Reservation Dogs. The Must-Watch Show You Haven’t Heard Of

Introduction

Reservation Dogs is a critically acclaimed comedy-drama series created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi that premiered on FX on Hulu in August 2021. The show follows four Indigenous teenagers living in rural Oklahoma who commit small-time crimes to fund their dream of getting to the exotic, mysterious, and faraway land of California [1]. The main characters Bear, Elora, Willie Jack and Cheese are played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis and Lane Factor respectively. While on the surface Reservation Dogs appears to be a coming-of-age comedy about bored teenagers, the show explores much deeper themes of Indigenous identity, grief, loss and the desire to escape. With its all Indigenous writers room and main cast, Reservation Dogs provides an authentic portrayal of contemporary Native American life rarely seen on television [2].


[1] https://www.npr.org/2023/08/02/1191671833/the-unassumingly-brilliant-reservation-dogs-is-back-for-its-third-and-final-seas
[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/2023/08/02/reservation-dogs-season-three-review/

Premise

the four main characters standing in a field

Reservation Dogs revolves around four Indigenous teenagers – Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) – living in rural Oklahoma. These friends spend their days committing small-time crimes as they dream of escaping to the mystical, faraway land of California. However, their plans are frequently derailed due to their own blundering as well as interference from rival gang the NDN Mafia. While the show has comedic elements, it also touches on serious topics like struggling with cultural identity, Indigenous activism, and life on the rez.

At the show’s heart is the relationship between Bear, the willful and stoic leader of the group, and Elora, his spirited, strong-willed best friend. Their banter and chemistry provide much of the show’s humor. The other characters have their own distinct personalities and struggles – Willie Jack tries to balance her Catholic upbringing with her Indigenous heritage, while Cheese provides comic relief with his oddball antics.

The show is loosely based on Sterlin Harjo’s own childhood experiences growing up Indigenous in Oklahoma. Through its unique setting and perspective, Reservation Dogs provides an authentic portrayal of contemporary Native American life rarely seen on television.

Setting

Reservation Dogs takes place in the fictional town of Okern, Oklahoma, located within the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. According to Wikipedia, the first season was filmed entirely in Oklahoma, making it the first series to do so. While Okern itself is fictional, the show was actually filmed in real cities across eastern Oklahoma like Okmulgee, Okfuskee, Bristow, and more.

The setting of a rural Oklahoma town helps establish the daily life and struggles of Indigenous youth living on a reservation. As described by Vulture, the show’s creators wanted Okern to mirror the memories and experiences of the cast and crew who grew up in small Oklahoma towns near reservations. The authentic setting is essential for portraying the characters and themes in an honest way.

Tone

Reservation Dogs has a unique tone that skillfully blends comedic and dramatic elements. Though classified as a comedy series according to FX Networks, the show explores serious issues like grief, poverty, substance abuse, and the legacy of colonialism with nuance and sensitivity. Lighthearted humor arising from the eccentric personalities and antics of the four main characters balances poignant storylines dealing with the tragic premature death of a close friend.

Discussing the show’s tone, one Reddit user commented that “It’s absolutely still a comedy, it’s just a well written one that also interweaves drama and history” (source). The showrunners strike an impressive tonal balance between making viewers laugh and thoughtfully examining the contemporary Indigenous experience.

Critical Reception

bear and elora sitting on the hood of a truck overlooking the plains

Reservation Dogs has received widespread acclaim from critics, with particular praise for its authentic portrayal of Indigenous youth and communities. On review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, the first season holds an approval rating of 98% based on 43 reviews, with an average rating of 8.3/10. The critical consensus reads, “Telling a deep, rich and difficult story of disadvantage, desperation and the disenfranchised with lightness, humour and quirkiness is quite a feat to pull off.”

