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Week-to-Week: Why We're Not Covering One of TV's Best Shows
And yes, why I feel bad about it
It’s been bothering me that Episodic Medium isn’t covering Reservation Dogs, which is funny given that I am the sole editor and made the decision not to cover it myself.
The summer schedule was set back in May, and in budgeting out our coverage the fairly late premiere announcement meant that there just wasn’t room for a show premiering late in the summer at that time. Our August budget was already substantial, and while I could have—probably should have—bumped one of our May/June shows instead, it’s hard to do long-term planning when you’re tied to unstable revenue and looking to maximize retention in the short term following the end of the big spring Emmy bait shows.
But now that we’re here at what is officially the show’s final season, and after it was once more snubbed by the Emmys, we are at a critical moment in the Reservation Dogs discourse where it’s a matter of principle. It’s objectively one of the best shows on television, and the lack of respect from the TV Academy and its imminent end has resulted in a slight uptick in weekly reviews. Last fall, Alan Sepinwall wrote about how he skipped out on recapping the show’s second season because he didn’t feel it was going to generate as much conversation, but he’s on the beat this summer for Rolling Stone. Meanwhile, The Former Site picked up weekly coverage this season as well, after only doing pre-air coverage last year.
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And so, although it didn’t necessarily seem like it would be the case in the spring, it is antithetical to the ethos of this site that we’re sitting this one out. And while I thought about doing an about face and rushing out reviews, I want to ensure that we’re able to sustain coverage throughout the fall/spring, and adding to an already crowded August schedule would threaten that. Our subscription model may not be dependent on clicks and views, but it’s still a business model, and I’m not sure including reviews of a critical darling like Reservation Dogs would net or retain enough additional subscribers to justify the cost of coverage when there’s so much else on the schedule—in some ways, the fact that more outlets are covering it makes it less valuable for us, given that there are other options available.
But there’s another dimension to my shame about this, which is that I never finished the second season of Reservation Dogs until ahead of the third season’s premiere. It wasn’t an act of malice—I just got to a point where I wasn’t sure I was in the right headspace to be emotionally devastated, fell behind as a result, and then never made my way back to it. As ever, Peak TV is going to Peak TV, and so this is hardly itself a surprise—plus, between editing this site, doing my normal job, and a huge amount of travel, it’s not been a year where I’ve felt settled enough to dive into my backlog without a strong reason to (like, for example, wanting to be caught up for a new season). Did this create some slight awkwardness when I briefly interacted with Willie Jack and Cheese at a cocktail party back in January during a stopover in L.A.? Yes. But that’s probably a pretty universal experience for many of us who cover TV at this point.
But as I caught up on the second season, and as I’ve watched the third season week-to-week, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I do think there’s something about Reservation Dogs that made me hesitate to jump at the possibility of weekly coverage. To be clear, it’s not that the show is so unapologetically invested in the magical realist, spiritual world of Indigenous American storytelling, which is undoubtedly its greatest quality. Rather, the issue I’m finding is that with only ten episodes a season, and with 30-minute runtimes, the show’s vignette-style episodic structure resists a clear, central narrative that carries across the seasons and series as a whole. Daniel’s death is undoubtedly a recurring presence, but the way it ebbs and flows in importance creates a sensation where there’s so much experimentation and divergence going on that it disrupts a part of my brain that wants a more structured serialized story about these characters to invest in.
The beginning of the third season has been emblematic of this. The premiere starts off as a direct followup of last season’s finale, in which Bear threatened to make his trip to California permanent after the friends came together to honor Daniel’s dream of making it to the ocean. Aided by some fun if clunky expositional narration from our resident spirit, the parameters for the season are set. With Bear and Willie Jack on the verge of graduating, they now embody the question of whether surviving as an Indigenous person means leaving the reservation, or whether “coming of age” means abandoning key parts of their identities. Having now made peace with Daniel’s loss, they need to understand what their own dreams should be, and how their friendship and their families—whether real or chosen—fit into this.
But after that, Bear gets stranded at a bus stop on the trip back home, and goes on a solitary journey through guest characters—the introduction of Graham Greene’s Maximus and the return of Deer Lady—and their own relationships to the trauma Indigenous people have faced in America. These episodes are compelling and powerful, and the cumulative impact of the show’s investigation of how systems of incarceration and control were leveraged against generations of Indigenous Americans remains one of its greatest accomplishments. However, Bear was kind of left as a bystander in those episodes, and the lack of followup with any of the other characters limited the amount of narrative—rather than thematic—momentum accomplished by this detour.
