“Can I be Mr. Camouflage?” A young punk asks his friends in the closing moments of the “Reservation Dogs” pilot, helmed by Oscar-winning writer/director Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit,” “What We Do In The Shadows”). Though its title portends homage to a certain mixed-tape filmmaker, FX’s newest half-hour comedy is more in line with the rebellious spirit of Richard Linklater’s indie 90s flicks (“Slacker,” “Dazed & Confused”). Following a gang of four Indigenous teens confined to a rural Oklahoma existence in which they’ve turned to stealing food trucks (and its Flaming Hot Cheetos) to pay for a potential California getaway—blaming the dejected state of the local community for the death of a close friend—if these smartphone punks ever start referring to these days as the best of their lives, remind them to kill themselves.
Following the loss of their buddy Daniel—formerly the fifth member of the clique—wannabe gang leader Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and his close friend Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) desperately want to get out of their hometown of Okmulgee. Opening with the aforementioned food truck heist set to The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog; our Res Dogs sells the potential business investment to redneck scrapyard owner Kenny Boy (Kirk Fox), who also runs a low key meth operation. When the driver of the vehicle in question comes into a local spot where the group is chowing down, they overhear losing the truck resulted in the loss of his job, his wife leaving him, and, on top of all that, he might lose his leg to diabetes too. Feeling guilty as f*ck, Bear instructs the gang that they’re vigilantes from here on out. Criminals no more. Elora—the gang’s true leader at heart— doesn’t want to give up these new methods of gathering quick cash, but she agrees to follow what’s in Bear’s heart.
Turning to ventures such as selling meat pies in front of the emergency room in which Bear’s Mom, Rita (a very strong Sarah Podemski) works—who raised her son on her own and just wants to meet a decent dude for him to look up to—“Reservation Dogs’” overall aims don’t become clear until the series’ third episode, “Uncle Brownie,” a “Pineapple Express”-esque escalation of local, mythological, embellishment comedically reflecting on how capitalist appropriation of cultural traditions erases lived-in experience in favor of chasing faddy trends and buzz words.
After getting jumped by a rival gang (who are always a lingering presence in the series but have yet to really become a major part of the main plot, 4 episodes in), the group decides to hit up Elora’s reclusive Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer from “Dead Man“) for some fighting tips. Rumor has it; he fought off 20 guys and a cop in a bar one night. Or was it 30 dudes and 2 cops—as the bartender remembers it now? At first, Uncle Brownie waves them off, but when they offer to help him sell his ancient jar of buried weed, he agrees. Trying to unload his home-grown batch on the street, stoners laugh off how old it is, remarking that they “only fuck with purple stuff” now. Moving MJ is not a big deal these days, and you can simply buy it from the dispensary as the kids do.
“Ain’t for all that government-sanctioned sh*t,” the old-timer maintains, living amongst stacks of Penthouse magazines and VHS towers consisting of movies like “The Rock” and “Top Gun,” used Sonic cups spread all about. But Uncle Brownie “lives off the land, mainly.” According to him. One puff of modern dank, and he’s high off his ass. It’s this kind of self-recognized storytelling projection that the series does best. “Don’t mess with bad medicine,” Uncle Brownie says.
In another cheeky play on Native stereotypes, Bear sees an unnamed, forgotten warrior from time to time. He asks this “spirit” who appears to him peeing behind a dumpster if he has some fancy name like “Sitting Bull” or “Crazy Horse,” but he’s just some random warrior dude (playing a bit like Elvis’ appearances in “True Romance”). Similarly, Rita has an Angel/Devil pair giving her advice whenever she looks in the mirror. Waking up one morning in what she assumes to be a rich doctor’s house—whom she hooked up with the night before—she comes down to breakfast assuming to meet a charming doctor type, only to find a pro-Confederacy descendent of former slave owners (Garrett Hedlund) who stole the land on wish she just slept, and only became a doctor so that he could afford to buy said stolen land back after his family lost it.
Strong in its presentation of character and setting but aimlessly indiscriminate in its early set-up, showrunner Sterling Harjo’s series is kind of like “Wilfred” by way of “Atlanta,” its fairly large Indigenous cast still establishing itself at this point. Waititi’s usual brand of dick graffiti jokes and immature gross-out humor are contrasted against commentary on contemporary idiocy with satiric bite. “Fargo” Season 2’s Zahn McClarnon (who portrayed the Anton Chigurh-like hitman, Hanzee) plays a cop named Big, one so stupid you’d think he walked right out of “Idiocracy,” maintaining that sugar in soda pop will kill ya, but energy drinks are made from energy, which is organic. Much of the internet-era millennial humor feels dated, but many of it is also justifiably on point.
While its dramatic coda on the loss of tradition in favor of capitalist greed is poignant, issues arise when the series doesn’t seem to know when it runs a gimmick into the ground (a very “Jojo Rabbit” problem)—does any script really need to make the “why don’t they just fly the ring to Mordor on a Giant Eagle” joke anymore? That’s some “Clerks 2” shit. However, its commentary on how cultural business practices such as genetically modified flower and Etsy neck charms have negatively affected the livelihood of entire cultural hubs, festering loss across entire communities, do ring true, though the meaning of the text often seems secondary to introducing a world of stoners run amuck by slacker punks. [B-]