Reservation Dogs, review: offbeat comedy like nothing you've seen before – and yet still very familiar

·2 min read
Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Lane Factor - Disney
Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Lane Factor - Disney

Watching Reservation Dogs (Star on Disney+) is an odd experience, because it’s different from anything else and yet it’s designed to remind you of everything else. It’s a show about a gang of kids who get themselves into various scrapes, which has a definite air of The Goonies (but without the PG rating). It’s set in a part of the US that feels like the middle of nowhere and is populated by quirky, deadpanning characters, in the vein of Northern Exposure or Napoleon Dynamite. And then there’s the title – an obvious nod to Quentin Tarantino.

What’s different about it is that it’s a mainstream comedy drama about Native Americans, and made by a predominantly indigenous team. I’m not sure what I thought a reservation would look like, but it wasn’t this: a deadbeat town in Oklahoma where the teenagers are going out of their minds with boredom.

Show creators Sterlin Harjo (who is Native American) and Taika Waititi (who isn’t) have their fun with the stereotypes. Dallas Goldtooth – how’s that for a name – keeps popping up as a spirit guide, dressed in the traditional style, dispensing wisdom and name dropping General Custer. But his wisdom is nonsense and he can barely ride a horse.

The story is both particular to this community and addresses universal themes of teen alienation and coming of age. The focus is on the four main characters Bear, Willie, Elora and Cheese, who all dream of leaving for California and in order to fund their escape they’re engaged in various low-level criminal activities.

Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) gets the most attention in the first two episodes. He lives with his single mother and gets beaten up by members of a rival gang. Like the other three, he has our sympathies from the start. Behind their get-rich quick schemes is a sadness: a friend who, it is strongly implied, took his own life.

The writing is smart and can be funny but the desire to be offbeat makes it feel too forced (a pair of rapping twins in particular). Despite its throwback references, the script feels very specific to now: “No one’s following,” says Bear, after a high speed getaway. “Just like his Insta,” adds Elora. If I was younger, I’d probably love it.

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