It takes some time to adjust to the tempo of Reservation Dogs. The new FX on Hulu series, about a quartet of Indigenous teenage friends in a tiny town in Oklahoma, takes the Tarantino movie Reservoir Dogs as its title reference, and the idea of that movie creates the expectation of motion. The show’s opening scene plays on that expectation — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) are in the midst of a Tarantino-style heist, peeling off down the road in a stolen delivery van full of spicy chips. There’s a feeling that Reservation Dogs might be fast, propulsive, full of dramatic escalations.
It is not that kind of show. It is slow and aimless, meandering through the lives of these four teenagers, lingering on small details. And once it’s clear that the series is moving at this deliberate pace, it’s easier to see Reservation Dogs as something special. It is a distinctive mood; a show unhurried by unnecessary things. Even better, you start to see its circling, contemplative aimlessness as key to its characters’ anxieties. It’s a show about four teenagers trying to find something to do. The rhythm of the show is a drifting, unimpulsive storyworld, and its teenage characters shoulder against it resentfully, looking for adventure and escape.
The de facto leader of the group is Bear, a young man who lives with his single mother and rides around with his friends looking for schemes to get more money — whether by earning it or stealing it. The stolen chips truck is one of those schemes, and although the truck creates its own story, the most telling, lived, intimately sensory detail about the escapade is that they then have bags and bags and bags of spicy chips that show up throughout the show, even episodes later. They’re always eating them, trying to sell them, talking about them, hiding all these chips from view. It’s played for laughs with a scorched-earth dry sense of humor, but more than that, it’s their presence, the fact that they stay around, that things settle on this show and then get stuck. It makes their world grounded, and it also makes it clear why they’re all so desperate to get money however they can. They just want to leave.
Elora is the most motivated of the group. She counts their money constantly, calculating how long it’ll take to earn enough to leave for California. Because of Reservation Dogs’ looping, wandering structure, there’s not much clarity from the beginning about why exactly she’s so driven to leave. In the first episode we learn that there used to be a fifth member of the group, a kid named Daniel who died a year ago. But the show withholds details about what exactly happened, just as it doles out small bits of information about Elora, Bear, Willie Jack, and Cheese’s childhoods only in brief, indirect asides. Even as the show does start to color in more details about each of the teenagers’ pasts, there’s none of the comic book hero-style simplicity of “because x then y.” (Batman became Batman because his parents died!) It’s no one thing; it’s everything. It’s in the air.
Reservation Dogs is entirely its own show, not least because it’s told from the perspective of Indigenous characters whose stories are so rarely depicted on television, and because its four lead actors are new faces who aren’t bringing a familiar history of past roles to these characters. The series is co-created and co-written by Sterlin Harjo, a Native American filmmaker from Oklahoma, and heavy-hitter producer Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok and creator of What We Do in the Shadows, among other things. But Reservation Dogs doesn’t feel like much of Waititi’s best known other work. It’s quieter, and the humor is played with a more deadpan sensibility. In moments it feels like other small-town shows: there is the smallest hint of Northern Exposure, for instance, in its hyper-specific locality and its occasional swings through surrealism. Bear sometimes sees visions of a Native American warrior, who questions Bear about his strength and how hard he’s willing to pursue his goals, whether he actually wants to leave. The warrior is an imposing, impressive figure, except that he also breaks character quite a bit, showing up in odd places like a doctor’s exam room. Things are more desperate in Reservation Dogs, though. It’s not like the goofy Jewish doctor who feels out of place in rural Alaska, who everyone knows will eventually come to know and love this place. Things are much less cuddly here.
The only show in recent memory operating on Reservation Dogs’ wavelength is the dearly departed Lodge 49, the AMC series about a washed-up ex-surfer who finds meaning in the odd mysticism of an Elks Lodge-type community club called the Order of the Lynx. To be fair, all the superficials are wildly different, in ways that are key to Reservation Dogs’ identity. Where Reservation Dogs is rooted in Indigenous characters, and its teenage foursome feel left out of society for reasons with particular, historically oppressive contours, Lodge 49 was a show about a guy named Dud, a white dude who’s just had a really rough go of it. Still, the two shows share an essential sensitivity to characters whose lives are rich and meaningful even though nothing much is happening to them. They are characters who long to be connected to something bigger and who stumble over mysticism almost incidentally. Both shows treat those scenes with a matter-of-fact lack of surprise. Of course the onward marching cultural rot of capitalism and imperialism have drained the magic from the world and left people stranded in their inexorable wakes. As a young person, of course you’d want to run far away. And obviously it’s not that simple.
Reservation Dogs is the kind of show that can really only become its best self when it’s been around for a bit, when all the characters have time to grow together and become familiar, fully developed individuals. Critics were only provided four episodes ahead of premiere — the first two drop today, with the remainder of the season rolling out weekly — and it’s challenging to look into the future and imagine what this series might become. Still, there’s every reason to hope and believe that this is a show that’s only just finding its footing, and all the stuff that feels smart and unusual right now will only become deeper, more confident, funnier, and more distinctive.