WHe was brainstorming hilarious scenes for Season 2 of FX’s comedy series Reservation dogs Sterlin Harjo turned to the memory of his grandmotHere’s deathbed.
It’s not that Harjo was callous about her death—far from it. He was Before her 11-year-old death, I spent a week sitting by the dying matriarch with my extended family. They sang together and shared stories until the early hours of the morning while she fell asleep. She finally rose one morning. For a cup coffee they relaxed together and cracked jokes to make her smile.
Harjo was devastated when she passed away a few days later. But he also felt a Sense of closure. “It’s a beautiful way to go: having a community that loves you, singing for you, helping you as you exit this place,” Harjo said during a Zoom interview from his Tulsa, Okla., office. “It brings out these better versions of who we are.”
Season 2 Reservation dogsThis episode was co-written by Harjo and Devery Jacobs, actor/writer. In the episode, the show’s rural Oklahoma Native community—inspired by Harjo’s own Oklahoma upbringing—comes together to surround an elder in her last days. For such a heavy topic, it’s surprisingly funny and uplifting, with filthy jokes told, truces gently forged, and strong, idiosyncratic voices arising from every corner of the room. It’s this penchant for bold, communal storytelling—buoyed by themes and story lines that might seem counterintuitive to mainstream audiences—that makes Reservation DogsIt is one of the most captivating shows on television. Its arrival coincides with the success of other Native stories on small screens, such as the Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls To AMC’s thriller Dark Winds
Fans, film critics and movie icons all agree on this. Reservation Dogs’ quality and originality: it won Peabody and Gotham Awards and received the “universal acclaim” tag on Metacritic. Following the show’s snub at the announcement of this year’s Emmy nominations on July 12, Guillermo del Toro tweeted, “Nominated or not, RESERVATION DOGS is one of the best things on the tube.”
But Harjo isn’t making Reservation DogsFor the awards. It will be used to tell true stories and provide a path for Native filmmakers to succeed. His Oklahoma will be like South Boston’s Matt Damon, Ben Affleck. Good Will HuntingHe said: To lift up the community that is most outsiders hadn’t considered worthy of heroic main characters. And he’s doing it by integrating his collaborators and community into the process in ways that few creators do. This unconventional approach could be a model for others underrepresented groups, as they seek to create lasting growth and respect through nuanced representation.
“We can’t leave it up to Hollywood to give people the opportunity, because they don’t know these people,” Harjo says. “We are part of this community, and it makes everything better if I bring people along.”
Devery Jacobs, Elora Danan (center) and Sterlin Hartjo, on the set for season 2 Reservation Dogs.
Harjo and his collaborators “don’t give a sh-t how you do it in L.A”
The heart of Reservation DogsIt is A group of four teenager friends living on an Oklahoma reservation. As a younger version of The Simpsons with a boonies-set. Seinfeld quartet, they don’t do much: they sell meat pies, scrap with neighboring crews, hunt deer, and fail driver’s tests. (And yes, they love Quentin Tarantino, as the title’s Pay tribute to Reservoir Dogs suggests.) They’re joined once in a while by a stoner uncle, a naive policeman, and the spirit of a 19th century warrior who is far goofier than the stoic Since the invention of films, this archetype has been a familiar one to many audiences.
Harjo is Seminole, Muscogee Creek. He grew up in Holdenville (Okla.), and was involved in similar mundane but hilarious hijinks. In his first writing, he wrote Reservation DogsAs his own Version Friday; just as Ice Cube and DJ Pooh wrote the laid-back 1995 stoner comedy in part to counteract the violent reputation of South Central L.A., Harjo hoped to show a funnier and wholly modern side of Oklahoma “rezzy” kids. In the documentary, Harjo shares many of his childhood memories. “Mark Schwartzbard, our director of photography, always jokes that we’re making a really big-budget documentary,” Harjo says.
While Friday is a crucial touchstone for Harjo, it’s where his L.A. aspirations end. The filmmaker kept hearing that he had to go west to succeed in Hollywood. Harjo instead stayed in Tulsa making films on a very tight budget. Learn more about Native characters These characters have received critical praise. minuscule audiences. Harjo defined success as whether his community loved them and whether their critical acclaim made it possible for him to make the next one.
