Greg and Zanna sympathise with the characters in Reservation Dogs.
Laughter in the face of suffering: 5
Here we are, deep in another lockdown, the deepest we've ever been, and in these depths we have become different beings, existing in a soup of thoughts and feelings so thick and congealed it's impossible to see through it; to gain some kind of clarity about just what's going on, or even who we are anymore.
The number of times in recent weeks that I've looked across at Zanna, sitting in front of the TV, and she hasn't been crying is low and declining. She has always cried often and easily in front of filmic entertainment but recently there's been a worrying trend to what I call tears of nothingness, where I turn to make a cynical comment about the stupidity of some light comedy or reality baking show, only to find her face puffy and wet.
It's hard in these mixed-up emotional times to figure out what to think of story-based entertainment. How would I feel about Reservation Dogs, for instance, were I watching it a week before lockdown rather than five weeks into it? Context is everything and the idea any of us can remove ourselves from the narrative of our own lives to report objectively on another is a selfish fiction. Another version of the same question: how would I feel watching Reservation Dogs were I native American? Or an indigenous person marginalised in my own country? Zanna described the show as indigenous television for indigenous audiences, by which she meant it wasn't supposed to explain indigenous Americans' lives to white people, which sounds so obvious as a concept it's weird to think how rarely we see it on mainstream television.
Taika Waititi is a co-creator, and you can feel his aesthetic throughout. In Reservation Dogs, as in Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, deprivation, suffering and cruelty exist within a soup of humour, sans the heavy seasoning of sentiment. Bad things take place but they make you (not Zanna) laugh rather than cry, which must be such a difficult concept to explain to American television executives.
The four central characters, teenage friends, are trying to get together enough money to leave the reservation and move to Los Angeles for reasons that aren't fully explicated. Of course their reasons are going to be multifactorial, rooted in the devastation and ongoing impacts of colonisation, but if you can't relate to a story about feeling stuck and needing to get out, you're living a better life than me. Reservation Dogs is brilliant.
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Native Americans are so astonishingly absent in television and movies beyond the headdress-wearing stereotypes of Westerns that I don't think many New Zealanders could tell you much about their contemporary existence. Reservation Dogs is the first American television series set in an indigenous community that has entirely indigenous creators, writers, directors and main cast. That fact alone could indicate bleak viewing but it's far from it. Taika Waititi executive produced and co-wrote all eight episodes of the first season so the tone is unmistakably Waititi-esque. It's pain and trauma, doused in humour and cultural specificity.
The series follows four indigenous teenagers desperate to get off the reservation in Eastern Oklahoma and move to California following the death of one of their crew. With little means of making money, the group takes to petty crime to save for their big move. The four young actors - D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis and Lane Factor - have great chemistry and comic timing and it's easy to enjoy being in their presence even if it's not immediately gripping.
The series' first episode is written and directed by co-creator Sterlin Harjo, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma with Muscogee heritage as well. I can't say I was hooked at once. The episodes are short so the first barely scrapes the surface of each of the main characters and there's no big cliffhanger ending to draw you back for the next episode. However, episode two is a capsule episode based entirely at the local medical centre. Bear (Woon-A-Tai) gets jumped by a new rival group of teens and his crew take him to the doctor, where they set up outside selling meat pies. The humour shines through in this episode as the personalities and quirks of the four young teens start to emerge more clearly.
As the series progresses it starts to tackle some of the more difficult issues facing Native Americans, including suicide and alcoholism. Bear is visited regularly by the spirit of an ancestor who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn (not in battle; he died when his horse rolled over on him). Played by Dallas Goldtooth, this character is quintessential Waititi. He's very funny, even outlandish, and at the same time speaks to the suffering at the root of everything that these characters face as indigenous Americans. In the first episode, he tells Bear that his ancestors died for his people, they died for their land, and he throws down the gauntlet to him: "What are you gonna fight for?" It's the question at the heart of the series and one that Waititi has clearly answered for himself in the making of Reservation Dogs.
The first three episodes of Reservation Dogs are now streaming on Disney+.