Everybody loves multiverses these days, so allow me to imagine that there’s an alternate universe in which the first season of FX/Hulu’s Reservation Dogs is nominated for outstanding comedy series at the Emmys next month. In addition, Devery Jacobs is up for lead actress in a comedy; Zahn McClarnon, Gary Farmer and possibly Wes Studi are nominated in guest acting categories; and series creator Sterlin Harjo is nominated for directing the series pilot and possibly multiple times for writing.
In our primary universe, the one in which you’re probably reading this review, members of the TV Academy failed to notice that Reservation Dogs even exists, giving it zero nominations. That means that even casting director Angelique Midthunder, who scoured North America for the show’s impeccable ensemble, didn’t make the cut, which makes me actively angry.
But this is not the time to be angry at the strange insularity of Emmy voters, who probably got as many things right as they got wrong, if you think “50%” represents a good hit-rate. It’s the time to note that the second season of Reservation Dogs premieres this week and it’s every bit as good as the first, maybe better — meaning that there’s plenty of time for Emmy voters and audiences to catch up with what may currently be the best show on TV. (AMC’s Better Call Saul would be its top rival at the moment. If you prefer one over the other, I’m not going to quibble.)
On top of a cast in which every single actor is seemingly able to carry whole episodes with ease, Reservation Dogs boasts a palpable sense of place and economic class, a nuanced approach to an underserved culture and a nimble ability to shift from silly to profound.
It’s that tonal confidence that’s most on display in the four Reservation Dogs episodes sent to critics.
The premiere begins with Paulina Alexis’ Willie Jack filling in deceased friend Daniel (or his portrait) on recent events, including the tornado that ended last season and Elora Danan’s (Jacobs) abrupt decision to abandon her friends in Oklahoma and head off to California with Jackie (Elva Guerra). As a result of the streak of adversity, Willie Jack is convinced that there’s a curse afoot and blames herself; Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is feeling betrayed; and Cheese (Lane Factor)? Well, Cheese is generally pretty easygoing.
It would have been easy for Harjo and company to give the second season a full, or at least partial, reset, but the legacy of Daniel’s suicide and the emotional scars it left on his friends isn’t one that could or should be glibly healed. The desire to honor the tragedy and its collective ripples keeps Daniel’s memory at the forefront here, along with so many details from the first season, going all the way back to the delivery truck heist in the pilot. There’s no inherent reason why Reservation Dogs needs to be a show about pain and grief — strike that, a comedy about pain and grief — but Harjo is interested in how everybody is growing and learning and he isn’t interested in cheapening the process.
The learning is crucial, because “wisdom” — the ways it can be taught and the ways it can be learned — is central to every character’s arc this season. The thing I love most about Reservation Dogs may be the way that “wisdom” is treated as both a running joke and a very serious thing, something grounded in the specificity of this Native American enclave but also universal and familiar from many a coming-of-age story.
Dallas Goldtooth’s Spirit, the ghost warrior offering very flimsy counsel to Bear in the first season, has an even larger role now, in part because Bear’s crisis of identity is only growing and in part because Spirit has taken on a new client in Farmer’s Uncle Brownie, who has decided that he may be a holy man. The series and all of its characters mock the idea of Spirit’s teachings, while at the same time celebrating traditions, rituals and lessons passed through generations. Everybody here is learning something, whether it’s as specific and practical as roofing or proper preparation of fry-bread or as ephemeral as the power of prayer and the consequences of questionable parenting. There’s real knowledge imparted here and, just as frequently, real ridiculousness in a show that can pivot from insight to colorful profanity and reliably out-of-left-field pop culture references.
Reservation Dogs is the latest FX comedy whose only format is a general lack of format. The two-part premiere has storylines, some distinct and some in comically fruitful pairings, for all four of its main characters, plus Uncle Brownie, Bucky (Wes Studi) and the series’ latest impeccable one-off outsider cameo. It’s very, very funny and yet tinged with misery. The second episode is a more serious offering and a more tightly focused half-hour, with Bear seeking a job and interacting with several new characters, but few of our previous favorites. Then the fourth episode brings everybody back together for one of the more honest looks at mourning, its torment and its unexpected hilarity, that I can remember.
That fourth episode is also Jacobs’ first as a co-writer (credited as Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), and points to a season that, intentionally or unintentionally, feels intended to expose the egregiousness of her Emmy omission. Jacobs’ performance is a perfect blend of tough, soulful and vulnerable. The only reason it doesn’t stand out even more is that Woon-A-Tai, Factor and Alexis are as excellent as the material asks them to be, contributing leading-man sturdiness, effortless likability and irrepressible comic timing, respectively.
The new season and the ensemble at large benefit from more screentime for Farmer and Studi — both exhibiting a lightness previous productions rarely thought to showcase — and Goldtooth. More of a background adversary in the first season, Guerra is inching in the direction of well-deserved cast-regular status this season after more of a breakout turn in Dark Winds, though that AMC drama may partially explain why McClarnon is a bit less present this season. From Lil Mike and Funny Bone to Sarah Podemski to Jana Schmieding and more, Harjo has populated this world with actors and characters, old and new, who produce immediate smiles every time they pop up on-screen. Like the Oklahoma settings, every member of the cast feels like they could only exist in this world, though thanks to the recent mini-burst of Indigenous programming, it wouldn’t be bad at all if the look, feel and voice of Reservation Dogs went from being unique to “merely” special.
The second Reservation Dogs season is 10 half-hour episodes, up from eight for the first, which means it’s really easy to binge if you’re like the Emmy voters who missed it the first time around. It’s a show that generates frequent laughs, occasional tears and a sense of heart and community that isn’t like anything else on TV.