TV show’s title is a play on the Tarantino film title too.
While the first episode lays heavy the theme of crime (the kids rob an unsuspecting delivery man’s food truck and then run into their new rival neighbourhood gang), the later episodes soften up as it begins to focus more on the characters’ inner lives. The crime part was only used as a way to grab our attention in the start. The charming everyday interactions with the teens’ family members is what keeps it.
The young main cast is adorable and lovable. D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai sensitively essays the role of Bear. Bear thinks he’s the leader of the gang and is close to his mother while silently struggling from the absence of his father Woon-A-Tai is heartbreaking in one scene which might leave you teary-eyed). Devery Jacobs plays Elora who lives with her neglectful aunt and is the most determined to leave the town.
Jacobs’ mischievous and two-sided portrayal of Elora will leave us surprised at times. Lane Factor is so effortlessly chill while simultaneously funny as Cheese, a laid back boy who introduces himself to people by mentioning his pronouns and seems to bond well with the town’s elderly population. And lastly, the crackling Paulina Alexis plays the young
dirty-mouthed and aggressive tomboy Willie Jack who swears like a sailor and has a knack for hunting with guns.
There are some humorously entertaining interactions between them and the older characters in the first half of the show who impart their wisdom onto the street smart – but still largely innocent and youthful – kids. Such characters include the gentle and modest cop Officer Big (the wonderful Zahn McClarnon), Bear’s hardworking mom Rita (Sarah Podemski), and Elora’s uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) who was once the best fighter in town.
The later episodes steer into sadder territory which takes a peek at their friend Daniel’s life and inspects what might have driven him to take his own life. We see his family (his cousin Willie Jack and her father) still heavily affected by his absence as they cry in each other’s arms.
The absence of teenage hypersexuality (something so common in many “teen” or “highschool-set” shows) is refreshing here as it would only be bombastic and distracting. But ‘Reservation Dogs’ is far from sanitized as we still see domestic abuse getting hinted at, and scenes of teenage drinking and really heavy, but realistic, teenage swearing.
‘Reservation Dogs’ is a welcome entry into the still shockingly small amount of TV/film content we have about Indigenous Americans. We certainly hope it is only the first of many more indigenous-centred stories to come. The show is co-written and co-produced by Taika Waititi (‘Thor: Ragnarok’) who accepted the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his film ‘Jojo Rabbit’ in the 2020 Oscars.
As he stood onstage, Waititi dedicated his statue to “all the indigenous kids that live in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories”. “We are the original storytellers and we can make it here, as well”, he said further. Ever since the greenlighting of the show’s second season, the brilliantly talented Waititi has gone on to announce that a show about Native characters committing a heist is in developmental stage as well.
This author is eagerly awaiting the said show as well as the second season of the endearing – but quietly heartbreaking – ‘Reservation Dogs’ which left the audiences on a frustrating cliffhanger.
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