‘Reservation Dogs’ Belongs in the Pantheon of TV’s Great Hangout Comedies

In time for its third and final season, get to know the thoughtful and funny sitcom that is ‘Atlanta’s true heir
‘Reservation Dogs’ Belongs in the Pantheon of TV’s Great Hangout Comedies

Overhead shots situate us in a small, flat town. The main street is decaying. The country roads are quiet enough for bikes to circle lazily. Four bandana-masked figures outside a convenience store wait for a delivery driver to wheel a few boxes of Flaming Flamers chips inside, then leap into his truck and peel out. It’s a daring daylight heist, perpetrated not by a highly experienced crew, but by four Indigenous teenagers who immediately start arguing about whether it’s uncool to put your seatbelt on while you’re committing grand theft auto. They zip straight past a tribal cop parked on a side street, who misses them because he’s too engrossed by the JFK assassination conspiracy video playing on his phone. 

This is how Reservation Dogs grabs you in the first 90 seconds of its series premiere — with four good kids who’d love to convince anyone they’re bad seeds, and whose adventures in minor dirtbaggery have landed them among TV’s best hangout shows.

The Reservation Dogs are an aspiring gang, living in Okern, in Oklahoma’s Muscogee Nation. Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) — whose bedroom wall is decorated with a Reservoir Dogs poster, to underscore his ambitions — harbors dreams of a closer relationship with his long-absent father, niche-famous rapper Punkin Lusty (Sten Joddi), but has much more frequent interaction with William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), the ghost of a warrior killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and… not in battle. 

Cheese (Lane Factor) is basically serenity personified; early on, tribal elder Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) mistakes him for her grandson and he just rolls with it, such that it’s unclear which of them most needs the other to fill the familial role. Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) is the driest, and usually the one most ready to throw down in a fight; if you see her taking her earrings off, run. And though Bear believes he is the gang’s leader, it’s clear that role is occupied by Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), who is most focused on conceiving the petty crimes the Dogs pull off together. They have a reason for trying to raise money, including through illicit means: the gang once had a fifth member, Daniel (Dalton Cramer), but he died by suicide a year before the series premiere. His dream was to move to California, and his surviving friends plan to do it in his honor.

A lot of people will hear that the inciting event of the series is a child’s suicide and assume it’s one of those alleged TV comedies that don’t actually make you laugh. But Reservation Dogs is legitimately hilarious. Sterlin Harjo, who co-created the series with Taika Waititi, grew up in Oklahoma and has Muscogee heritage (his tribal membership is in the Seminole Nation), and the show’s humor derives from the specificity Harjo brings to his setting and characters. 

For example, there’s the first season’s second episode, “NDN Clinic,” which takes place entirely at Indian Health Services. In an extremely efficient 25 minutes, we get a portrait of the overburdened facility and the irritable staff (special mention goes to Rutherford Falls star Jana Schmieding as permanently pissed-off receptionist Bev). But at the same time, the story fleshes out our central characters, whose issues are typical of any teenage shitasses: Bear has come in because he got in a stupid fight with a rival gang; Cheese has put off an eye exam for way too long; and Elora has stomach issues that Dr. Kang (Bobby Lee) suggests may be a consequence of her excessive Flaming Flamers consumption. (How many bags does she eat in a day? “One?...Ty?...Ten to fourteen?”) 

In the second season, the crew is sent to the Native American Reclamation and Decolonization Symposium Youth Summit (NARDS for short) for a presentation of dubious authenticity by a pair of self-proclaimed Indigenous “influencers” (one of whom confusingly claims status as a “Young Elder”). Standard team-building exercises are given the thinnest veneer of community relevance as the kids are challenged to do a version of the “pass the orange” game with a potato, before Miss Matriarch — played by Amber Midthunder, the breakout star of last year’s Predator prequel Prey — wraps up her worthless remarks by intoning to Bear, “I’m so glad that I was able to give you that gift today. You’re welcome, little brother.” Ordered to attend, the Rez Dogs try to play along, but like all teenagers, they have a natural aversion to corniness. 

And it’s not just the kids who get to star in their own hangout comedy. One of the second season’s best episodes is “Wide Net,” in which several moms and aunties attend the annual IHS conference. As they say in so many words, this is one of the few times they ever get to leave Okern, and they intend to make the most of it, going on the prowl for no-strings-attached hookups and trying to boost their chances by using traditional herbs to give their lady parts a thorough steaming. This time, at least, tribal medicine is not a cure-all.

Like network-mate Atlanta, Reservation Dogs is at its funniest when its whole cast is together, goofing off and getting into very avoidable trouble. Also like Atlanta, the show is capable of shifting into another gear, often by focusing on a single character’s emotional journey, without sacrificing jokes in the process. “Stay Gold Cheesy Boy” lands Cheese in juvenile detention on a mistaken charge, where all his fellow group home residents are quietly touched by his low-key goodness. Marc Maron has a standout guest role as Gene, the house manager who somewhat offensively incorporates a talking stick while imposing his substance use recovery on the kids he’s supposed to be counseling. In a first-season episode, Bear squanders more than his share of the California fund on a gift for his trifling father, who blows off a planned visit. He was supposed to be the featured performer at a Frybread Feast for… diabetes awareness. Which, obviously: This is Punkin Lusty’s big hit.

Whereas earlier premieres have been more raucous, the show’s final season, which premieres its first two episodes today, is slightly more muted. The first few episodes provided to critics revive old subjects big (Bear’s yearning for a connection with his father) and small (Willie Jack telling the near-blind Cheese that he was supposed to pick up and start wearing the glasses he got tested for way back in “NDN Clinic”). But the creative team has some heavier topics it wants to address on the way to completing our titular protagonists’ coming-of-age story, too. From the start, tension has surrounded the question of where the Rez Dogs are meant to end up, and whether they’ll all be together when they get there. 

They may not have much more time with each other, and we certainly don’t have much more time with them, so we should savor our opportunities to hang out with them while we still can.

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