When Will We Have Justice?

When Will We Have Justice?

One of the most critically acclaimed TV shows of the 2020s has yet to win the industry’s biggest award. What’s going on?
Photo: Shane Brown/FX/Everett Collection

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Reservation Dogs, Sterlin Harjo’s FX comedy series about a quartet of Native teenagers living in Oklahoma, wrapped its third and final season this year, so the 2024 TV awards season marks its last shot at an Emmy. Over its first two critically acclaimed seasons, the show received only one nomination, for Best Sound Editing in 2023. This after TV critics and publications from The Hollywood Reporter to Rolling Stone were hailing Reservation Dogs as revelatory TV, often comparing its superior screenwriting and cinematography to Emmy juggernauts like Succession. Time named it the best show of 2021, the New York Times’ James Poniewozik called it the very best series of 2022, and all three seasons have shown up in Vulture’s rankings of the respective years’ best TV. Its finale was universally beloved, with every outlet from Variety to GQ (and yes, again, Vulture) remarking on how its pitch-perfect ending solidified its spot as one of the best shows in recent TV history.

This is not the first time an acclaimed series has gone unrewarded. Famously, The Wire, the HBO drama about urban crime and the institutions that both combat and perpetuate it, was hailed by some as the best television drama of all time, and all it ever got was two measly Emmy nominations (for writing, in 2005 and 2008). More recently, not even the EGOT-laden charms of Rita Moreno could get voters to support Netflix’s One Day at a Time reboot. The glaring similarity between these shows and Reservation Dogs is the elephant in the room when discussing their Emmy fates: TV shows about Black criminals and cops in Baltimore or a Cuban American family or Native teens on the reservation aren’t able to lure a historically white television academy to vote for them.

There’s also the fact that Reservation Dogs is about young people (which didn’t help shows like Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls) and takes some daring chances with its format and sense of reality (a quality it shares with snubbed shows like Search Party and The Other Two). Whatever has kept voters at arm’s length (and none of the awards strategists or publicists I reached out to agreed to talk on the record about why they think this is), there’s a growing feeling among people who follow and cover the Emmys that Rez Dogs may finally get its moment in its final season. Currently, GoldDerby is giving Reservation Dogs the sixth-best odds to be nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series. Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora Danan on the show and is on the writing staff, is also getting sixth-best odds for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy, while D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai is getting eighth-best odds for Lead Actor. Sixth place in categories that will produce anywhere from five to eight nominees is a precarious place to be, but it solidly puts Reservation Dogs in this year’s Emmy conversation, at least among the pundits. (And this doesn’t take into account the odds for the veteran actors stacked behind the younger cast: This is a show that features Graham Greene, Gary Farmer, Wes Studi, and Zahn McClarnon in the same episodes.)

Is this just wishful thinking, or is there good reason to think this is the year Emmy voters come around as Peabody, Gotham, Indie Spirit, and AFI awards bestowers already have? “I do think sometimes with a series finale, people finally catch up on what they missed beforehand,” says Roxana Hadadi, who has written about Reservation Dogs on Vulture, including this excellent profile of Jacobs. “There’s the sense of, Okay, this thing is over, it’s a complete story, now I will dive in. I think that mentality sucks when it comes to awards voting, to be clear! It is your job to pay better attention! But I could see that some people having pushed the series off and not being that interested are now using its conclusion as an opportunity to dive in.”

There’s also the fact that beyond Emmy dominators like The Bear, Hacks, and Abbott Elementary, the comedy categories aren’t particularly deep this year. Daniel Fienberg, chief TV critic at The Hollywood Reporter, sees some room to maneuver: “If Reservation Dogs stands a chance of getting Emmy nominations this year, it’s probably due less to the incessant proselytizing of critics like me and more to a comedy category decimated by attrition. Five of last year’s eight nominees aren’t eligible, so voters must look elsewhere, and I will say this frankly and pointedly to Emmy voters: You cannot find five additional shows to nominate along with The Bear, Abbott Elementary and Only Murders in the Building that are better than Reservation Dogs. You can’t find one. But if you try, you’re going to hasten the total delegitimizing of the Emmy Awards and the TV Academy.”

I’m hearing Reservation Dogs will submit “Deer Lady” as a standout moment for writing and will push the finale, among other episodes, in the directing category. Aside from Outstanding Comedy Series — which, being that it will likely run seven or eight nominees deep, is probably the most fertile ground on the ballot — the category that stands the best shot at a Rez Dogs nomination is actually Guest Actor in a Comedy. Though that way lies an awfully big hornets’ nest (more on that later in this column’s run). Ethan Hawke’s surprise appearance in the series’ penultimate episode as Elora’s father was the culmination of Hawke being a fan of the show (he presented the series its Peabody Award in 2022) and his working relationship with series co-creator Harjo. Hawke’s performance, in particular his interplay with Jacobs (who wrote the episode), was masterfully heartfelt and understated. He’s hugely worthy of a Guest Actor nomination.

