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Haven't caught on to 'Reservation Dogs'? Now's your chance.

Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, and Lane Factor as Cheese.
Shane Brown
Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, and Lane Factor as Cheese.

As a critic who didn't catch on to coming-of-age comedy Reservation Dogs until recently, I was a little confused at the start of the new season — which plunges right into a moment where Bear Smallhill, backed by his three friends, tries connecting with his deadbeat father in a dumpy apartment in California.

Fortunately, we have a little help processing it all from a bizarrely charismatic source: William Knifeman, the spirit of a Native American warrior who died at Little Big Horn and occasionally breaks the fourth wall, apologizing for the hectic pace of the first episode's start.

"I know I threw a lot at you in the first few minutes," says Knifeman, played with a slacker's ease by Dallas Goldtooth, a Native American activist who co-wrote the episode with series showrunner Sterlin Harjo. "You have to trust me. I'm an indigenous storyteller to the bone. I'm like a Greek chorus with a loincloth."

D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Dallas Goldtooth.
Shane Brown / FX
D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Dallas Goldtooth.

At this point, Knifeman lifts up his loincloth to reveal an area blurred out by producers. Thank goodness.

An unassuming comedy with a powerful message

Reservation Dogs is a deft comedy hiding inside a scrappy, in-your-face character study, focused on a group of Native American teenagers searching for their place in the world. At times as informal as an indie film, the performances here are so nuanced and authentic, it can feel like watching a ridiculously entertaining documentary.

Viewers of the second season know Bear and his friends – known as the Rez Dogs – left their home in Oklahoma for California to fulfill a dream of their friend Daniel who died by suicide. The new episodes pick up at about that same time, as a relative of one of the Rez Dogs shows up in California to take them back home.

But Bear gets separated from his friends and winds up on a journey all his own, egged on by Knifeman – a spirit most others can't see. Exasperated by his spirit guide's less-than-helpful prodding, Bear begs for some specifics, only to get a response that sounds like it came from an other-wordly middle manager.

"You know I can't do that," Knifeman says. "I can only give you cryptic aphorisms. I don't like it either, but I gotta report to the Spirit Council."

This is the wonderful language of Reservation Dogs, which operates in a grounded, authentic world where Native American mysticism and folktales also have a reality and power. The combination yields offhandedly funny stories that can be unexpectedly touching.

Through it all, the crew negotiates absent parents, unpredictable adults and their own motivations. Teenie, the aunt who shows up to take the Rez Dogs home, tells her niece Elora a secret: Adults are more messed up than kids, and it doesn't get better as you get older.

"I feel the same [now] as I did when I was your age," she says, wearily. "There's no miraculous change. You're the same person you were when you first opened your eyes. Except, when you're an adult, you have baggage. And the baggage gets heavier. And that's what changes people."

A walkabout journey that leads to compelling drama

Some of the most powerful moments in the first four episodes that were circulated to critics feature Bear, played by D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, separated from his friends Elora (Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis). He's on a journey that brings him together with a wily conspiracy theorist played by Graham Greene and, later, the Deer Lady, a spirit who takes vengeance on those who have harmed women and children.

In flashbacks, we get a look at the Deer Lady's origin story: she was taken from her family as a girl many decades ago and brought to a horrific religious school run by nuns who stripped the children of their culture and beat them. In one dreamy flashback, we see how the nuns, who only spoke English, sounded like monsters to a girl who couldn't yet understand their language — their tones, converted into warped and backwards audio, sound particularly creepy.

This is where Reservation Dogs excels. It tells stories rooted in the reality of indigenous life, its brutal history and its boundless culture — which reaches far beyond the reservation into the world in surprising ways. Critically acclaimed as the show is, it may still be one of the most overlooked comedies on TV today.

The series will end after its current, 10-episode season, so be sure to watch it now on Hulu and FX – and enjoy a singular show that spins tales featuring the kind of compelling, grounded characters TV rarely finds time to notice.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.