Taika Waititi's involvement in this series makes a whole lot of sense. Its offbeat, sardonic humour and embrace of the supernatural are very reminiscent of some of their other projects, particularly the original What We Do In The Shadows, but there's a richer depth of character and much greater heart to Reservation Dogs than that comparison would suggest.
Narratively, it's a fairly simple tale of lost youth, small-town community, and friendship, with some fairly dark undertones. There are the systemic impacts that the characters face as young, relatively poor, Native Americans in a country that is shown to be at best naive about their lived experience, and at worst openly hostile towards them. Then there are the much more personal struggles the four main characters – and, in many ways, the community in which they live – are battling around the suicide of their close friend a year before our tale kicks off. Both of these elements are expertly woven into the otherwise fairly light and humorous stories that the show focuses on. It's a balance that feels effortless, much to the show's credit.
Of course, such a character-driven plot will sink or swim based on the writing and the performances, and luckily both of these are exceptional. Every member of the cast, no matter how long or short their screen time is, feels fleshed out and real. Like many slice-of-life comedies, the surrounding cast are often comical by nature, with specific set gimmicks designed to get a laugh, but even here the show gives them time and space to gain complexity and depth. On top of this, each of the four core friends are given their own, focused episode, which collectively end up being the best parts of the whole series. In fact, I think this is the show's greatest weakness: the initial premise set up, around their "vigilantism", never really pays off or comes back, whilst the times the show veers off the main plot thread into more personal, one-shot stories (particularly where these embrace the supernatural elements of indigenous lore), these are when everything really sparks. Unfortunately, that means that when we return to the main thread, it just doesn't feel quite as interesting.
Above all of the others, Paulina Alexis' portrayal of Willie stands out on so many levels. As one of the less talkative characters, their subtle facial motions and body language is incredibly important, and Paulina pulls this off expertly. They're an absolute joy to watch, and whilst I personally had more fun with Cheese's focused episode, I think Willie's is probably the most broadly poignant. Sure, Elora's finally explores the topic of Daniel's suicide, and gives us a huge amount of insight into why California is so much more important to her than anyone else, but Willie's heartfelt hunting trip is slow TV at its finest, giving the characters and their emotions so much space to just sit in. The whole bigfoot angle (and the dancing on camera traps) is just the cherry on top.
The sum total is a fairly slow-burn show which consistently improves on itself with each episode, weaving an intricate story full of character, nuance, and intrigue. It has dark undertones, both thematically and via the mild horror elements explored, which is used expertly to contrast with the otherwise often light-hearted humour and genuinely funny moments throughout. The characters are often larger than life, but never feel unrealistic, resulting in a world you can buy into fully, and the ending leaves me sincerely hoping for more. Fingers crossed 🤞