Reservation Dogs Series Premiere: The Dog Days Are Here
Many people were anticipating the premiere of the series Reservation Dogs this week. (It’s me–I’m many people.) The Reservation Dogs trailer looked great, sure, but it didn’t reveal a whole lot about what the show would be like in reality. Like, would it be any good?
First Two Episodes Show a Fully-Formed Series
While some shows start off wobbly, Reservation Dogs never has that problem. From its opening sequence, a delivery truck heist, it’s as surefooted as a show can be. This is the scene, by the way, that introduces us to the kids who carry the show. They are Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Elora Danan (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), and Cheese (Lane Factor). They are four now, but they once were five.
Just about a year before the story begins, they lost Daniel, the fifth member of their crew. The show is intentionally cagey about what happened to Daniel, but it’s not hard to draw inferences. Cheese mentions, for instance, the staggeringly high incidence of depression among Indigenous people. And we can see a struggle in the way the kids seem desperate to escape the confines of their small town. They may tell themselves that they’re fulfilling Daniel’s wish, but a part of them wants to go, too.
This is part of the genius of the show. Its depiction of the kids is confident. The teens feel like real kids, but more importantly, they feel like real Native kids. That’s a dang wonder.
Reservation Dogs Series Premiere Is a Landmark in Indigenous Representation
image via FX on Hulu
As I mentioned in my review of The Only Good Indians, I was a tween before I saw an Indigenous character on TV who was alive and contemporary. (That was Hawk on Twin Peaks, by the way.) Even now as an adult TV viewer, Native characters are few and far between. That’s one of the reasons why Reservation Dogs, and the two episodes that comprise its premiere, is so refreshing.
I have never seen so many Indigenous characters in one show, or at least, not one set in the 21st (or 20th) century. In addition, the fact that there are so many Natives behind the camera, especially in the writers room, only enhances the experience. In the first two minutes of the pilot alone, for example, there are multiple instances of Native slang. Characters casually drop phrases in both Mvskoke (Muscogee/Creek) and Tsalagi (Cherokee). I have heard all of these words in real life, and I can’t fully express what it means to hear them, finally, from a TV show. (I am tearing up, though–does that help?)
The Show Also Captures the Modern Conflict
image via FX on Hulu
In that review of The Only Good Indians, I also discussed how Indigenous people often grapple with the divide of being modern and being true to their Native roots. Reservation Dogs deftly reflects that conflict. However, despite how serious it sounds, the show finds the humor in it.
To be specific, Bear keeps encountering the mostly ghostly William Knife-Man (Dallas Goldtooth). The dead warrior was accidentally crushed by his horse during the Battle of Greasy Grass (aka Custer’s Last Stand). Accordingly, he’s kind of a goof, as befitting his portrayal by Goldtooth, a member of the Indigenous comedy group The 1491s.
Still, though, he’s also a stopped clock. So when he hits Bear with “We died for our people. We died for our land. What are you gonna do?” it hits a familiar string of guilt. It’s like the Only Good Indians‘s musing on “that big Gatling gun of history.” Will Bear run? Will he give up? Or will he find something to fight for? We don’t know yet.
Those spiritual visits may remind you of executive producer Taika Waititi’s appearance as imaginary friend Adolf Hitler in Waititi’s own Jojo Rabbit. However, another non-Native analogue to Reservation Dogs is another FX property, Atlanta. Like that show, Rez Dogs blends startlingly real moments with unique comedy.
Not everyone can pull that off, but this show does. I want to see more of it and I want to see more of these incredible teen actors. I already love Willie Jack so much, but all of the kids are impressive and I want to see where these characters go. And they want to go so bad.
So they jack a delivery truck. They sell meat pies outside the Indian Health Services clinic. They make plans and they hope. Modern life burdens Indigenous kids with a lot of noise and a lot of pain. They deserve hope. They deserve so much more.
The first two episodes of Reservation Dogs are available through FX on Hulu. Subsequent episodes will be available weekly.
Did you watch the series premiere of Reservation Dogs? Share your thoughts with us about it on our social media or in these comments.
featured image via FX on Hulu
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.