The following contains spoilers so if you haven’t watched the complete first season of Reservation Dogs, I’ll be giving away some details.
When I first heard about six months ago, there were going to be filming the first season of Reservation Dogs here in Oklahoma, about an hour from where I live, I paid good attention to the cast listings. I probably shouldn’t have, because a lot of what I saw listed wasn’t in the final cuts of the season.
Sometimes, it’s happens. Cuts have to be made. But I was just wondering if they didn’t budget it correctly and had to turn away some extras. I must’ve applied for at least a dozen listings without hearing anything.
While I did like some of the episodes, overall the season left me wanting something that should’ve been more. The series is about four Indigenous teenagers in an undisclosed Oklahoma community outside of the Tulsa metropolitan area who commit petty crimes and even a few major ones to raise money to make it to California. It’s eventually revealed the reason they want to do this is because their late friend, Daniel (Dalton Cramer) always talked about moving to the Golden State before his death by suicide as he hung himself.
From the start, they are grieving the loss of Daniel. Unfortunately, they waited until the seventh episode to finally show us Daniel’s death, even though many people could’ve guessed by about halfway. This is the first problem I had with the series.
I did like some of the episodes. The first one was great and the second one, set mostly in a health clinic, explored the characters a little further. But by the third episode, it became apparent to me the series was going to focus more on the quirky and eccentric characters of the community than the four teenagers. This might have worked with a series like Twin Peaks, but those episodes were longer.
Some of the criticism was that the episodes aren’t long enough. In 2021, it seems the series was still being confined to the 30-minute structure of sitcoms. While I think the 60-minute structure is too long, since most people are watching it on streaming services, Hulu, why not make the episodes a little longer by 10 minutes or so?
By the fourth episode, we were seeing a little bit more about the character of Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A Tai) and his relationship with his parents. His father, Punkin Lusty (Sten Joddi) is an irresponsible but famous rapper who lives in California, which also hints why Bear wants to move there. His mother, Rita (Sarah Podemski) is struggling with being a single mom in these times and there’s a nice scene in which she thinks she meets Mr. Perfect, a Caucasian man who is wealthy, until she spots his Confederate rebel flag tattoo and everything goes south from there.
This episode also gave hints that Elora Danan Postoak (Devery Jacobs) may have grown tired of the other three teenagers. As the series went on, I was wondering why they were friends anyway. They don’t seem to like each other. Jacobs is the standout of the series. And she’s 28 in real life and more experienced as an actress. But still, I think the character of Elora Danan is written the best of the series.
I wasn’t really a fan of Bear which is why since he was missing from half the season, I didn’t miss him. Bear is jumped by a rival gang, who call themselves the NDN Mafia, but they’re hardly in the first season as well. And their leader, Jackie (Elva Guera) seems to be forming a friendship and partnership (and I mean that in more than their petty crimes) with Elora Danan. But the series just abruptly ends with Elora and Jackie leaving for California even though we haven’t seen too much of them together.
Probably the season’s best episode was the most unexpected as Cheese (Lane Factor) who seems the most quiet one in the bunch who goes on a ride-along with Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon) a Lighthorseman as we see a little bit more of the community. Officer Big is a major conspiracy theorist and he has a constant run-in with Bucky (a nice cameo by Oscar winner Wes Studi), who is constantly getting in scuffles with the law for minor things.
There’s also flashbacks to Big’s childhood when he came into contact twice with the mythical Deer Lady (Kaniehtioo Horn). The Deer Lady (or Deer Woman in some cultures) is a Native American folklore of a beautiful Ingenious woman who has deer legs and is often deadly to mostly men but in some stories does targets women or children.
This episode worked well because it just seemed so out of place but well made. It gave both Cheese and Big the spotlight as they had been mostly minor characters before. And it’s upsetting they followed it with the next episode focusing on Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and her father, Leon (Jon Proudstar) as they go hunting for a huge deer in a wooded area. There are flashbacks to times when Daniel went hunting with them.
But this feels likes a subplot in a bigger episode. There’s not much going on as they spend time in the woods and it feels like a bottle episode. Basically, half the season seemed like bottle episodes. It doesn’t help that Alexis is the worst actor of the four main cast members. She speaks in a manner that resembles a high schooler being forced to read a play in English class right after lunch or early in the morning. She doesn’t seem interested in the role.
The seventh episode focuses on Elora Danan but unfortunately it’s overshadowed by a guest star role by Bill Burr as Garrett Bobson, a former basketball coach of Elora’s as well as friend of her late mother’s. He’s her driving instructor in another bottle episode that goes off the rails when he gets a phone call and has her drive him to a run-down motel where he draws a gun and goes in to one of the rooms. At this point, the episode is about Burr’s character. And while he handles an Oklahoma accent well, I wished they’d cast someone else or made it longer to give Jacobs more scenes. It’s stunt casting.
We get flashbacks to Elora with Daniel and the episode suggests she may have been the closest with him. Elora was the one who found Daniel’s body and I wouldn’t be surprised if it garners her an Emmy nomination. I like Jacobs in this series and wished they had left out the whole subplot with Burr who is trying to find his daughter who is addicted to meth. They should have held off for the second season which they are getting. But I understand, they went all for broke on the first season.
Unfortunately, on the last episode of the season, all four teens are back together but it seems like there were a few episodes missing as after a brief scuffle with the NDN Mafia, they all seek shelter in a church while a tornado passes through. This wasn’t the best episode to end the season as nothing really happens except Willie Jack and Cheese telling Elora and Bear they’re not going to California. This is followed by a return by Elora’s quirky uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer). And there is an argument between Elora and Bear as he gets mad that she’s talking with Jackie.
I can only hope for the second season, Sterlin Harjo (who created the series with Taika Waititi) can fix some of the problems of the first season. Hopefully, they will have a bigger budget to explain the characters further. If they’re going to keep Alexis as Willie Jack, give her better acting directions. Also, they need to figure out what they want to do with Bear because he seemed to be just a jerk. I liked how Cheese was giving some depth as he pretended to be an elderly woman’s grandson.
So, far the series has a 97 percent aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes and I’ll admit there were some good episodes, but they were some awful episodes. I’m not the type of critic who thinks a TV show or movie should get special treatment because of subject matter or just existence. It seems that since this is the first TV show to feature a predominantly Indigenous cast and made by a predominantly Indigenous crew, critics might be afraid to say the emperor had no clothes.
Existence doesn’t equal worldwide acclaim.