reservation dogs

If you haven’t watched Reservation Dogs yet, WHY NOT!?

Yes, sure, fine, watching television is hard these days because you have to subscribe to one zillion different services and juggle all the webs of shared subscriptions and remember to Venmo your roommate from nine years ago to cover your part of her Hulu subscription only AFTER your cousin offers to PayPal you some cash for your Netflix account their kid watches all the time, and maybe you have just thrown your hands in the air and given up on television altogether. I would not blame you.

Except if that’s what you’ve done, you are missing out on some serious beauty and some real deep hope. There is a truckload of vapid, disgusting television, to be sure, and I am not entirely opposed to it (this week, I watched reruns of “Reba,” the sitcom starring the country music singer, during my lunch break, which is pretty much as vapid as it comes.). But if you’ve got the bandwidth and the attention span, you might be surprised.

Reservation Dogs is a dramedy (drama+comedy) about four tight-knit Native teenagers who live on an Indian Reservation. Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, and filmed in the Muscogee Nation (otherwise known as Oklahoma), the entire show – cast and production team – is created by Native people. It’s the best thing I’ve watched in years.

I’m not the only one who thinks so – you can read about the show in every 2022 “Best Of” list, from Rolling Stone to the New Yorker. And I’m not a film critic, so you probably should go read some of those things, along with the interviews of the creators and the cast. But really, what you should do is find a friend with a Hulu or Disney+ subscription and watch the dang show, already.

Bear, Elora, Willie Jack and Cheese (yup, Cheese) have big plans to escape life on the Reservation, but the show manages to use that plot device as a way to tell stories about life on the Reservation that are so full of grief and hope, trauma and laughter that I actually pump my fist in the air when I see a new episode show up. The show starts with the kids stealing a chip truck. That’s not some fancy tech tool, it’s a big box truck filled with spicy chips called Flamin’ Flamers. The entire series starts off as a heist movie, complete with all the attendant action scenes and plot twists, but by the end of Season 2 we’re sitting with these kids inside the Indian Health Service, prison visiting hours, uncomfortable foster homes, and sacred ceremonies. There’s a spirit guide who manages to be a snarky send-up of indigenous stereotypes while ALSO occasionally offering actual sage advice. The local native policeman winds up wandering through the woods on a bad drug trip. In the Season 2 finale, the kids run into Jesus himself in an LA homeless camp.

I do not know how the creators of this show manage to cram so much of life into a 30 minute sitcom. I love the characters, I love their relationships, I love the humor. I am struck by the way that Harjo has managed to tell stories of harrowing realities that never abandon the anchoring bass line of communal care for one another. Cheese winds up in a foster home for a while and every hair on my arms was standing straight up waiting for one of the angry kids to beat him up, but instead Cheese insists on offering and receiving kinship and care. Enemies even become friends in this plot-line, but not before Willie Jack drops her on their head during a trust circle exercise. I keep being surprised by this show, which makes me love it all the more.

The other day, I wondered why we insist on making up vapid, cheesy, made-up realities to escape into or “entertain” ourselves with when real, everyday life is filled to bursting with drama, intrigue, conflict, reunion and reparation. Incredible stories are unfolding all around us, all the time; why not just pay more attention to what’s in front of our faces? Reservation Dogs feels like that: real life, where joy and pain are all mixed in together, tears and laughter follow on the other’s footsteps. It’s helpful, to be reminded of the ways that’s true, and hopeful to see how beautiful it can be.

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