Wanting to flee one’s hometown is the birthright of every young person. In America, raising stakes and hitting the road is embedded in popular culture – it’s “Go west, young man”; it’s a Bruce Springsteen lyric.
For some Americans, however — like the four teenagers on an Oklahoma reservation in FX’s sublime coming-of-age comedy “Reservation Dogs” — the idea of home, who owns it, and who it belongs, is more complicated. The romance of the road, after all, is tied to a history of seeing North America as a frontier. When your ancestors lived in a place that others saw as an empty space to fill for themselves, this American myth hits a little differently.
The estrangement from home and the attraction to it form the dynamic that fuels “Reservation Dogs,” which rolled out of the box last year as one of television’s most lived-in, specifically drawn comedies. The terrific first season focused on getting away from it all; the second, which returns to Hulu on Wednesday, is about what it takes to rediscover your home.
The pilot episode bursts onto your screen as if someone is chasing it. His so-called gang of four (the show’s title comes from their nickname, a reference to Quentin Tarantino’s film “Reservoir Dogs”) is featured in the middle of a snack truck jacking off. Their plan is to raise money, travel to California, and leave behind the reservation they blame for the suicide of their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer).
Like many improvisational projects, it takes a few turns, and the season fleshes out the kids in a laid-back, observant character piece. Elora (Devery Jacobs) is a walking griefer who particularly feels the loss of Daniel (we eventually learn that it was her who found his body). Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai) is a skinny boy who stumbles to be the man he seems to be. Cheese (Lane Factor) is deadpan and thoughtful; Willie Jack (an instant winner Paulina Alexis) has a prodigiously coarse mouth and a loyal heart.
California is less a concrete destination for them than an idea, a substitute for “not here”. But “Reservation Dogs” is deeply in touch with the feel and flavor of here that he portrays.
The creators, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, produced a story about Indigenous people by Indigenous people, shot in Oklahoma, with the gritty texture of major regional television. (It’s both a welcome example of television paying attention to rural life and a reminder that “rural” is not synonymous with “white.”) It’s steeped in traditions, ways of life and pop history; a Season 1 episode delves into the myth of the vengeful Deer Lady and the career of ’70s Native American band Redbone.
Like “Atlanta,” another magical-realistic comedy from FX, “Reservation Dogs” has a heartfelt irreverence and an aversion to the romantic cliché. Bear is visited by the spirit of a Lakota warrior (Dallas Goldtooth) who was at the Battle of the Little Big Horn – at but not in, as he died when his horse hit a gopher hole – and who transmits nuggets of wisdom in a torrent of bro-speak. In a new episode, he solemnly tells Bear, “Go on, wayward son, there’ll be peace when you’re done,” a blessing from the classic rock band Kansas.
The eight-episode first season goes deliciously nowhere, building up the world and the cast of local eccentrics. Zahn McClarnon, who anchored the AMC crime drama “Dark Winds,” gives a tongue-in-cheek performance as Big, a hapless tribal police officer with a penchant for slimy insight; an episode set at the Indian Health Service clinic sketches the afflictions and support systems of the reserve in miniature.
As in so many teen romances, the things the Dogs hate about them (insularity, money troubles, bad memories) give you access to things they love, admit it or not, ( relationships, interdependence, best memories).
One by one, the friends are afraid to leave, and Elora heads to California alone, taking her grandmother’s car with her hardened nemesis, Jackie (Elva Guerra, also from “Dark Winds”). She is finally free, but she seems more unmoored as they travel west. Meanwhile, his friends try to find ways to settle into their home, mend the past, and come to terms with the loss of Daniel.
The new season is getting a bit closer to the dramatic side of comedy-drama, but there’s still plenty of laid-back humor. In the second episode, Willie Jack and Cheese turn to Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), an elder who dispenses advice and decades-old weed, for help in lifting a curse. He stumbles through a ceremony he says must end with “an old song.” He stops and calls up music from inside – “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty. (“It’s like 30 years. It’s old!”)
The miraculous and the mundane always bump elbows in “Reservation Dogs.” Jackie receives a prophecy in the form of a souvenir card from a “Medicine Man” fortune-telling machine in a gas station souvenir shop. (“You must turn from the path you are on”.) Bear’s spirit guide visits Uncle Brownie, who in the Season 1 finale performed a ritual to ward off a tornado and now believes he is a holy man. The spirit says that’s nonsense. “He turned a storm,” he says, but “it doesn’t matter, anyone can do it.”
Like the spirit, “Reservation Dogs” believes any of its characters are capable of magic, not just the literal, weather-like kind. Everyone, even a failure, has power and responsibility as part of a larger community. You can get a prophecy from a drunk sitting in a bar or wisdom from a guy getting a haircut on the porch.
You can also sometimes catch a glimpse of enlightenment while doing a day’s work. In the new season, Bear takes a construction job and finds himself working next door to Daniel’s father, Danny (Michael Spears), which brings up uncomfortable memories for both of them. Bear nearly falls off a roof trying to catch some loose shingles, but Danny catches him. “Roofing rule number one,” Danny says. “Don’t chase him if he’s already falling.” It’s a lesson Bear and all of his friends are trying to learn: how to know what to let go of and how to save what matters.
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