Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) are four indigenous teenagers; from rural Oklahoma known as the “Reservation Dogs.” They get into mischief as they try to make money any way they can.
The first two episodes of comedy Reservation Dogs Season One, created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, come out today on August Ninth. “F*ckin’ Rez Dogs,” directed by co-creator Seminole- Muscogee director Sterlin Harjo, centers around the four indigenous friends committing a bunch of petty crimes. Their goal is to raise enough money to escape their small Oklahoma town for California. The second episode,” NDN Clinic,” directed by transgender Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland is about the Reservation Dogs selling meat pies in front of the local Native American Medical Clinic. Note NDN stands for Native American. Most of the actors, the creators, the directors, and the writers are of indigenous descent. Reservation Dogs’ genuine comedic genius is what you get when artists tell their own stories.
The highly stylized dynamic cinematic style of Reservation Dogs delivers humor that fits the playful tone of the show. A prime example of dynamic editing is when local police officer Big (Zahn Tokiya-ku McClarnon) pulls up to Bear’s home, where the Reservation Dogs sell their stolen chips. The four teenagers quickly hide all the evidence. Big asks them if they know anything about a stolen chip truck. The Reservation Dogs deny everything. Their denials are quite funny since earlier, Bear and his friends loudly drove past the sheriff in the stolen truck. He was too busy watching the history channel on his smartphone to notice. Then Big starts listing all these crazy crimes that happened last week. Every time the cop mentions a crime, there is a cut to the Reservation Dogs committing the offense. These flashbacks are all fast-paced, while the present-day scene with Big has a slower pace. For example, Big mentions two cars being stolen last week. Then there is a cut to a minute-long scene of Elora and Willie Jack triggering the car alarm as they try to start the stolen vehicle. The Reservation Dogs are not the subtlest of criminals. They deny seeing anything suspicious around town. Shockingly, nobody suspects these teenagers. All their crimes are done in the open and with a lot of havoc.
Some of the other stylized scenes include when the NDN Mafia commit a drive-by shooting on the Reservation Dogs “gang” using paintball guns. The scene is filmed like it’s straight out of an action film with tragic music, and everybody falls in slow motion after being hit by a paintball. In another scene, the Black truck driver complains to the cashier about how these horrible things happened after hooligans stole his chip truck. At the same time, an imaginary version of the truck driver threatens a nervous Bear whose slouching in the booth with his friends. These movie references and cinematic tricks both make the viewer laugh and realize that this town’s “criminal” elements reveal the innocence of their mischief. There is a sense that delinquency is triggered by boredom. There is not much for teenagers to do in this rural town.
Bear and his friends are the heart of Reservation Dogs. First movie buff Bear is the conscious of the group. Bear creates a video for an English assignment all about their mission to move to California. A spirit guide visits Bear whenever he passes out. Awkward Warrior William Knife-Man utters wise counsel to Bear while swearing at his horse or peeing on his deerskin pants. Instead of being this stereotypical silent “noble warrior,” William Knife-Man appears to be this goofy guy who happened to be part of Little Big Horn Battle. Next, Elora Danan is the toughest one in the group. She doesn’t even feel high after eating a bunch of edibles meant for an older lady. But multi-faceted Elora donates her cut of the stolen truck money to help the driver. Next, Willie Jack is a gender-fluid character who’s quite the businesswoman. She bakes Meat Pies to sell in front of the NDN Clinic while her other friends wander about or go to the doctors. Finally, Cheese accidentally ends up in an eye exam appointment all because he wanted some chocolate. Cheese visits an older blind lady in the hospital because she thinks he is a grandson who is so sweet.
All these little details make the Reservation Dogs’ friendships feel genuine. Elora, Willie Jack, and Bear sign to each other in their made-up language several times throughout “F*ckin’ Rez Dogs.” The viewer can imagine that they made up this language as young kids. There is a Reservoir Dogs movie poster hanging in Bear’s bedroom. Rapping brothers Mose (Lil Mike) and Mekko (Funny Bone) name the made-up gang “Reservation Dogs.” After hearing the name, Cheese jokes that he wants to be called Mr. Camouflage. Bear and Cheese both make Reservoir Dogs references revealing that the friend group must watch the film a lot. Bear visits Willie Jack’s father Leon’s mechanic shop for advice about how to fight. Bear’s unemployed rapper father is not around to parent him, so Leon is his paternal role model. Leon cares about all Willie Jack’s friends since he has a photo of everybody, including their dead friend Daniel in his shop.
One of my favorite running jokes in Reservation Dogs is that whenever somebody refers to a popular Native American phrase, one of the friends fires back that they are not from that tribe. For example, meth head Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox) says the Lakota phrase “Hoka hay,” meaning “it’s a good day to die.” Willie Jack answers back that they are not Lakota. Does this mean all the friends are from the same tribe? Or are the writers making their indigenous identities more ambiguous since all the actors are from different tribes? There are thirty-five tribes registered in Oklahoma. Lakota is not one of them, so it can also be a device to call attention to our ignorance of the diversity in Native American communities.
Check out Reservation Dogs Season One on FX Hulu!