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The Remarkable ‘Reservation Dogs’ Runs Away Toward Home


Wanting to flee your hometown is the birthright of each young person. In America, pulling up stakes and hitting the road is built into the favored culture — it’s “Go west, young man”; it’s a Bruce Springsteen lyric.

For some Americans, nonetheless — just like the 4 teenagers on an Oklahoma reservation in FX’s sublime coming-of-age comedy “Reservation Dogs” — the thought of home, whom it belongs to and who belongs to it, is more complicated. The romance of the road, in any case, is certain up with a history of seeing North America as a frontier. When your ancestors lived within the place that others saw as a blank space to fill in themselves, that American myth hits somewhat in another way.

The push away from home and the pull toward it form the dynamic that powers “Reservation Dogs,” which emerged out of the box last yr as one among TV’s most lived-in, specifically drawn comedies. The terrific first season focused on the urge to get away; the second, which returns to Hulu on Wednesday, is about what it takes to rediscover your own home.

The pilot episode bursts onto your screen like someone is chasing it. Its self-styled gang of 4 (the show’s title comes from their nickname, a reference to the Quentin Tarantino film “Reservoir Dogs”) are introduced within the midst of jacking a snack-chips truck. Their plan is to boost money, head to California and leave behind the reservation that they blame for the suicide of their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer).

Like many improvised schemes, this takes some turns, and the season fleshes out the youngsters in a laid-back, observant character piece. Elora (Devery Jacobs) is a walking heartbreak who feels Daniel’s loss especially heavily (we learn eventually that it was she who found his body). Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai) is a lanky boy stumbling toward being the person he outwardly appears to be. Cheese (Lane Factor) is deadpan and thoughtful; Willie Jack (an immediately winning Paulina Alexis) has a prodigiously foul mouth and a loyal heart.

California is less a concrete destination for them than an idea, a stand-in for “not here.” But “Reservation Dogs” is deeply in contact with the texture and flavor of the here that it portrays.

The creators, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, produced a story about Indigenous people by Indigenous people, shot on location in Oklahoma, with the nubbly texture of great regional TV. (It’s each a welcome example of TV listening to rural life and a reminder that “rural” is just not a synonym for “white.”) It’s steeped in lore, lifeways and pop history; a Season 1 episode delves into the parable of the avenging Deer Lady and the profession of the Native American ’70s band Redbone.

Like “Atlanta,” one other magic-realist comedy from FX, “Reservation Dogs” has a heartfelt irreverence and an aversion to romantic cliché. Bear is visited by the spirit of a Lakota warrior (Dallas Goldtooth) who was on the Battle of Little Big Horn — at but not in, because he died when his horse hit a gopher hole — and who imparts nuggets of wisdom in a torrent of bro-speak. In a recent episode, he solemnly tells Bear, “Carry on, my wayward son, there’ll be peace when you find yourself done,” a benediction from the classic rock band Kansas.

The eight-episode first season delightfully goes nowhere fast, constructing out the world and the solid of local eccentrics. Zahn McClarnon, who anchored the AMC crime drama “Dark Winds,” gives a wry performance as Big, a hapless tribal police officer with a bent of screwball insight; an episode set on the Indian Health Service clinic sketches the reservation’s afflictions and support systems in miniature.

As in so many teen romances, the things that the Dogs hate about their home (the insularity, the cash problems, the bad memories) offer you entrée to the things that, admit it or not, they love about it (the relationships, the interdependence, the higher memories).

One after the other, the chums get cold feet about leaving, and Elora heads for California alone, taking her grandmother’s automotive along with her hard-bitten frenemy, Jackie (Elva Guerra, also of “Dark Winds”). She’s finally free, but she seems more unmoored the farther west they travel. Meanwhile, her friends are attempting to seek out ways to make a house at home, making amends for the past and processing Daniel’s loss.

The brand new season leans a number of notches closer to the drama side of dramedy, but there’s still loads of laid-back humor. Within the second episode, Willie Jack and Cheese turn to Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), an elder who dispenses advice and decades-old weed, for assist in lifting a curse. He stumbles his way through a ceremony, which he says must conclude with “an old song.” He pauses and summons up music from inside — “Free Fallin’,” by Tom Petty. (“It’s like 30 years. That’s old!”)

The miraculous and the mundane are all the time bumping elbows in “Reservation Dogs.” Jackie receives a prophecy in the shape of a souvenir card from a “Medicine Man” fortunetelling machine at a gas station gift shop. (“You could turn away from the trail that you just are on.”) Bear’s spirit guide visits Uncle Brownie, who within the Season 1 finale performed a ritual to ward off a tornado and now believes he’s a holy man. The spirit says that is nonsense. “He did turn a storm,” he says, but “whatever, everyone can try this.”

Just like the spirit, “Reservation Dogs” believes any of its characters are able to magic, not only the literal, meteorological kind. Everyone, even a screw-up, has power and responsibility as part of a bigger community. You possibly can get a prophecy from a drunk sitting at a bar or wisdom from a man getting his hair cut on the porch.

You too can, sometimes, catch a glimpse of enlightenment while doing a day’s work. In the brand new season, Bear takes a construction job and finds himself working next to Daniel’s father, Danny (Michael Spears), raising uncomfortable memories for each of them. Bear nearly tumbles off a rooftop attempting to grab some loose shingles, but Danny catches him. “First rule of roofing,” Danny says. “Don’t chase it if it’s already falling.” It’s a lesson that Bear and all his friends are attempting to learn: The way to know what to let go, and learn how to save what matters.

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