The San Juan Daily Star
The remarkable ‘Reservation Dogs’ runs away toward home
By James Poniewozik
Wanting to escape your hometown is the birthright of every young person. In America, pulling up stakes and hitting the road is built into the popular culture — it’s “Go west, young man”; it’s a Bruce Springsteen lyric.
For some Americans, however — like the four teenagers on an Oklahoma reservation in FX’s sublime coming-of-age comedy “Reservation Dogs” — the idea of home, whom it belongs to and who belongs to it, is more complicated. The romance of the road, after all, is bound up with a history of seeing North America as a frontier. When your ancestors lived in the place that others saw as a blank space to fill in themselves, that American myth hits a little differently.
The push away from home and the pull toward it form the dynamic that powers “Reservation Dogs,” which emerged out of the box last year as one of TV’s most lived-in, specifically drawn comedies. The terrific first season focused on the urge to get away; the second, which returns to Hulu on Wednesday, is about what it takes to rediscover your home.
The pilot episode bursts onto your screen like someone is chasing it. Its self-styled gang of four (the show’s title comes from their nickname, a reference to the Quentin Tarantino film “Reservoir Dogs”) is introduced in the midst of jacking a snack-chips truck. The plan is to raise money, head to California and leave behind the reservation that they blame for the suicide of their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer).
Like many improvised schemes, this takes some turns, and the season fleshes out the kids in a laid-back, observant character piece. Elora (Devery Jacobs) is a walking heartbreak who feels Daniel’s loss especially heavily (we learn eventually that it was she who found his body). Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai) is a lanky boy stumbling toward being the man he outwardly appears to be. Cheese (Lane Factor) is deadpan and thoughtful; Willie Jack (an instantly winning Paulina Alexis) has a prodigiously foul mouth and a loyal heart.
California is less a concrete destination for them than an idea, a stand-in for “not here.” But “Reservation Dogs” is deeply in touch with the feel and flavor of the here that it portrays.
The creators, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, produced a story about Indigenous people by Indigenous people, shot on location in Oklahoma, with the nubbly texture of great regional TV. (It’s both a welcome example of TV paying attention to rural life and a reminder that “rural” is not a synonym for “white.”) It’s steeped in lore, lifeways and pop history; a Season 1 episode delves into the myth of the avenging Deer Lady and the career of the Native American ’70s band Redbone.
Like “Atlanta,” another magic-realist comedy from FX, “Reservation Dogs” has a heartfelt irreverence and an aversion to romantic cliché. Bear is visited by the spirit of a Lakota warrior (Dallas Goldtooth) who was at the Battle of Little Big Horn — at but not in, because he died when his horse hit a gopher hole — and who imparts nuggets of wisdom in a torrent of bro-speak. In a new episode, he solemnly tells Bear, “Carry on, my wayward son, there’ll be peace when you are done,” a benediction from the classic rock band Kansas.
The eight-episode first season delightfully goes nowhere fast, building out the world and the cast of local eccentrics. Zahn McClarnon, who anchored the AMC crime drama “Dark Winds,” gives a wry performance as Big, a hapless tribal police officer with a bent of screwball insight; an episode set at the Indian Health Service clinic sketches the reservation’s afflictions and support systems in miniature.
As in so many teen romances, the things that the Dogs hate about their home (the insularity, the money problems, the bad memories) give you entrée to the things that, admit it or not, they love about it (the relationships, the interdependence, the better memories).
One by one, the friends get cold feet about leaving, and Elora heads for California alone, taking her grandmother’s car with her hard-bitten frenemy, Jackie (Elva Guerra, also of “Dark Winds”). She’s finally free, but she seems more unmoored the farther west they travel. Meanwhile, her friends are trying to find ways to make a home at home, making amends for the past and processing Daniel’s loss.
The new season leans a few notches closer to the drama side of dramedy, but there’s still plenty of laid-back humor. In the second episode, Willie Jack and Cheese turn to Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), an elder who dispenses advice and decades-old weed, for help in lifting a curse. He stumbles his way through a ceremony, which he says needs to conclude with “an old song.” He pauses and summons up music from within — “Free Fallin’,” by Tom Petty. (“It’s like 30 years. That’s old!”)
The miraculous and the mundane are always bumping elbows in “Reservation Dogs.” Jackie receives a prophecy in the form of a souvenir card from a “Medicine Man” fortunetelling machine at a gas station gift shop. (“You must turn away from the path that you are on.”) Bear’s spirit guide visits Uncle Brownie, who in the Season 1 finale performed a ritual to ward off a tornado and now believes he is a holy man. The spirit says this is nonsense. “He did turn a storm,” he says, but “whatever, everyone can do that.”
Like the spirit, “Reservation Dogs” believes any of its characters are capable of magic, not just the literal, meteorological kind. Everyone, even a screw-up, has power and responsibility as part of a larger community. You can get a prophecy from a drunk sitting at a bar or wisdom from a guy getting his hair cut on the porch.
You can also, sometimes, catch a glimpse of enlightenment while doing a day’s work. In the new season, Bear takes a construction job and finds himself working next to Daniel’s father, Danny (Michael Spears), raising uncomfortable memories for both of them. Bear nearly tumbles off a rooftop trying to grab some loose shingles, but Danny catches him. “First rule of roofing,” Danny says. “Don’t chase it if it’s already falling.” It’s a lesson that Bear and all his friends are trying to learn: How to know what to let go, and how to save what matters.