Say Reservation dogs unlike anything on television, it may be selling it short, primarily because, both in content and subject matter, comedy deserves to be understood on its own terms. Thankfully, as its second season makes clear, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s award-winning FX show continues to forge ahead.
This season, the show’s central foursome are reclaiming the pieces of their lives after the tornado destroyed their stash the last time we saw them. We don’t start with the tight-knit group the show’s title suggests, but with the scattered friends: Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is still reeling from what he sees as a betrayal of Elora (Devery Jacobs). The young, wide-eyed teenager left her pals behind and opted to travel to California with only Jackie (Elva Guerra), a decision that left Willie (Paulina Alexis) wondering if the curse she had placed on this prickly newcomer to booking somehow backfired. And Cheese (Lane Factor), as always, is on board, finding quiet moments to offer some respite with memorable, deadpan one-liners.
The genius of Reservation dogs comes from the way it takes very dark material (generational trauma, hurtful grief, systemic inequalities) and turns it into seductive humor, but not so far to make these issues more palatable. This is not a show that preaches, either in its fiction or to its audience, that laughter is a way to get through life’s toughest times or undo age-old stereotypes. Instead, weaving in absurd backdrops like talkative Dallas Goldtooth spirit guide William Knifeman (who has a possibly wrong story for every situation Bear finds himself in) or Lil Mike’s rapping duo Mose and Mekko and Funny Bone (now with fewer bikes!), the show reminds us that there’s always joy to be found in subverting expectations and weaponizing oft-repeated punchlines.
This also extends beyond its ensemble cast. In brief scenes that sketch possibly helpful (or perhaps insidiously selfish) white people (Josh Fadem and Megan Mullally as, respectively, a driver overeager to get Elora and Jackie to drive and a divorcee who opens her house to the runaway teenagers), the show leaves audiences wondering how much their own biases are at stake when they encounter such characters on a show that doesn’t center their worldview.
Here’s a comedy (drama? dramady? Static labels really don’t apply) about how difficult it can be to make a living when such a possibility seems futile at best and impossible at worst. Daniel’s death continues to cast a veil over his friends, who are still struggling with what they could have done to better support the struggling teenager. But it also challenged them to reevaluate their lives and open pathways that, while they can’t completely break the cycles of trauma, can at least nudge them towards a more generative view of their world. Season two finds our central quartet struggling with how to move forward with the pain and loss they carry with them. And rather than offering pat platitudes on how to do it, it tackles darkness head-on.
Reservation dogs is not only a much-needed corrective to decades of portraying (or erasing) Native Americans on American television, but it also accomplishes another feat: churning out comedic gold from a grounded yet stylized take on the life on reserves.
Moreover, in a prestigious television landscape that can sometimes be actively hostile to episodic television (my God, let’s not hear the statements “it’s a 10 hour film”!), Reservation dogs really takes advantage of its half-hour units. Whether it’s following just Bear on his first day as a roofer (which doubles as a bottle episode about what some kind of healing for modern Indigenous masculinity can look like), or capturing the building the intergenerational community that can occur in the face of devastating loss (a tender episode about grief that strikes a perfect tone star wars throwaway quip), this is a series that accurately captures a slice of life from a community that has had to settle for crumbs for far too long.