It’s really rare for a TV comedy to know exactly what it is from the first scene of its first episode. Usually, these shows take at least half a season to hammer out the core relationships, the best stories for them to tell, and the strongest possible punchlines.
Even some of the best comedies spent a lot of their early seasons tweaking things. (Parks and Recreation, for instance, spent its first two seasons shedding elements that just didn’t work and zeroing in on those that did.) Comedies that are sure of themselves from the first scene exist (Cheers, Arrested Development, Atlanta, etc.), but they are few and far between.
I’ve only seen one season of FX’s terrific new comedy Reservation Dogs, but I’m happy to add it to the list. (Season one is now available on Hulu.) From the first scene of its premiere to the last scene of its finale, the show’s first season is eight episodes of sharp-witted, perfectly balanced comedy, with just enough dramatic heft. It gives the teenage characters, who are all small-time criminals trying to save up enough money to leave their Oklahoma reservation, much more weight than you might expect.
A lot has been written about the historic nature of Reservation Dogs. It’s the first American TV series ever with a writers room and directing staff composed entirely of Indigenous people from around North America and just the second with an Indigenous showrunner. (The first, Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, also debuted this year.) Said showrunner is named Sterlin Harjo, and not only did he co-create the series with Taika Waititi (himself of Maori descent), he also wrote five of the season’s eight episodes and directed three.
Harjo is a film director, with three features and a documentary to his name. (He’s also directed several shorts and episodes of other TV shows.) He and Waititi met when they were up-and-coming directors, and Waititi used his increasing muscle within the entertainment industry to help get the show made. (Waititi has a relationship at FX, having also executive produced and directed two episodes of the Emmy-nominated What We Do in the Shadows, which is spun off from his film of the same name.)
But despite Waititi’s bigger name, Reservation Dogs is very much Harjo’s show, with a unique and witty visual style all his own. One sequence set during a hunting expedition is shot entirely using wildlife cameras in a series of still shots, almost like comic panels. Dream sequences unfold with a woozy sense of the characters being trapped amid the stereotypes of Indigenous people still so common in other films and TV shows. Shots are chosen to subtly highlight the poverty and natural beauty of the characters’ surroundings, sometimes with frames that isolate the characters in one small section with the setting overwhelming them.
Lest that all sound very heady, Reservation Dogs is also tremendously funny. It opens with its four central characters pulling off a daring heist ... of a truck carrying boxes of chips. (They aren’t apprehended because the local police officer is distracted with a YouTube video about Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.)
The aforementioned dream sequences feature one of the characters meeting a Native American, in stereotypical garb, riding a horse, but he keeps trying to overinflate his prominence at the Battle of Little Bighorn and can’t stop coughing. There’s a whole episode about an elderly relative of one character attempting to sell a 15-year-old bag of weed and finding no takers in a world where marijuana has been legalized. Characters say the word “shitass” constantly, to great comedic effect.
The riskiest element of Reservation Dogs could have been the casting. The only four regular characters on the show who appear in almost every episode are four teenagers, and all are played by actors who are not widely known.
Paulina Alexis, who plays the simultaneously dry and energetic Willie Jack, seems to have had only one credit to her name before she worked on Reservation Dogs, while Lane Factor, who plays Cheese, the little brother of the group, had his first acting role in the series. The other two main stars — Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora, the girl who most wants to leave town, and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, the group’s de facto leader — have more experience. But Woon-A-Tai apparently had fewer than 10 credits to his name when starting work on this show.
All four actors, however, form one of the best ensembles of teen characters in recent memory. All are equally capable of comedy and drama. (Jacobs, in particular, finds new shades in a character you’ve seen many times before, the small-town girl who longs for something better.) The scenes where the four just sit around and banter back and forth have an easy chemistry that never feels forced, which is hard to do in a show this young, with actors so relatively new to the game.
The guest stars who pop up are also great. In particular, I loved Zahn McClarnon’s turn as Officer Big, who seems only half-heartedly interested in doing his job. McClarnon is an actor with a wealth of experience, but he tends to play rather somber characters. You may remember him as a hitman in season two of Fargo and as the Native American Host who gains sentience in Westworld. He’s too rarely allowed to go comedic, and Reservation Dogs lets him be incredibly silly early and often. (He’s the officer distracted by a JFK conspiracy video in the first episode.)
But beyond McClarnon, the guest cast brims with amazing performances. Indigenous rappers Lil Mike and Funny Bone pop up as a bike-riding Greek chorus, while veteran actor Gary Farmer is goofy and winded as would-be weed dealer Uncle Brownie. There’s even a surprisingly dramatic turn for standup comedian Bill Burr as a driving instructor who helps Elora process some of her most complicated emotions.
The team behind Reservation Dogs has been emphatic at every point of the show’s publicity cycle that this is not yet another story about the tragic life of the people who live on a reservation. And they’re right about that. This series is a comedy, first and foremost. But it also tells a slyly moving story about teenagers who aren’t sure how many options they have and a community where resources are stretched tighter and tighter all the time. It’s a hilarious show, but it’s also a beautiful show, all of which adds up to one of the best first seasons of a comedy in some time.
Reservation Dogs’ first season is available in on Hulu. A second season has been picked up and will likely debut in 2022. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.