While brainstorming funny scenes for the second season of his FX comedy series Reservation Dogs, Sterlin Harjo turned to the memory of his grandmother’s deathbed.
It’s not that Harjo was callous about her death—far from it. He had sat by the ailing matriarch for a week with his extended family before she died, 11 years ago. While she slept, they sang songs and swapped stories into the wee hours of the morning. When she finally roused one day for a cup of coffee, they sat around, cracking jokes and making her laugh.
When she died a couple of days later, Harjo grieved, 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.”
For Season 2 of Reservation Dogs, Harjo and actor-writer Devery Jacobs co-wrote an episode based on this experience. 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 Dogs one of the most compelling shows on television. And its arrival has coincided with other Native stories thriving on the small screen, from the Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls to AMC’s thriller Dark Winds.
Critics, fans, and film icons have agreed on 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 Dogs for the accolades. He wants to use it to tell real stories, and to give other Native filmmakers a pathway to success. He wants to do for his Oklahoma what Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did for South Boston in Good Will Hunting, he says: to lift up a community that 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. His unorthodox approach might serve as a template for other underrepresented groups as they strive to generate lasting growth, respect, and success through nuanced representation onscreen.
“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 as Elora Danan, center, and Sterlin Harjo on the set of season 2 of Reservation Dogs.
Harjo and his collaborators “don’t give a sh-t how you do it in L.A” The heart of Reservation Dogs is a group of four teenage friends who live on an Oklahoma reservation. Like a younger, boonies-set version of the 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 homage 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 (and often racist) archetype familiar to audiences since the advent of movies.
Harjo, who is Seminole and Muscogee Creek, grew up in Holdenville, Okla., getting into similarly mundane and hilarious hijinks. He initially wrote Reservation Dogs as his own version of 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. Many of his experiences growing up are depicted directly in the show. “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. For years, the filmmaker was told that he needed to move west in order to make it in the industry. Instead, Harjo remained in Tulsa, making movies on shoestring budgets about Native characters. They garnered critical praise but minuscule audiences. Harjo defined success by whether his community liked them, and whether their critical acclaim ensured that he could 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 Dogs on FX. (Waititi is also a co-creator and an executive producer on 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.
Instead, Harjo defiantly dug even 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. Before shoots, he asked people from the community to sing Native songs, pray, and give a blessing.
Read More: How Reservation Dogs Is Addressing Suicide in a Crucial Way
These decisions were not just symbolic but also transformative for much of the cast and crew, who were used to grinding through cutthroat on-set atmospheres. “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 of Reservation Dogs ditches old formulas 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. The show nevertheless thrived in front of a wider 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. He then challenged this expanded group to reject previous winning formulas in favor of stranger experimentation, and to bring themselves and their stories fully into the process.
“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 improv chops to forge less expected and more honest stories. The result is a season filled with curveballs, from the aforementioned death episode to ritualistic Tom Petty sing-alongs to the integration of Nathan Apodaca, the jovial skateboarding, Ocean Spray–drinking TikTok star. (“There’s not a lot of Native TikTok stars out there,” Harjo says.)
Some high-profile guests pop in for scenes, including Marc Maron and Megan Mullally. 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, who plays the co-lead role of Elora Danan, nabbed her first TV writing credit this season. “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 years of seeing themselves mostly portrayed as stoic or tragic, the Native filmmaking community is finally getting a chance to show off its range. Chavez, who has directed seven more episodes of TV since Harjo first gave her a shot last year, hopes the movement will continue to spiral outward. The various shows on air today, she says, “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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