Magic (Half) Hour: On "Reservation Dogs"

December 29, 2021   •   By Phillip Maciak

Reservation Dogs, which debuted this fall on FX, was the best show on TV this year. That’s me. It’s strange and beautiful, hard-pivots from farce to tragedy on a dime, proceeds with a pace and confidence and formal derring-do befitting a show that’s been around for a lot longer. It’s lyrical, generous, angry, and extremely funny. It’s precisely the type of surprising show FX produces, navigating the bloated excesses of Peak TV — a phrase coined by FX president John Landgraf — by filling its margins and absences. It isn’t like the other great shows that’ve come before it on the roster: Better Things, Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows. Except that those shows are also, notably, lyrical, generous, angry, and extremely funny. They’re also all free, mobile, unencumbered. And they’re all a half hour long.

Briefly, a polemic:

Sitcoms and soaps. The base units. The particles of form. Joe Reid, now of PrimeTimer, but, historically, of Television Without Pity — the mothership — said it, half-jokingly, but correctly a few days ago: “TV has never transcended the soap opera or the sitcom, and every ‘great’ TV show is just polishing up one or the other.” This isn’t a particularly controversial point, but it’s one that often gets covered over in prestige papier mache. The Sopranos isn’t a soap, it’s a ten-hour movie. The Wire isn’t a soap, it’s a Dickens novel. There’s got to be some sort of illuminati contract provision forcing prestige TV creators to call their episodes “chapters” — anything to avoid imagining that the genealogy of a great work of television art begins in television. It’s fine, who cares, whatever. But the much-heralded innovations of twenty-first century TV and streaming, the ones that begat all the recaps and multiplied all the televisions without pity, these were innovations in genre, not inventions of form. These hour-long, prime-time serials owe their existence to all sorts of forebears, but their greatest formal debt is often to the lowly soap. Its plotting, its melodrama, its feel for viewer engagement, its sense of time.

The age of prestige TV has buried that influence deep. The blanket denial of the televisuality of these television shows has turned this ancestor into a shameful secret. So much so that, often, when a prestige TV series is perceived as too much, too excessive, (too female), (too queer), it’s criticized for being too soapy. The collected works of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy have borne this criticism for years, despite the fact that the visible soapiness of their shows is less about a qualitative difference than a different willingness to publicly embrace their own genre history. Game of Thrones is the soapiest soap to ever soap on HBO.

But it’s precisely by disavowing the soap that the discourse of TV in this century has come into being. These shows were different, they were better, they were exceptions to the rule. They were allowed to have a legitimacy that their parents couldn’t, expectations greater than those of their genetic, generic aunts. But only by hiding where they came from. What’s more Dickensian than that?

And it’s worked. Not only has this decades-long construction of prestige brought television criticism into the mainstream, brought TV series into back-of-the-book relevance in nice magazines, and allowed for people to use the words “art” and “television” in the same sentence, it’s also given these hourlong prodigal soaps a kind of hierarchical supremacy even amongst other TV shows. When the BBC published its “100 Greatest TV Series of the Twenty-First Century” this past October, seven of the top ten were hourlong serials, and it’s not surprising. The soaps in wolves’ clothing have won the day.

The sitcoms, on the other hand, get left behind.  Without the nuclear inferiority complex fueling the rise of the prime-time soap, the twenty-first century descendants of the sitcom are far less frequently noted in conversations about televisual Greatness. The three half-hour series in the BBC list’s top ten — Fleabag, I May Destroy You, and the UK Office — alongside maybe Curb Your Enthusiasm, tend to be the only ones that break through in debates like these. And, even among that elite group, none of them are ever invited to the Thunderdome to compete with The Sopranos or The Wire or even Breaking Bad for the GOAT honors. 

The twenty-first century half-hour comedy series has suffered in critical estimation from its obvious, and largely unembarrassed, family resemblance to the sitcom. The easy way to say this, I think, is that these shows — however strange they have become — still feel like TV in a way that the prestige hour-longs have worked tirelessly to avoid. Their sitcomminess (sitcommunism?) is unavoidable. But the variations that writers have run on that genre, the innovations creators have made with the sitcom as the base unit, have been as extraordinary if not more so than their peers in the hour-long serial drama. (Dear TV’s own Lili Loofbourow recently argued that critical darling Succession is so good, in part, because it’s secretly a sitcom itself.) Instead of laboring to hide this generic debt, comedy writers have been freer to deconstruct and even transcend the structure they’ve been bequeathed.

