Reservation Dogs Review: FX on Hulu Comedy Is Uneven, Overstuffed, Still Effective - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, August 9, 2021

Reservation Dogs Review: FX on Hulu Comedy Is Uneven, Overstuffed, Still Effective

You know when a prestige, serialized television series breaks from its pre-established mold to deliver a largely self-contained episode? An episode that often feels different from its surroundings in tone, character focus, and/or formal experimentation? Reservation Dogs, in the four episodes offered for review, feels like it's trying to deliver nothing but "special, breaking from the mold" episodes. It's a confident, even cocky approach to introducing a series, a move that trusts we'll accept their base reality quickly before accepting the oddness seasoned atop it — or even eschew needing one. The approach in many ways feels appropriately tracked to its characters' journeys and vibes; their growing-but-confused adolescence, bursting at the seams, facing constant societal repression, trying desperately to "be free." It often yields fascinating, gripping television. But it often yields confusing, jagged, and over-reaching television, too. It throws everything and the kitchen sink at the screen, seemingly without realizing that its best moments come when we slow down and get to know these people before we start chucking appliances around them.

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A group of Indigenous teens — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) — live, hang out, and get into trouble in rural Oklahoma. They pull off small-time crime, get into scraps with rival gangs, and hustle money however they can; all with the grander goal of escaping this life for a heightened existence in California, a place dreamt of by their deceased friend Daniel. Throughout this all, and among a cavalcade of eccentric weirdos dotting the margins of their town, the gang tries to recontextualize themselves, their legacies, and their relationships with their past in ways both micro and macro.

Does this sound like a small-scale, ambling series? Co-creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi do everything in their power to make sure that is not the sensation you walk away with. Surrealist fantasies, whether of a comically inept warrior from the past (Dallas Goldtooth, outstanding) or a single mom speaking to all of her psychological splinters (Sarah Podemski, outstanding), invade the frames without much acknowledgment. Tones and genres hard-shift from edgy comedy to melancholy dramedy to family drama to crime thriller to psychological horror — shifts exacerbated by jarring editing choices, which often cut to act breaks arbitrarily rather than as the logical endpoint of rising action. Supporting characters often overwhelm our quieter, yearning protagonists, with folks like Kirk Fox grabbing their hard-loaded eccentricities and playing them like the Coen Brothers on fast-forward.

If you are able to climb aboard this intentionally off-rail-riding train, you will likely find it more intuitive to engage with Reservation Dogs, even if just from an "entertaining spectacle level." For me, I couldn't help but find these stylistic and narrative flights of fancy to be distracting, disorienting, and damaging to the moments of clarity the show does find, rendering some of them superficial (especially an end-of-Episode-2 moment for Cheese, whose subplot is introduced so abruptly and conclusion communicated so sappily without any connective tissue between the two points). At its best, especially in the fourth and final episode watched, Reservation Dogs takes some time and space to explore the deeper truths behind these wild choices — and most importantly, to track thoroughly what they mean for our protagonists, our titular Reservation Dogs who are so often over-barked into the margins of their own story. I don't feel like I understood Bear, our ostensible leader, on a deeper level until these final Episode 4 moments, when the script smartly realizes the real beating heart behind these ostentatious shows of performative invention.

The show itself wants to shout and be heard, admirably so. In its efforts, it often finds moments of intrigue and power, from a gripping political discussion between an old, white married couple we never see again, to an overbearing tribal cop (Zahn McClarnon) who nevertheless makes a lot of good points about subconscious, societal oppression between his over-masculine posturing. But what of the main inhabitants within the series? Are they disserviced by everything happening "around them" rather than "because of them"? Are the brief moments of psychological examination offered to them bugs of a series' broader, wilder scope? Or will the show only burrow deeper, finding the right methods of installation regarding its formal experimentation? Above all, Reservation Dogs is like nothing else on TV at the moment, in large part because it's trying to be like every TV show at once — not unlike its teenage characters desperate to find an identity, a budding life that suits them properly.

Grade: B-

Reservation Dogs premieres on FX on Hulu August 9, 2021.

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