In January 2015, Eddie Huang was angry. The cook-to-TV personality and author of the memoir Degrees off the boat was about to see his book become a nationally broadcast ABC sitcom, but during the production of the pilot he realized he hated it. He explained all of this on the pages of New York Magazine, writes a lively, boastful essay on the uniquely agonizing experience of seeing his Taiwanese-Chinese immigration history diluted into something palatable for a white American audience.
For Huang, a show that placed the comfort of white viewers above the veracity of its characters’ lives was deeply compromising, especially when those characters were based on his real family. While he ended his essay on a positive note on historic achievement Degrees off the boat represented, Huang later denied the show on twitter, noted that shortly after the pilot, the series became an experience he was unfamiliar with.
Degrees off the boat ran over six seasons and ended with a series finale that aired in February 2020. W ith 116 episodes, it is the longest running series with a mainly Asian-American cast. A lot of these episodes are fun, but they’re also toothless. One of the things that you pick up on when you come from a marginalized background is when you’re slamming for the sake of the perceived majority. There is a fear that the people who have benefited from the marginalization of others may not be able to keep up, so the pool can only be so deep.
Reservation dogs doesn’t have that fear. The new FX on Hulu comedy, created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, is a raw series about four indigenous teenagers who long to escape their Oklahoma home and reach the Los Angeles sunshine. But this plan would cost money that they don’t have. So they steal it.
This is our introduction to Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), four rural punks who ruthlessly steal a snack delivery truck for him for sale in a junkyard. As a gang (the eponymous Reservation Dogs) they get into fistfights and paintball shootouts with other gangs, steal groceries and shamelessly do anything to add a few extra dollars to their escape fund. They feel like a version of Scooby DooMystery Solve gang, but meaner.
Later in the pilot, the audience discovers what gives them this urgency: It’s the one year anniversary of their friend Daniel’s death, and they blame their hometown for killing him. Her California dream was originally his.
It’s not hard to see why many teenagers think their small Oklahoma town is after them. Reservation dogs
But there are whims during the show. A cycling rapper couple is constantly trying out new songs. A cop knows what the Rez Dogs are up to, but apparently unwilling to punish them for it, even if they upset him. And Bear has strange visions of a spirit guide who visits him from time to time just to give him the most questionable advice.
Reservation dogs is a surreal mix of harsh cynicism and deep longing that has a kinship with other stories of marginalized people fighting in the shadow of white people who are nowhere in sight: Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar or HBOs The espookys
In a way, it’s the kind of show that Degrees off the boat could never be despite Eddie Huang’s best efforts. Whiteness has a way of self-centering: even if stories don’t focus on white people, they are still largely viewed as an integral part of what is referred to as the “general audience.”
Sterlin Harjo and the authors of Reservation dogs not come across as interested in translating their worldview for anyone. It is up to the viewer to understand the show’s portrayal of the indigenous experience and to put it in context. How many great art Reservation dogs challenges his audience with wit and style to look into spaces that have long been ignored and to identify with experiences that lie outside their own. Its indigenous representation is neither intrusive nor complacent – instead, it’s refreshing indifferent – another work to point out in a growing number of shows about the marginalized, one that will soon be so big that we may finally consider it a crime that the so-called margins could ever be so big.
The first two episodes of Reservation dogs are now streaming on Hulu. The new episodes have their premiere on Mondays.