Fleabag, I May Destroy You, The Office! Better Things, Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows! Girls, Insecure, Enlightened, Doll and Em, BoJack Horseman, Tuca and Bertie, WandaVision, Getting On, Dickinson, Pen15, Detroiters, Search Party, Los Espookys, South Side, High Maintenance, Rick and Morty, How To with John Wilson, Ramy, Master of None, Dear White People, Undone, Transparent, Random Acts of Flyness. I love a lot of the hour-long dramas of this now-aging century, but the half-hours are where the real magic happens.

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Reservation Dogs feels like a dream. I mean that conceptually as well as aesthetically. Co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, the show is nominally an ensemble comedy about four indigenous teenagers on an unnamed reservation in rural Oklahoma. But the first season spends just about half of its eight episodes on alternately bracing and hallucinatory point-of-view side-quests with each of the four leads individually. Our characters barely leave the space of the reservation, but, even so, the season has a loose picaresque style to it — the gang spends the day at the local Indian Health Service clinic, they drive out to visit a reclusive stoner-mystic, one kid does a ride-along with a cop, one goes hunting with her father, one spends the day in flashback with her best friend Daniel, whose suicide is the inciting incident of the series. Daniel dreams of leaving the reservation for LA, and, while the season follows the friends he left behind as they try to rob and scam and scheme their way to California in his honor, it’s the vastness and narrative complexity of the reservation itself that fills the show. Submerged in this murky swirl of American dreams — escaping a small town, striking it rich, moving westward — is a dreamlike depiction of longing and community and regret within a space that’s both inside and outside of America itself.

Like its FX friends Atlanta and Better Things, Reservation Dogs makes this betweenness both its subject and its guiding artistic philosophy. For Atlanta, it’s young Black men making art in an atmosphere that’s humid with the threat of violence; for Better Things it’s about aging women dealing with invisibility and teenage girls dealing with hypervisibility; for Reservation Dogs, it’s the many frequencies of loss. Loss as in absent friends; loss as in displacement, generational and otherwise; loss as in the loss of control, of sovereignty, of vision for a future. But also: to be lost, the way kids are sometimes. Neither here nor there, defining yourself by way of some elsewhere, losing track of where you are, where you’re from.

Telling a story of this kind of soul-deep displacement and bone-deep sense of home with the kind of granular detail that Harjo, a Seminole/Muscogee Creek filmmaker, brings to it allows the show to access a surreal register beyond the vision of other seemingly realist series. This show exceeds its own bounds, regularly. But these moments when reality warps — when ghosts or monsters or omens appear — also manage to reinforce the mean materiality of the world they exist to explain and enchant.

The show is steeped in folklore, both the supernatural kind and the kind that feels more like rumor, gossip, or received wisdom in the present. One episode focuses on local cop Big’s childhood run-ins with the Deer Lady — a mythical half-woman, half-deer who seduces and, well, destroys men for their misogynist crimes. To this point, Big’s been largely a comical figure, kind of stupid, blinkingly self-aware. But, privy now to his origin story, we can see him in the present, animated by a sense of noble purpose and a sense of fear, a desire to be a custodian of his community but also the terror that he might run afoul of it. What might it be like to be an ordinary guy with a conception of cosmic justice that enormous, an orphan cursed and burdened with that kind of knowledge? What’s the matter with that guy, the show invites us to think. Then it tells us.