Then his longtime friend Taika Waititi—the Maori Oscar-winning director he’d met through the Sundance Institute, who now helms blockbusters like Thor: Love and Thunder—helped him land a pilot for Reservation DogsFX. Waititi also serves as a producer and co-creator. Reservation Dogs) Harjo could have used the opportunity to “professionalize”: to hold casting calls on Hollywood back-lot stages, seek out brand-name TV directors, maybe add a relatable white main character as a surrogate for non-Native viewers.
Harjo refused to give up and dig deeper into his roots. During our interview, he holds aloft a shirt that he printed for his production company: “We Don’t Give a Sh-t How You Do It In L.A.” He scouted for acting talent on reservations, took a chance on first-time actors like Lane Factor, and hired half his crew from his home state. Prior to shooting, he asked members of the community for their blessings and songs.
Continue reading: The Crucial Role of Reservation Dogs in Suicide Prevention
The cast and crew were used to working hard in stressful on-set situations. These were symbolic decisions that had the potential to transform their lives. “I’ve done shows in L.A.; there’s a sense that people are machines at every level,” says Tazbah Chavez, who directed her first ever episode of television for Reservation Dogs’ debut season, and has since been promoted to co–executive producer. “When people feel respected and taken care of, the work each person puts in comes out in what you see.”
Season 2 Reservation Dogs New formulas are discarded
The show’s utter disinterest in typical Hollywood storytelling is evident from the jump. Speech cadences and punch lines land in unexpected places; narratives meander; magic is treated as a Matter Of fact. However, the show thrived before a larger audience. TIME’s Judy Berman was one of the many critics who called its first season “one of the year’s best new comedies,” praising its mix of “absurd humor with gritty realism.”
But Harjo worried that the show’s very success would breed complacency. When it was greenlighted for a second season last fall, he doubled the writers’ room from six to 11 and mostly abandoned the main plot device. This expanded group was then asked by him to discard previous winning formulas for stranger experimentation and bring their own stories and experiences fully into the project.
“We almost fell into ‘We know what we’re good at,’ without taking the next step and saying, ‘Is that too easy?’” he says. “Season 1 was on a trajectory. So how do we flip that and mess all of that up?” The writers’ room spent its first six weeks just swapping stories and spitballing ideas. “We would throw out all the things we know in our lives and our communities’ lives: ‘One time, my auntie did this,’ ‘I used to [install]Roof[s] back in the day,’ going to Indian health conferences to party,” Chavez says. “What you see reflected onscreen, they’re all weaved together.”
While in production, Harjo kept the creative pressure on, ripping up scripts at the last minute—including the season finale—and challenging himself, his writers, and his actors to rely on their To forge more truthful stories and less predictable situations, use your improv abilities. It’s a season full of surprises, including the death episode and ritualistic Tom Petty singalongs. Nathan Apodaca, the jovial skateboarding, Ocean Spray–drinking TikTok star. (“There’s not a lot of Native TikTok stars out there,” Harjo says.)
Megan Mullally, Marc Maron, and Megan Mullally are two examples of high-profile celebrities who stop by for scenes. But Harjo’s focus was squarely on two things: bringing his communities’ stories to life, and giving new opportunities to his cast and crew. “I was the person no one opened doors for,” he says. “So it’s my duty and my job to open those doors.”
Devery Jacobs plays Elora Danan as the lead role. This season, she was awarded her first television writing credit. “I nearly had a heart attack,” she says. “But I felt so welcome and encouraged in that room. And so many of us wouldn’t have gotten these opportunities had it not been for Sterlin putting his hand out and bringing up his community with him.”
After many years of being seen, The Native filmmaking community has been stereotyped as either tragic or stoic. Now, it is getting the chance to showcase its diversity. Chavez has helmed seven additional episodes of TV shows since Harjo gave her the opportunity to direct. Shot last year. Hopes the trend will continue outward. She explains that the various programs on today’s air are all her favorites. “are reservation-based shows that are nothing alike. We’ve shown our stories are viable and universal—and I hope we can keep making whatever we want to make.”
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