The groundbreaking comedy-drama about four Native American teens is one of the greatest TV shows of recent times, yet has been mostly ignored by the big awards bodies.
For Native Americans like me who have rarely seen ourselves accurately represented in entertainment, the revolutionary TV show Reservation Dogs has been both life-affirming and life-changing. Premiering in 2021, this coming-of-age tale told the story of four teens trying to navigate modern life on an Oklahoma Indian reservation. It didn’t hold back on its depictions of the many hardships that tribal communities face in the wake of colonialism, such as forced assimilation, inordinate violence, marked health disparities, and lower life expectancies. But at its core, it was the humanity of the simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking storylines that enraptured fans – although not, it seems, Emmy and Golden Globes voters.
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I admit that, as a super fan, I’m far from objective. But I still have enough clarity to call it like I see it: with no nominations for last weekend’s Golden Globes and just one nomination, for sound editing, at the Emmys – the main ceremony of which takes place on Monday – Rez Dogs is undoubtedly the biggest snub of this year’s awards season so far. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since the groundbreaking series by Indigenous creatives Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi has been regularly overlooked by the Television Academy (the organisation behind the Emmys) throughout its three-season run. (Though it should be noted that the show has received a Peabody Award and repeat AFI TV program of the year awards, among other accolades.)
The general lack of industry awards recognition stands in stark contrast to the nearly nonstop critical acclaim that Rez Dogs has garnered, not least in the wake of last year’s final season – perhaps its most beautiful and brilliant yet. Time, The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Rolling Stone, and others named it one of the best TV shows of 2023, if not the best, alongside the likes of Succession, The Bear, and Beef. All of which, I should point out, have received ample Emmy and Golden Globes attention.
Devotees like me are outraged about the oversight, but showrunner Sterlin Harjo takes it all in his stride. “Native TV and film comes from an underdog position,” he says. “We’ve always had something to fight against, and that fuels me. I don’t give too much thought to awards, because they don’t fuel me at all. But the burn is that the cast and crew who have worked so hard don’t get recognised.”
For Harjo, it’s not so much a snub as it is a delayed reaction. “Throughout history, it has always taken institutions time to catch up to what’s happening culturally,” he says. “When you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, there’s a lag. So even though critics and fans are on board, the institution doesn’t even know what to do with Rez Dogs, especially because there are no superstar actors in it.”
It’s a hard show to classify; it’s a comedy, but it’s very dark, sometimes sad, sometimes off-the-wall – Tyler Coates
Tyler Coates, the awards editor at The Hollywood Reporter, agrees with Harjo about why it has been ignored. “The show lacks the A-list star power of many of the other comedies that ended up receiving series nominations, like Only Murders in the Building and Ted Lasso,” he says. “It’s also a hard show to classify; it’s a comedy, but it’s very dark, sometimes sad, sometimes off-the-wall. Finally, the TV Academy is mostly made up of voters who are more metropolitan, and likely aren’t interested in rural-set stories. Maybe this is the small-town boy from Virginia in me talking, but I do think there’s a bias here that goes unrecognised.”
To that end, in comparing Rez Dogs to The Bear – both dark comedies with relatively unknown casts – Coates points out that the latter found success because it is set in the major US city of Chicago and focused on working-class people toiling away in a restaurant, giving an inside look at an industry with which mainstream audiences are fairly familiar.
A damning omission
While all that may be true, it’s still difficult to accept that amid a cultural reckoning with Native experience – which Rez Dogs helped spark – the show has been noticeably left out of the awards discussion. After all, on the film front, actress Lily Gladstone is experiencing a well-deserved historic awards run for her shining performance in Killers of the Flower Moon. But to Coates’s point, that epic has industry giants like Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro behind it to help build the hype.
In a confounding Catch-22, it seems that the very reasons the series has been monumental for Indigenous viewers are why it’s not garnering the awards attention it deserves. Namely, its representation both in front of and behind the camera, with relative newcomers and an all-Indigenous writers’ room, and its focus on authentic contemporary Native life defying sensationalised stereotypes that depict us as stoic, warring, exotic or hyper-sexualised.
“What makes Reservation Dogs so groundbreaking is also what probably makes it difficult to find an audience beyond the critics,” says Coates. “People tend to watch TV for the comfort of the familiar. When you have a show about the quotidian nature of life on a reservation, there’s a bigger barrier to entry for many viewers. While I think that’s what makes the show brilliant, I wonder if viewers need bigger set-pieces, more bombastic sequences, more digestible comedy.”
When you kick a door in, you don’t necessarily get to run into the room; it’s your job to hold the door open for others – Sterlin Harjo
Vanity Fair awards writer David Canfield doesn’t mince words. “Reservation Dogs has been one of, if not the most, acclaimed half-hour programs on American television for each of its three seasons, and its utter absence from the Emmys damningly reflects on the TV Academy’s increasing inability to honor worthy shows that don’t garner huge audiences,” he says. “The representational breakthroughs of the show are worth highlighting alone, but in its execution above all, the show has stood tall as one of the richest and most imaginative of its class.”
There’s still a chance that Rez Dogs will be recognised for its final season at the Emmys next time around, given the eligibility period, but industry insiders aren’t so sure. “Given that the TV Academy has not paid much attention to the show in its previous seasons, and that it ended last fall, I don’t think it’s a strong contender in the [next] Emmys race,” Coates says.
And yet, he remains hopeful about the show’s lasting legacy. “What I hope for Reservation Dogs is that the word-of-mouth and critical love for it will help build an audience on streaming, and that its young actors, as well as Sterlin Harjo, have long careers ahead of them,” he says. “But there are also all of the systemic issues within Hollywood that exist elsewhere in our society, and the cards are stacked against them.”
In the end, Harjo didn’t create Reservation Dogs for the powers that be; he created it for Native viewers like me. As it turns out, it was never about the awards, the accolades, or the acclaim – it was about authentic Indigenous representation.
“When you kick a door in, you don’t necessarily get to run into the room; it’s your job to hold the door open for others,” Harjo concludes. “I know that Rez Dogs will stand the test of time – just making this show was the award in itself.
Reservation Dogs is available to stream on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK
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