A Dark and Original Comedy With No Reservations (Sorry)
The Brilliant Reservation Dogs
One of the greatest comic specials I’ve ever seen was Chris Rock’s 2000 HBO special Bigger and Blacker. Rock has been one of the most revolutionary performers and really does tell it like it is. In the middle of a hysterical rant on racism, he said: “And the Indians ain’t saying shit ’cause they dead. You think I’m lying? When’s the last time you ever remember seeing two Indians?”
Aside from the exaggeration for comic effect, you could easily make this argument when it came to representation for indigenous people on screen. There have been a handful of good character actors in this field, but it is says a lot about Hollywood as a whole that the most famous portrayal of a Native American onscreen in the last twenty years was Johnny Depp in the hideous Lone Ranger movie. Even in the age of Peak TV, stories featuring even a single indigenous person are few and far between. Until now.
Reservation Dogs, the extraordinary new comedy series from FX and Hulu absolutely shatters any concept — assuming you had one to begin with — about what its like to be a Native American. From the minds of Sterling Harjo and the backing of Taiki Waititi comes the story of four Native American teenagers growing up on a reservation in Eastern Oklahoma. Bear, Willie Jack, Cheese and Elora hate where they live. They are currently the most notorious stick-up artists on their reservation (we see them steal a truck full of chips in the opening minutes) and are bent on trying to raise enough money to get to California. We already know how shitty the world is for them from minute one; it actually gets worse than that when we learn about an ‘Indian Mafia’ that has targeted them because they want to be the biggest gangsters. Big, the only reservation cop who is indigenous is hot on their trail…sort of. Considering how spacey and obsessed with conspiracy theories he is, its hard to imagine he’s a good cop and you get the feeling that a larger part of him really wants them to get away with it.
In the middle of all this Bear is ‘shot by the white man’ — actually he’s hit with a paintball gun — and is visited by a spirit guide. And it’s not even a really good one. ‘Danny’ makes it clear he was at Little Bighorn…but ended up getting killed when his horse stumbled before he could even get on the battlefield. The messages he sends would be inspirational, if he didn’t seem so confused about them, but Bear gets the idea that somehow his groups mission should to be stay and save his people. Naturally, his friends think he’s crazy.
Reservation Dogs is, of course, remarkable because it is written, directed and stars all indigenous people. And it makes it clear in just about every aspect of their lives how truly horrendous it is. These are the kind of people that Earn and Paper Boi from Atlanta would pity and yet feel superior to at the same time. In the episode NDN Clinic, Bear is beaten to a pulp by this same gang and has to go to the clinic because he thinks his nose is broken. He spends the entire episode saying: “I got a few good punches in’ and trying desperately to make sure his mother, who works at the clinic, doesn’t find out about him. The entire episode is wonderfully cruel comedy — the waiting room in the clinic, imagine the one in ER, multiply by twenty and you might have an idea how messed up it is. The crew is selling meat pies they know are terrible. Cheese comes in for chocolate, and it becomes clear he has terrible vision. Willie comes in with a stomachache, which is symptom of the fact she is eating ten to twelve bags of nachos a day. When Bear finally gets seen by Dr. Kang — who basically does everything at the clinic and wants to leave as badly as Bear does — he does everything in his power to treat Bear and find out if his mother is single. Kang then does the most pathetic possible way of hitting on her, and of course, reveals Bear’s injuries. Another confrontation between the gangs ends when Bear’s mother pulls him away from the fight, which no child ever wants to have happen.
I realize that being a white male I may not be the most qualified person to discuss what makes Reservation Dogs remarkable, but I sure as hell know that I recognize what makes it hysterical. Every character has a level of pain with their humor that makes so much comedy work. Willie Jack takes a lot of abuse because her name is Willow and she was named for the notorious 1988 film. (One group of people thinks that movie was awesome; Dr. Kang thinks it’s a rip-off of Lord of the Rings.) There are many references to great filmmakers throughout — Tarentino being by far the most obvious — and part of me can’t help but think that the writers are having vengeance against John Ford and all the Indians he had killed off by John Wayne. It’s hardly surprising this series was renewed so quickly for a second season. It’s a little early to tell at this stage, but Reservation Dogs has all the indicators of being a masterpiece.
My score: 4.75 stars.