A particularly wonderful episode, in this vein, is “Hunting,” a somewhat standalone piece focused on Willie Jack (played by Paulina Alexis), who’s on her way to becoming something like the moral compass of the group. She spends the day hunting illicitly with her father on hunting grounds that their grandfather sold decades ago, and that are now owned by Texas ranchers. It’s a funny, terribly sad episode-length dissection of the central idea of the show: that the four kids have to escape the reservation because it’s this “place” that killed their friend Daniel. Like lots of things kids say, it’s a true fact, an exaggeration, and a performance all at once. As father and daughter talk, we see their moves tracked by the high-tech surveillance system of the ranchers, and we see Tall Man, another figure from folklore, an enormous black blot with glowing eyes, an omen of death, or maybe just a different type of surveillance from before that land got sold to Texas ranchers. But the real enchantment that occurs between those two sets of watchful eyes is that a father listens to his daughter and takes her seriously. He tells her why he didn’t leave, why he never felt he needed to; she tells him who she wants to be, why she thinks she needs to leave in order to become that person; and they work through the way their grief has become narrative in order to be bearable.

A couple years ago, Jesse David Fox described series like this as “post-comedy.” “Post-comedy,” he wrote, “uses the elements of comedy (be it stand-up, sitcom, or film) but without the goal of creating the traditional comedic result — laughter — instead focusing on tone, emotional impact, storytelling, and formal experimentation.” Reservation Dogs, for what it’s worth, is very funny. (There’s an episode-long running bit about a roadkill deer in the third episode that might be my favorite gag of the year.) But what Fox is articulating here certainly applies. One of the things I admire most about this show is its slowness. One of its most striking gambits occurs between the first and second episodes. After a zippy pilot — filled with movie references and comic action set-pieces — that uses the heist of a snack truck to introduce our characters, the series immediately grinds to a halt. The second episode of the show takes place entirely at an Indian Health Service clinic on the reservation. We get to spend more time alone with all four leads, meet a handful of new characters, witness the alternately rigid and chaotic levels of bureaucratic hell that define health care (and everything else) on the reservation, but we do so in what’s essentially the space of a Seinfeld episode. Chinese restaurant, parking garage, babka bakery — your pick. It’s an old form, by now, and one that’s been repurposed for comedies and dramas alike since Seinfeld did it in the nineties. But to do it in the second episode of a new series, to take that kind of time, to trust in your performers like that. I couldn’t believe it. Reservation Dogs boldly begins by leveraging its classical sitcommunism to do something weird with narrative time and space, to mess with the viewers understanding of what forward momentum might be, to build a sustainable world out of available parts.

Part of what makes the episode work are the four lead performances. Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Paulina Alexis, Lane Factor — these kids are stars. In their hands, and under Harjo’s gaze, Reservation Dogs isn’t just a hangout show about a bunch of wayward teens. Every one of these actors is a comic lead and a dramatic lead on this show. And they’re able to do that because Harjo takes seriously the twilight between adolescence and adulthood. That magic hour when the world glows because you feel that you’ve discovered something about yourself or it, only for that insight to slip away before you can put words or form to it.  

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Recently, the Emmy Awards announced that they’d no longer be sorting TV series based on episode length. In other words, a show would not compete in the “comedy” category simply because it was a half-hour long, nor would a show compete in the “drama” category simply because it’s 45 minutes to an hour long. I understand the premise of this, but I also think it misses the point a little. Time slots are, by nature, constraints, but they are, and have been, generative ones. The sitcom evolved as a form because, not in spite of, the window it had to do what it had to do. And, over the decades, shows within those constraints have evolved, too, differently. Sure, there are half-hour shows that are super-sad and hour-long shows that are riotously funny, but I don’t know that litigating the relative lolz to sobs ratio of each television program does anything other than confuse the issue.

What I appreciate about the idea of “post-comedy” isn’t that it gives us a name for half-hour shows that aren’t very funny — it doesn’t — but that it accurately describes a televisual landscape that’s about experimentation and genre-pushing and explorations at the margins of form. And that it locates that kind of searching in the half-hours. A lot of people complain about the sameness of contemporary TV. It’s a valid complaint, but, like the arguments for televisual greatness that are its mirror image, it’s also an argument that’s implicitly about hour-long serial dramas. The Sopranos and its soap-not-soap descendants are both the shallow floor and aspirational ceiling of contemporary TV. These half-hour shows feel like something else. They feel new, maybe. They feel familiar. Neither here nor there, defined by way of some elsewhere, where TV is, where it’s from.