Bear Smallhill writhes on the ground, the victim of a shooting. His vision blurs, he floats up into the sky, and when he descends, the Rural Oklahoma teen is looking at the ghost of a Native American warrior named William Knife-Man, who died in the Battle of Little Bighorn. “Looks as though you’ve tasted the white man’s lead,” William suggests, before dispensing various bits of wisdom, telling Bear, “We died for our people. We died for our land. What are you gonna do? What are you gonna fight for?”
There is a version of this scene, which takes place midway through the premiere of the new FX on Hulu comedy Reservation Dogs, that would simply be one uncomfortable, insensitive cliché piled on top of another. In this version, though, the smears on Bear’s torso are from the paintball pellets that hit him, and William Knife-Man’s not a great warrior who died a glorious death battling Custer’s forces, but a guy who got crushed after his horse stepped in a gopher hole at the start of the battle. “But I came over the hill real rugged-like!” he insists. When next Bear sees him, after getting beaten up by members of his reservation’s rival gang, William is urinating behind a dumpster, which takes some of the poetry out of his suggestion that, “The moment we’re born, we die.”
That irreverent tone is at the heart of how Reservation Dogs creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi approach the world of Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and his friends and family. It’s a show that believes in magic on some level, but not in any higher power that can improve the lives of Bear, Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor), leaving them to scrap and steal in hopes of making their way out of town. Bear’s intelligence and leadership skills are frequently called into question by his friends — particularly Elora Danan, who seems like the real brains of the operation to anyone paying attention — but the series instantly knows what it is, what it wants to do, and how to get there as quickly and amusingly as possible.
The title calls to mind Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and our four underage heroes do briefly don black suits to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of their friend Daniel. Now they want to hoard enough money, by any means necessary, to move to California before they share his sad fate. But because they’re young, stupid, and impulsive, their crimes tend to be so small-scale that the manager of a local convenience store just asks Cheese to let him know what’s being taken so he can write it off on the inventory list. The series opens with them hijacking a delivery truck filled with spicy chips, but it’s treated as an outlier heist they haven’t thought through. Most of their adventures are far more modest: spending a day at the government health clinic after Bear gets beat up, helping Elora Danan’s infamous uncle try to sell his ancient marijuana stash, or preparing to welcome home Bear’s estranged wannabe rapper father(*), whose new single “Greasy Fry Bread” is going viral. There are adults in some of their lives, but Bear’s mother Rita (Sarah Podemski) is too busy trying to find a new (and preferably rich) husband to notice all her son is up to, while local lawman Big (Fargo‘s Zahn McClarnon, dryly hilarious) turns out to be not much brighter than the kids. He scolds Bear for trying to buy soda, calling sugar “white man’s bullets,” but when Bear retorts that Big is getting an energy drink, Big replies, “It’s natural. It’s made out of energy.”
(*) The show generates a lot of humor out of the intersection of Native culture and hip-hop culture, especially by casting diminutive rapping brothers Lil Mike and FunnyBone in supporting roles as freestylers who roam the reservation on their matching bicycles, passing along gossip and rhymes in between our heroes’ misadventures.
Harjo, Waititi, and company are aiming for more of a rambling, indie-film hangout comedy vibe, which leans heavily on the appeal of the performers. Fortunately, they found four extremely charming young ones to play their leads, with Devery Jacobs a particular standout as Elora Danan(*). And filming in Harjo’s native Oklahoma gives the series a tremendous sense of place, so that you understand why the kids are so desperate to escape, even as you can identify the parts they love if they would only admit it.
(*) If the character’s name sounds familiar, it’s because Elora Danan was the baby in the 1988 Ron Howard-directed fantasy film Willow. One of the series’ stranger and more endearing running gags is that everyone on the reservation seems to know the movie very well, and has strong opinions about whether it’s good or just, as the clinic’s doctor puts it, “the knock-off Lord of the Rings, because they couldn’t get the rights.”
Indigenous characters have been part of television forever, in part because Westerns were so prominent in the medium’s early days. Mostly, though, Native characters have been sidekicks (like Jay Silverheels as Tonto on The Lone Ranger) without inner lives of their own, and/or been played by white actors, and written by white writers. This is embarrassing, but also a huge opportunity for a show like this, whose directors, writers, and cast regulars are all indigenous. It means this territory has rarely been covered in any kind of real depth on TV, and there are all kinds of stories and sources of humor that feel brand new. Heck, Reservation Dogs shares a number of writers with Peacock’s Rutherford Falls — whose leading lady, Jana Schmieding, guest stars in the second episode here as the clinic’s hostile desk clerk — and yet the year’s two new Native American-centric comedies feel nothing alike at all.
A show like Reservation Dogs feels long overdue. And this exact show? It’s awfully good, even if its heroes are bad at being bad.
Reservation Dogs streams on FX on Hulu beginning on August 9, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first four.