The first season of “Reservation Dogs” follows the adventures of a close-knit crew of four teens on a Native reservation in Oklahoma. Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) have big dreams of leaving home and moving to California. But only Elora Danan decides to take the leap by the season’s end.
At the start of the FX comedy’s second season, which premieres on Hulu Wednesday, the Res Dogs have gone their separate ways.
“I think the bad version of a Season 2 is, like, everyone’s back together,” the show’s co-creator and showrunner Sterlin Harjo told HuffPost Tuesday during a Television Critics Association panel. “I didn’t want that. I wanted it to feel disjointed. I wanted it to feel not like Season 1 and not how we began Season 1. So, I felt like they needed to be in a different place altogether — individually, mentally and even physically.”
He explained having them figure out their identities independently of each other made for more interesting storylines.
“I needed something stylistically to feel different, which hopefully the first few episodes felt that way,” Harjo said. “And then, it was kind of like resetting this whole story again and giving them kind of a new journey to go on. So that was important for me to have them kind of be fractured because that’s where we ended.”
The show has broken new ground as one of just a handful of major shows by and about Native people, with an all-Indigenous main cast, writers and directors. Jacobs, who is also a writer on the show, said the specificity of “Reservation Dogs” is what creates its universality.
“It’s so ingrained into the DNA of who we are and the stories that we tell. Like, this couldn’t happen anywhere else. This couldn’t. This couldn’t be from a different community,” Jacobs said. “Comedy, when faced with marginalization — many communities can relate to that. But it’s with our brand of it, it’s our flavor of it, where we come from that made it such a special project.”
The show expertly showcases Native people as the subject instead of the object without explanation of Native-specific details to non-Native audiences.
“There are so many Easter eggs for Native audiences in the show, and there’s so much subtle humor that only Native audiences or people familiar with Native audiences would get,” Harjo said. “You can count on certain laughs for everyone across the board. But then a Native audience is going to laugh even more at certain little nuances.”
Later in the panel, when asked to explain some of the Easter eggs, Jacobs noted that “some jokes are meant to be kept as inside jokes.”
However, Harjo said the spirit character William Knife-Man (played by one of the show’s writers, Dallas Goldtooth) is a way to “bridge the gap between Native and non-Native audiences.” In addition to appearing at various times to give Bear wisdom and pep talks, he’s also a guide for the audience.
“He’s almost the spirit guide, if you will, of the humor of the show. So he takes in someone who’s not used to our humor and makes it sort of digestible and familiar,” Harjo said. “I think that at a certain point, everybody’s responding to the heart of the show, and I think that’s across the board… There’s no cynicism when it comes to this show. It’s made of love. And I think that there is a heart that runs through this show that I think all audiences respond to.”
The show’s huge success has transformed the lives of the cast and crew. Harjo said he was grateful for the enormous response to the show by fellow Natives, and he’s they get to “see something very truthful about themselves that’s also very funny.”
Jacobs said her role on the show has set a new standard for the kind of work she wants to do and opened a lot of doors for her career. Woon-A-Tai also said “Reservation Dogs” has changed how he approaches her work. He added it’s broadened his career possibilities, extending to him opportunities to develop and be part of more Indigenous-led content. He said growing up he couldn’t envision someone who looked like him being an actor until he realized there was an abundant community of Indigenous artists creating work in film and TV.
Alexis, like her character Willie Jack, was more matter-of-fact about her newfound fame. “I get noticed when I go to Walmart and stuff like that, but I’m still me,” she said. “I’m always gonna be me.”
Season 2 of “Reservation Dogs” premieres Wednesday on Hulu.