Reservation Dogs: Deliciously bingeable and quietly provocative underdog tale

TV: New series set on Native American reservation upends coming-of-age narratives

 Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) are the protagonists in Reservation Dogs.

Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) are the protagonists in Reservation Dogs.

 

An irresistible underdog spirit ripples through Reservation Dogs (Disney+), a coming-of-age story set on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma. The series begins with a quartet of teenage anti-heroes robbing a delivery lorry and then bounces from adolescent drama to surrealistic meditation on Native American identity (featuring a comedic spirit guide crushed by his horse at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and doomed to wander the Earth).

That mix of authenticity and riotousness is not an accident. Reservation Dogs was created by the Native American writer Sterlin Harjo, who drew on his experiences growing up on a Seminole reservation, and by Taika Waititi, the New Zealand-born director of Thor: Ragnarok.

With his Thor film, Waititi rebuilt the superhero movie from the ground up. A cookie-cutter tentpole became an irascible comedy with some action on the side. Reservation Dogs does something similar by taking the cliches of the coming-of-age story and reassembling them in a series that is both deliciously bingeable and quietly provocative.

The four protagonists, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), aren’t especially sympathetic. They are, after all, junior criminals determined to rip off as many people as possible in order to fund their pipe dream of one day moving to California.

The frustrations of living in a no-horse town are, however, movingly evoked. And, though Reservation Dog’s surface tone is one of jokey irreverence, darkness blots the margins as the teenagers mourn a recently dead friend.

The economic and societal marginalisation of Native Americans isn’t spelled out. But then Harjo and Waititi have no need to wave a placard. The impoverishment amid which Bear and company grow up tells us everything we need to know about the community’s disenfranchisement.

Reservation Dogs is obviously a nod towards Tarantino. That debt to the king of 1990s gonzo film-making is further acknowledged through an early sequence in which the gang don suits and then walk away from the camera in slow motion. There’s a very Tarantino-style soundtrack, too, pinging from The Stooges to Wu-Tang Clan via the Choctaw-born indie artist Samantha Crain.

If anything is lacking it’s a compelling storyline. In episode one the crew steal the truck and then, feeling sorry for the driver, try to return it. Later, Bear is hurt in a scrap with rival thieves and has to go to the medical centre. Yet minute by minute the sense is that nothing at all is happening and that life is passing these characters by. And that one day they’ll blink and find they are still on their reservation and that their future has vanished.

Maybe that’s the point. Reservation Dogs is a meditation on disenfranchisement and intergenerational impoverishment and the way it can narrow your horizons without your even noticing. And so, amid the laughs and the rollicking soundtrack, the ultimate message is quite pessimistic. Bear, Elora, Cheese and Willie Jack have a vague understanding that they need to get off the reservation. What they haven’t yet realised is just how utterly they are trapped.

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