Critics have applauded the show for bringing an authentic Indigenous perspective to television. As Jen Chaney wrote in Vulture, “Reservation Dogs gazes at contemporary Indigenous life from a ground-level point of view we seldom get to see on television.” Other reviews have praised the show’s ability to balance humor and heavier themes. Kristen Baldwin of Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Beneath the laughs is a lovely, introspective examination of grief, loyalty, and young people trying to envision a future for themselves when the deck has been stacked against them.”

The performances of the young lead actors have also drawn widespread praise. Benjamin Lee of The Guardian wrote, “Together the quartet are a charismatic force, imbuing each line with charm and an off-beat cadence that suggests real friendship.” Overall, Reservation Dogs has emerged as a critical darling, with reviewers applauding its fresh perspective and nuanced storytelling.

Audience Reception

Reservation Dogs has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from viewers. On Rotten Tomatoes, the first season holds a 96% audience score, with an average rating of 4.7/5. Many audience reviews praise the authentic portrayal of Indigenous youth and life on the reservation. As one Rotten Tomatoes reviewer states, “Awesome, faultless. Those kids smash their roles, they are riveting. Telling a deep, rich and difficult story with intelligence, insight and humour.”

The third season is equally beloved, with a 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes so far. Viewers call the show “funny, poignant and deeply moving,” with rich character development. On IMDb, Reservation Dogs holds a 8.0 average audience rating, with reviews highlighting the “heartfelt, irreverently funny” take on life for Indigenous youth.

Beyond the review aggregators, many viewers have taken to social media and blogs to praise Reservation Dogs. They call it one of the best new shows in years, with sharp writing and an incredibly talented young cast. It offers an authentic perspective not often seen on television.

Awards & Nominations

the cast and crew holding awards at a ceremony

Reservation Dogs has received critical acclaim and won several major awards since its premiere in 2021, including:

The show has also been nominated for several Emmy Awards, Critics Choice Awards, TCA Awards, and Writers Guild Awards. Key nominations include:

  • Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmy Awards (2022)
  • Outstanding New Program at the TCA Awards (2021, 2022)
  • Best Comedy Series at the Critics Choice Awards (2022)

Cast & Crew

promotional poster for reservation dogs

Reservation Dogs features an ensemble cast of Indigenous actors, including D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear Smallhill, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, and Lane Factor as Cheese. Notable crew members include Sterlin Harjo, the show’s co-creator, and Taika Waititi, an executive producer (IMDb).

D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor play the leading friend group residing in rural Oklahoma. Their characters embark on misadventures as they save money to get to the exotic, mysterious land of California (FX Networks).

Sterlin Harjo, who co-created the show with Taika Waititi, is a filmmaker and member of the Seminole Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation. His Indigenous background brings authenticity and intimacy to the show’s setting and characters (IMDb).

Themes

Reservation Dogs explores several resonant themes relating to Indigenous life and culture. According to PBS, the show grapples meaningfully with “loss, being poor and wanting to run away.” These intertwined themes underscore the limited opportunities and pervasive hopelessness experienced by many Indigenous youth living on reservations. As NCTA notes, the show also examines “friendship, family, and heritage,” highlighting the relationships that sustain the main characters. Family absence and dysfunction represent another critical theme, reflecting the trauma of separation and broken homes within many Indigenous communities. Ultimately, Reservation Dogs insightfully explores the contemporary Indigenous experience through universally relatable themes.

Conclusion

Reservation Dogs is an incredibly unique, poignant, and humorous coming-of-age story that offers an authentic look into the lives and experiences of Indigenous youth. Though the show tackles heavy themes, it does so with heart and nuance. The fresh perspective, all-Indigenous writers room and cast, and celebration of community and culture make Reservation Dogs a standout series. If you’re looking for a show that will make you laugh, feel, and think, Reservation Dogs comes highly recommended. It manages to be fun and uplifting even when exploring the realities of intergenerational trauma, poverty, loss, and substance abuse. Give this gem of a show a chance – you won’t regret it.

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