TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The second season of the Peabody Award-winning comedy series "Reservation Dogs" has begun. The show focuses on four young Native American teenagers who live in rural Oklahoma. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says it's a great show that's unlike anything else on TV.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We all want to tell our own stories, not have them told by people who don't understand us or take our lives seriously. This is the fate that Native Americans have had to endure for countless decades. So when "Reservation Dogs" came out last year, the series was rightly hailed as groundbreaking, with a cast, production crew and primary creator Sterlin Harjo, who are all Indigenous. It offered a view from the inside of lives that are usually ignored. As "Reservation Dogs" begins its strong second season, it's worth emphasizing that the series is also one of the best and most original shows on TV.
Set in Oklahoma's Native American territory, it blends dumb jokes, smart jokes, satire, pathos, social realism, magical realism and tribal lore, not to mention American Indians' tragic history, into a series that is fresh, funny and heartfelt. As you may know, the series centers on a gang of four teenagers known as Rez Dogs. There's Bear, played by emo-faced D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, who longs for the father who abandoned his family. There's soulful Elora - that's Devery Jacobs - who's the group's true center of gravity. There's the foul-mouthed Willie Jack, played by Paulina Alexis, and the affable one known as Cheese - that's Lane Factor - who gets along with everyone. They are surrounded by grown-ups who range from Uncle Brownie, a one-time bar fighter who's now a hermit, to a kookily benign cop named Officer Big, played by Zahn McClarnon, the star of AMC+'s terrific Navajo mystery series "Dark Winds."
In Season 1, this gang of four was busy accumulating money, sometimes illegally, in order to leave the reservation and get to California. But their plans get flattened when a tornado hits town and only Elora heads out, along with one of the gang's enemies, the tough, deadpan Jackie. As Season 2 begins, these young women are trying to get out of Oklahoma in their ramshackle car, while back home, Bear looks for work as Willie Jack and Cheese seek a way to rescind a black-magic curse that backfired. Here, the depressed Bear receives a visitation from a goofy spirit, a bare-chested warrior who was supposedly at Little Bighorn.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RESERVATION DOGS")
DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: (As Spirit) I'll check you later.
D'PHARAOH WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear) Wait. You serious? No, come on. Come on, man. You will literally invade my life whenever it's convenient for you, man. And as soon as I'm seeking help, you just bail?
GOLDTOOTH: (As Spirit) OK. You got your sacred curlies (ph) in, right?
WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear) My what?
GOLDTOOTH: (As Spirit) Your sacred hairs. Your man mesh. Your nest of creation. Your he-muff, she-muff, they-muff down there? See, a long time ago, when our sacred hairs came in like that, it meant that we weren't children no more and that we started working for the people. You, you're acting like a kid, man. We all had a job. We all had a role. That's how we built strong nations, like, each a stitch in the great loincloth of the people.
WOON-A-TAI: (As Bear) I don't even know what that means, man.
GOLDTOOTH: (As Spirit) I don't even know what it means, man. I'm just making it up as I go along. All right?
POWERS: Now, I always get nervous when a series I love enters Season 2. And I feared the worst when Episode 1 tilted a bit too sharply toward the comic whimsy that is sometimes its failing. But the show quickly regained its balance and began doing what makes it special. Working in a loose, indie-film style, Harjo and company build around moments, not plot points, and avoid the temptation to make a grand statement about the situation of American Indians. They use their young hero's daily life to offer glimpses - some silly, some profoundly moving - of a modern Native American reality that goes beyond the familiar narrative of victimization and misery. Although they live with poverty and fractured families, the show's characters are vibrantly alive. And there are episodes - like Cheese doing a ride around with Officer Big, Willie Jack hunting with her dad or Bear learning to become a roofer - that glow with the warmth and wisdom rare on television. I can think of no other show that gives a clearer sense of what it means to live in a community that feels like a community. "Reservation Dogs" evokes a culture in which age-old tribal curses exist alongside discussions of gender pronouns, and the legacy of Crazy Horse sits side by side with hip-hop and references to "Star Wars." The show is wised up enough to laugh at classic tropes like the stoic and taciturn Indian and to make light of the notion of spirit guides, as in the clip we heard earlier. Yet, these are jokes from the inside. Even as the show has fun with Native American tradition, it finds a way of doing it honor, as in this season's beautiful episode when everyone comes together in a death watch for Elora's grandmother. Back in Season 1, Willie Jack gets to talking about all the seemingly uncontrolled dogs running the streets. Nobody cares about rez dogs, she says, referring as much to herself and her friends as to their four-footed namesakes. But she's wrong. This show cares. And I suspect it will make you care, too.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the return of "Reservation Dogs" on Hulu. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank. In his new book, "The Destructionist: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party," he looks at some of the key people and events over the past 25 years that led to today's Republican Party, with some elected leaders, candidates and officials still endorsing the lie that Trump won, pushing conspiracy theories and exploiting racism. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRAIG DAVIS, JOHN CLAYTON AND JEFF HAMILTON'S "MELLOW MOOD")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRAIG DAVIS, JOHN CLAYTON AND JEFF HAMILTON'S "MELLOW MOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.