There is a famous Hollywood story from the 1920s where art director Cedric Gibbons went to MGM production director Irving Thalberg to protest that a scene in Paris called for a moonlit ocean in the background in a city without an ocean. “We can’t go into a handful of people who know Paris,” said Thalberg. The sea stayed.
I think we all agree that Paris is better – or at least more Paris – without the sea.
As a boy from the San Fernando Valley, whose grandparents came to America as children from what is now Ukraine at the turn of the century, I can certainly not say whether “Reservation Dogs”, which is streamed on FX on Hulu, paints an accurate picture of life or a piece of it, on and around the tribal areas of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in eastern Oklahoma, here simply referred to as “Indian Territory”. I’ve traveled through this forest (and fields) and all I can say is, yes, that’s what it looks like – and that this show where four tribal teenagers steal things and sell meat pies to collect the takeaway money to California, to Escaping the fate of a dead friend is charming, fun, and a little bit beautiful.
But Sterlin Harjo (“Four Sheets to the Wind”), who co-created the series with Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”, “What We Do in the Shadows”) and directed selected episodes, is a member of the Seminole Nation with Muscogee ancestors and raised in Holdenville, Okla., About 60 miles southwest of Okmulgee, where most of the show was filmed (Waititi, from New Zealand, is Maori on the paternal side – different country, similar dynamic.) As the old council says, he writes, what he knows.
“Reservation Dogs” presents its world both culturally and in a very ordinary way, with equal weight being attached to each quality. Local references are understood by characters and viewers with some experience or local knowledge with no explanation to the uninitiated. This mixture of the strange and the familiar draws us to films and series from other places, to characters whose lives may differ in customs and culture, but not in a greater human meaning. By thinking about what makes us different, we can get an idea of how similar we are.
Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan Postoak and Lane Factor as Cheese on FX’s Reservation Dogs.
(Shane Brown / FX)
Although Native Americans, including those who call themselves biracial, make up about 3% of the population – even in Okmulgee, the seat of the Muscogee (Creek) tribal nation, only about one in seven citizens are Indigenous – they are indigenous to the (white ) national imagination. They have been at the heart of American mythologies and iconography since the United States were unified, in portraits and artifacts from Wild West shows to Western films (and revisionist Western films); Sacagawea to Sitting Bull; Soccer teams to cigar shop carvings; the Indian Guides of the YMCA (now called Adventure Guides) to hippies in tipis. Claiming a drop of Indian blood is generally a source of pride; the ironies there are too obvious to be told.
Still, television tends to flatten details of tradition, ethnicity, class, and religion (or lack thereof). In the name of ecumenism, of harmlessness, she could omit something for as many people as possible – what a loveless person could call the lowest common denominator. It could be what the budget allows. It could be a lack of interest or talent.
But without real specificity, one can end up with clichés, stereotypical characters that unnaturally dominate the world they are placed in, instead of being shaped by it and finding their way around it. For the most part, Reservation Dogs lets its characters float in their world without telling you what to think about it or about them. They are personable, but they stand for nothing other than their individual selves; they are not intended to show “aspects” of the Indian culture that is in them, but not everything. (Some non-indigenous characters seem constructed to comically make a point about the way indigenous people see them.)
Without being programmatic, the four main characters in “Reservation Dogs” have different personalities within the group, like the Beatles in “A Hard Day’s Night”, even if they merge magnetically into one. There is Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), sensitive; Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs, who also plays a recurring role in Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls,” the other Native American-focused comedy of the year), determined and named after a character in “Willow,” a movie that is more discussed here than anything else from Quentin Tarantino; Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), tough, snappy, but will write with her mother in the middle of a caper; and Cheese (Lane Factor), weird, unconventional. “My name is cheese. My pronouns are he, he and his, ”he proclaims out of nowhere to a court full of petty criminals.
Unlike many, if not most, television teenagers, they seem really unformed – in the works. Your California project is both great and devoid of detail. On a smaller show, they would be precocious and focused, and their criminal exploits would be complicated and heartbreaking rather than ailing in execution. There would be at least a love triangle. Nobody would wonder like Bear does, “Maybe we’re the bad guys here.”
That alone feels radical. Aside from a brief flashback showing a bad experience with stolen edibles, in the four episodes up for review, our heroes indulge in none of the activities that TV teenagers 21st talk about; they are too anxious to do what they have to or think they are doing to get out of town. They are a self-contained group of outsiders.
Lane Factor, left, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Devery Jacobs go into bandit mode in “Reservation Dogs” by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi.
(Shane Brown / FX)
But perhaps what sets her apart the most from other TV teenagers is her relationship with adults. In many series built around young characters, parents are disposable except as donors of food and shelter; otherwise the children take care of themselves. Adults consumed in their own chaotic business are unreliable. There is a bit of intergenerational misunderstanding between the characters in “Reservation Dogs” and slight ridicule of the cop Big (Zahn McClarnon), a Barney Fife guy with a penchant for the paranoid and the paranormal. But overall, the younger characters treat the older ones with respect, at least with forbearance. When a bedridden old woman confuses Cheese for her grandson in a clinic, he hesitates only a second before playing the role and spends the afternoon with her. Bear puts money in his mother’s empty wallet.
The producers may have found a place in Canada to do this show (many of their cast come from there), but every story takes place somewhere and we’re long past the age of the same Hollywood backyard street and square could represent a dozen different locations. The closer you can be to where you are, the better. “Sex and the City” or “30 Rock” or “Gossip Girl” would lose a layer of meaning if the streets their characters walked were those of Toronto, adorned with yellow taxis and American flags; “Mare of Easttown” on the side created a homework of thought pieces and social media debates about how well the show and star represented their scrap of Pennsylvania or not. But that it was trying to be important; It may be a small thing to have learned the meaning of wawa, but the local enlarges the world while the homogeneous narrows it.
Photographed by Christian Sprenger, who brought a similar sensitivity to his work on “Atlanta”, another finely detailed series, the show creates a real feeling of place and space, an everyday world into which dreams and visions sometimes invade everyday. In a wonderfully comical twist, Dallas Goldtooth (a member alongside Harjo of the Native American sketch comedy group 1491) plays a wandering ghost, a self-described “unknown warrior” who died on the Little Big Horn before he even got into battle as his Horse stumbled in a gopher hole and rolled over. But it also works well in airless institutional settings. The second episode is mostly set in a health clinic and shows Jana Schmieding (who plays the lead role in “Rutherford Falls”) as an unhelpful receptionist.
Outsiders will have to trust that Harjo and Waititi made some truth on the subject – something even insiders may disagree on. Art usually elevates, suppresses, romanticizes, demonizes, cheats and lies to get what it wants, but we tend to believe it when the art, like here, is good. It’s hard to tell where a long arc could lead, and “nowhere in particular” wouldn’t be the worst answer. Of course, it could become action-heavy or bow to the textbook ideas of the well-crafted script. The main problem facing the protagonists lies in the form of some new children in the city (from “the city”) who aim to define them as a rival gang that could explode into something “dramatic”. But it doesn’t have to be – there is life in every picture.
Evaluation: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17 years of age)