As a result, when the show returned to Oklahoma in this week’s “Friday,” I was looking to see this momentum restored, but found only an extremely light hangout episode, where the show continues to focus on small, observational character moments. These are delightful details, to be clear, and the show is definitely planting some meaningful seeds for the future: Elora and Willie Jack are both thinking about inheritance and their role in their community, for example. But the show’s commitment to a vignette feeling means that I find it hard to get a gauge on what the show’s timelines are, and how that character progress is mapped across a given season—I admittedly watched the second season in two parts, but struggled to get the weekly check-ins I wanted. And while that’s one thing when a show is set to potentially run forever, we’re now six episodes away from the final chapter in its story, and I do think that I expected to have a clearer vision of the show’s endgame than an episode where Cheese’s storyline is “finally picked up his glasses after his previous trip to the optometrist.”
To be clear, I’m not suggesting this means an episode like “Friday” is a waste of time, or that there isn’t pleasure in hanging out with these characters—part of what is so meaningful about the show’s representation is that it doesn’t have to tell stereotypical types of Indigenous stories in order to be a successful comedy. But the absence of a clearer narrative throughline—or more consistent “situations” for said comedy—creates a vacuum of sorts where I don’t necessarily know if there’s enough to say about each episode that would ultimately enrich one’s experience. That’s definitely true with loose episodes like “Friday”—which Alan also acknowledged in his newsletter was a challenge to recap—and while “Deer Lady” was no doubt a richer text, I don’t know if I am the right person to be talking about the significance of the show’s deeper explorations of Indigenous culture; at Vulture, Dr. Kali Simmons—a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies—has that beat covered.
I’ve been thinking about this as well in the context of the show’s struggle with the Television Academy. I was shocked when it missed out in the first season, because it felt like the revolutionary dimensions of the show’s representation were something an increasingly self-aware voting body would want to acknowledge, at least in categories like writing or directing—heck, they even had the show’s cast and creator present an award during the 2021 ceremony in the wake of the first season’s debut. But while I’m sure garden variety racism played at least some part in voters failing to invest in the series in the beginning when the story was a bit more streamlined, I do think that its narrative structure is part of why the second season failed to find any additional momentum. The show’s resistance to a more straightforward story makes it a richer and better show, but it also makes it easier for people to disconnect, which I’d argue is why the final seasons of Atlanta were basically shut out of the Emmys and the (white) zeitgeist.
No, it is in no way a coincidence that I am linking two shows that unapologetically foreground their diverse perspectives and voices, in the process disrupting traditional narrative patterns in favor of generic exploration. And I think it’s critical that we acknowledge these shows’ accomplishments, whether in end of year retrospectives, coverage of premieres/finales, or critics awards that actively work against the populist streak that leads to Wednesday earning the eighth nomination slot at the Emmy instead. And yes, writing weekly reviews that reinforce and restate a show’s accomplishments are one tool that critics can and should use where possible, even if I’m settling for “a newsletter mea culpa and an eventual newsletter covering the finale.”
But I do also feel like the way Reservation Dogs is designed consciously—and, in many ways, effectively—pushes against the idea of checking in every week to track its progress. That would have been one thing in the first season when we were still feeling out its rhythms, and each week’s review would be a new discovery. It would have been another in a second season, where you would be responding to the show’s evolution. But what the show evolved into has made the third season a show that I’m very much enjoying, think is great television, and really don’t have a lot to say about beyond that. And while I—as ever—encourage paid subscribers to utilize the Subscriber Chat function in order to discuss the show further if they want to, the fact no one has makes me wonder if I’m not the only one.
Matt Zoller Seitz has a great interview with “Deer Lady” director Danis Goulet where he goes into some of the specifics of diving into the residential school storyline.
In catching up, I did wonder whether Lily Gladstone might have garnered some Emmy attention if her fantastic guest appearance in the second season had converged with her Oscar buzz for Killers of the Flower Moon, but then I remembered they nominated Sarah Niles for literally nothing in Ted Lasso’s final season, and there’s no way they were ever bumping her.
For the record, Paulina Alexis and Lane Factor were very nice, and were attending FX’s TCA press tour day ahead of their acceptance of an AFI Award the next night.
I haven’t been watching a lot else these days, with most of my extra viewing time spent watching some screeners for September to determine what we’ll be covering in the months ahead. I’ll have a more formal fall schedule—and our yearly subscriber push—once HBO decides if it intends to program the months of September and October.