‘Reservation Dogs’ Season 2 Triumphs With Greater Poignancy and Brilliant Humor

The Peabody award-winning series, “Reservation Dogs,” returns bigger and better for its second season. Its inaugural season was already impressive as a groundbreaking series about contemporary Native American life in Oklahoma, with an all-Indigenous cast. Created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, it excelled on a comedic level as well. Doing one strong season of television is challenging enough. Then a series has to continue proving itself. If these early episodes are any indication, “Reservation Dogs” has what it takes to keep going as one of the best new shows on any platform. The jokes still land, the drama is bittersweet and as it explores a sector of society that still deserves its due in media, it captures something universal about the hard road of growing up.

We’re back on the Oklahoma reservation where the show’s titular quartet has been scattered due to last season’s events and a tornado that hit the community. Elora (Devery Jacobs) has skipped town with rival gang member Jackie (Elva Guerra), with the aim of driving their way to California. Elora is haunted by the suicide of Daniel (Dalton Cramer) last season and is eager to leave the past behind. Reservation Dogs leader Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is now essentially left wandering the “rez” solo. Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) is convinced this is all her fault for placing a curse on Jackie last season, and now she’s determined to find a way to break it. She won’t get help from Bear, who thinks curses are all nonsense. He instead blames it all on Elora for her choices, including ditching them. Cheese (Lane Factor) tags along but is distracted by his film buff obsessions. They might get help from Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) is willing to help since he is now determined to become a holy man. 

While characters we came to know in the first season are still present, “Reservation Dogs” feels just as dynamic because it also doesn’t make the mistake of repeating itself. It feels true to life by maintaining a sense of momentum and change. After Daniel’s suicide and the tornado, nothing can stay the same in this corner of Oklahoma known as “Indian Territory,” at least for the young lives at the center of the story. Even the two slick twins, Mose and Mekko (Lil Mike and Funny Bone), are still without their stolen bikes. Witty humor mixes with mature writing. Shows about teens tend to get scoffed for posing first world problems for them to navigate. But in “Reservation Dogs” the characters face real obstacles both practical and emotional. Elora feels crushing guilt over her brother’s suicide, while Bear is facing the sobering reality that being a “gang leader” in Okmulgee might not be the wisest, long-term life choice. His spirit warrior, William Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth) offers hilariously practical bits of wisdom while other local adults suggest he find a job. That doesn’t prove so easy because even local business owners who like Bear don’t trust him due to his reputation for multiple mini-crime sprees. One even suggests he should have volunteered at a restaurant to make up for all the steaks he and the Reservation Dogs stole.

The first episodes of this season also bring some of the surreal tone other FX shows like “Atlanta” have dabbled with, where the writing takes on a vignette spirit that tosses real surprises at the audience. It’s a technique that really comes into play with the scenes involving Elora and Jackie’s hastily-planned road trip. When their GPS fails and a flat tire leaves them stranded, the pair first get a ride from a quirky salesman who shares a bit too much about themselves while playing country music. After stabbing the salesman on the back when he takes an ominous detour, Elora and Jackie then get chased by local, Confederate flag-wearing white men with shotguns. They then find momentary shelter with a widow (brilliantly played by Megan Mullally) who includes bitter rants about her ex-husband while saying grace over dinner. They take her truck late and night and make their way back to more familiar, if heartbreaking places such as Jackie’s mother’s apartment, where she sits in a depressed sleep on a couch.

Back at the reservation, the comedy is more light but no less insightful. “Reservation Dogs” is the best series streaming giving an underrepresented community its dues because it takes the Native American community seriously, telling stories with an honesty that also grins at itself. It’s the kind of show that should be a template for anyone contemplating shows set in East L.A. or other sectors of the country that get drowned in stereotypes or obsessions with only showcasing the privileged class. When Uncle Brownie leads a Navajo ceremony by a river to break Willie Jack’s curse, accompanied by local Buck (the legendary Wes Studi), breaking into a chorus of “Freefallin’,” the moment is endearing and a gut-buster (the two older men start using prayers to reveal past vendettas over sleeping with the same woman). It’s also a wonderful testament to how in close-knit communities, everyone knows each other and shares collective little histories. Earlier, while talking with William Knifeman, Uncle Brownie tears down supermodel posters from his walls to get rid of “colonizer breasts.” 

Funny and poignant, “Reservation Dogs” is addictive viewing of the best kind. It’s inspiring to see that even with all the overflow of streaming content and obsession with franchises, Peak TV also keeps the terrain open for more meaningful artistry such as this. To say this series has heart is not cliché, because it truly does in the writing, the sincere performances and the rich layers of drama. Waititi and Harjo are representing Native people by acknowledging historical struggles, while also celebrating the human drive to live and collect experiences. Its protagonists are carrying the weight of certain legacies while also maneuvering all the mazes of discovering yourself without a compass, in those formative years when adolescence is at its end point. Like the best dramas and comedies, it’s a wonderful show about life itself.

Reservation Dogs” season two begins streaming Aug. 3 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Hulu.