This is a reprint of the TV essay from Issue #60 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly).
There is an interview with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator of Reservation Dogs, in The Hollywood Reporter that has a quote that stuck with me. The writer asks if it’s true that FX originally wanted to shoot the show in New Mexico and Harjo says that was the case, but it thankfully didn’t happen, “I couldn’t have spent four years faking New Mexico for Oklahoma. I wouldn’t have been happy. I wouldn’t have been proud.”
Reservation Dogs is about life on an Oklahoma reservation and all that comes with it, good and bad: confusing family trees, painful pasts, weird happenings, hijinks, love, hope, despair. Funerals. From the very first episode, the four central teenagers feel present in a way few characters on TV ever do. We only learn a little about them, honestly, episode to episode – I don’t feel like I got the measure of Cheese until almost the end of the second season. Rather, the focus constantly shifts to the people around them, family, friends, enemies, oddballs passing through. It’s a show about a community, really, one of a sort that never gets this kind of attention, made by folks who lived there, or somewhere very like it. It presents an astonishing kind of authenticity, makes other TV feel as vibrant as stiff cardboard. And while its often sad, it never feels somber or dreary, the way so much Very Serious Prestige TV often does. It’s quick to wipe away the tears and call you a shitass.
It’ll kick your ass though. I thought I had a firm handle on the show’s mix of funny, sad and weird when the creature with the glowing red eyes showed up, but then there was the Tom Petty thing – and sure, I’ve long thought Tom Petty’s music is a cure for every bit of bad mojo the spirit world could throw at a person, but never expected a TV show to use this secret truth to make my heart ache so perfectly? Consulting with other friends, it seems the show is littered with these sorts of resonances, the sort that sideswipe you with a devastating meaningfulness, the sort of things that resonate when a show (and its makers) refuse to be anything other than themselves.