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'Reservation Dogs': Get Out or Die Trying

By James Field | TV | August 11, 2021 |

By James Field | TV | August 11, 2021 |


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Bear, Elora Danan, Willie Jack, and Cheese are the best thieves in town, as local crime boss and meth dealer Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox) puts it. “It’s a small town,” he points out, and he’s right. The Muscogee reservation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma is a tiny community, where everyone knows everyone and most of them are cousins. Our four want nothing more than to leave it before it kills them like it did their friend Daniel, but travel takes money. They’re headed for smoky sunny California, where everything is possible. The only question is what it will cost to get there.

The foursome brought together by producers\writers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi mesh together like clockwork gears. It’s hard to pick a standout when everyone’s great, but Devery Jacobs — who commenters were kind enough to point out previously starred in Netflix’s The Order as well as other productions — knocks it out of the park as Elora Danan. Yes, like the baby in Willow. Her surface-deep anger hides a world of hurt at Daniel’s loss. She’s the driving force behind the group and desperate to get out of Oklahoma as quickly as possible.

Given less to do so far, Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) is a talented tagger short on patience, ready to do business and whip shit on anyone who goes against her crew. She’s got an outsized attitude to her stature and an even filthier mouth than I do. Cheese (Lane Factor) is her opposite in a lot of ways. He’s the kindhearted, good-natured, odd kid who tells folks his pronouns and either finds a core set of friends or has a very lonely childhood. His home life is certainly lonely; his parents and both sets of grandparents are gone, and he lives with a distant uncle.

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As for Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), well, he doesn’t know what he wants. This small reservation community killed his friend and he wants out; at the same time, he feels beholden to his home and his people. He slips money, earned stealing cars and ripping copper out of light poles, into his mother Rita’s (Sarah Podemski) purse. He knows he’s supposed to be the leader — even if the others find the idea ludicrous — but he’s not any good at it. He can’t fight worth a damn either; he’ll tell you he got a few good licks in, but he goes down at the first punch. The kid’s got an artist’s soul. Maybe that’s why his spirit guide is so bad at it. We meet dead warrior William Knife-Man (Dallas Goldtooth) when Bear and company take a hail of paintballs from the NDN Mafia, the new “gang” in town. There are only 4 of them and one is a kid who goes by White Steve for obvious reasons, but they’ve just moved in and are determined to take over the others’ territory. Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese didn’t even know they were a gang until local loudmouths Mose and Mekko (Native hip-hop duo Lil Mike & Funny Bone) dub them the Reservation Dogs. They hate to admit it, but the group likes the name. It helps them feel big in a very small pond.

The casting is fantastic. The Rez Dogs themselves are a well-oiled unit. The kids fit more affection and apology into a simple “Hey, bitch” than a lot of actors can with an entire monologue. Watching Cheese interact with a blind and possibly senile old woman who thinks he’s her grandson is sweet on a Ted Lasso level. I could listen to Willie Jack curse all day. The supporting cast is just as good. There’s working mom Rita, who wants to find a husband and economic security. Unfortunately, her best options seem to be Big (Zahn McClarnon), tribal policeman and conspiracy theorist, or Dr. Kang (Bobby Lee), the clinic doctor desperate to move home after a decade on the reservation. McClarnon is particularly good as the weary officer who is tired of watching community infighting. Mose and Mekko deliver great, sharp wit, but the real comedic standout has to be Dallas Goldtooth as William Knife-Man. This poor, beleaguered, deceased warrior had his moment of glory snatched away at the Battle for Little Bighorn when his horse tripped in a gopher hole and squashed him flat. Now he’s serving as spirit guide to Bear, who seems as ill-equipped at modern-day warriorhood as William was in his day. His matter-of-fact response to his situation and Bear’s indecisiveness made me laugh more than anything else in the show.

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Sterlin Harjo has brought a great slice-of-life half-hour dramedy to FX that feels right at home among its other offerings. From the kids hanging at house number 1491 to the random white methhead telling Cheese he’s actually Native American, it feels true to life. There’s no reason not to give the first two episodes, F*ckin’ Rez Dogs and NDN Clinic, a try. It’s funny, it’s touching, and the cast is great at what they do.

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