But if a Hawke guest-actor nomination is the only one Reservation Dogs gets, the optics of Emmy voters funneling all their approval to the show’s one famous white male would be pretty damning. “I absolutely hate that I am even considering that he’s the reason people finally recognize this show’s greatness,” Hadadi tells me. “But I am alive and have eyes and know how voting bodies tend to work, so.”

Since TV critics have been so consistently on the ball when it comes to clocking Reservation Dogs’s greatness over the years, I figured I’d hand the reins over to two of the best ones — Rolling Stone’s chief TV critic, Alan Sepinwall, and Vulture’s own Kathryn VanArendonk — to tackle the question of just why this show has yet to capture the Emmys’ attention, and what reasons we might have to hope this year will be different.

Kathryn VanArendonk: I would love for it to be more complicated than “This show is not made by white guys, about white guys” — and I do think there’s more than one angle to it! — but that does definitely feel like a huge component of what’s happened with this show and Emmy voters. Reservation Dogs is not more or less or even all that differently tonally blended than a show like The Bear or Barry. It’s not operating in a brand-new formal language that makes it challenging or confusing to watch. Its politics are prominent but not in a Hollywood-unfriendly way, I think? So then you’re left with: The Bear and Barry are about sad white dudes, and Reservation Dogs … is not.

Alan Sepinwall: Yeah, I’m afraid that’s the biggest stumbling block. You can’t say it’s because the Emmys have a spotty track record with FX shows, what with The Bear’s dominance. Nor can you say it’s because it’s a genre mishmash.

If we’re being generous to Emmy voters, we could maybe make the argument that the tone of Rez Dogs is a bit more elusive, especially at the start of the series. So if a voter were to pay attention to the rave reviews by the likes of you and me and start from the beginning, they might wonder what the fuss is about and stop before they get to it becoming the all-time great show we’re talking about. But The Bear wasn’t really The Bear until about halfway through its first season, and now it’s a juggernaut so we’re back to square one.

Kathryn, would you agree that the most likely and/or hilarious outcome is that the show gets its second — after a Sound Editing nom last year — and final Emmy nomination this year for Ethan Hawke’s admittedly wonderful guest performance in the penultimate episode?

K.V.A.: That feels one million percent like the most likely scenario here, and do not get me wrong — I love that performance, I love that episode. When I opened that screener and realized it would be him, I clapped my hands in delight. But there’s something, as you suggest, not just hilarious but utterly infuriating about that probability. Am I so mad at it that I don’t want it to happen? No, I guess not? Please, though, Emmys — don’t do it this way.

That does launch me into a question of what I’d actually do with an Emmys FYC budget for this show, whom I would pick to prioritize and what seems like it could actually have a chance. Devery Jacobs feels like the best and most likely non-Hawke option … but maybe no?

A.S.: Oh, it’s Devery, for sure. I love all four of those actors, plus plenty more, which we’ll get back to, but if you look at awards nominations as things that tell a story, then Devery is the best and most easily conveyed part of the Rez Dogs story. She grounded the lead ensemble while the other three were learning on the job. Sterlin Harjo recognized that she was a great resource to have in the writers’ room and eventually trusted her enough to put her behind the camera. She’s also extremely polished and charming in interviews, and she’s the one who wrote the Ethan Hawke episode. If you push them together, there’s a chance of a rising tide lifting all boats? I have no problem with Hawke getting nominated; again, he’s wonderful. But only if other performers from the show also get nominated. I would also be okay with the Comedy Guest Actor category featuring some combo of him, Graham Greene, Wes Studi, and Gary Farmer.

But since Devery is such an obvious choice, what is another performance, episode, or aspect of the show that you’re holding out hope will get a nomination?

K.V.A.: There are so many little roles I wish could get recognized! I will just forever feel like Dallas Goldtooth is doing something sneakily quite hard and very vital to what makes this show work, for instance. The same goes for Jana Schmieding, who became one of those people who made every single frame of this show even better than it was already going to be. What I would most like to do, though, is completely impossible: I would go back in time and give an Emmy both for writing and direction to season two’s “Mabel,” which is one of those episodes of TV that make you rethink how great the entire form can be. What about you? Please say Lane Factor. There are too many great performances!!

A.S.: I want to say Lane Factor, both to please you and because I adore Lane as Cheese. But as you say, there are too many great performances, so I’ll go in a different direction and pick Blackhorse Lowe for directing “House of Bongs.” That is just an impossible, impossible episode of television. It features none of the regular actors. It has younger versions of lots of minor characters, several of them introduced in ways that make their contemporary identities all but indecipherable to even the most expert viewer. It’s set almost 50 years ago in a part of the reservation that looks completely different from the one we usually see. It’s built around a conflict between two characters that never gets fully articulated. Barely anything happens until an alien — sorry, until a star person — appears at the very end. For that matter, it’s a hangout episode that concludes with a close encounter of the Rez Dogs kind! None of this should work, yet Lowe has complete command of the tone. He gets performances out of these new actors that totally evoke what Farmer, Studi, and the others have been doing as the older characters. And when the star person shows up, it just fits alongside everything else. I watched that episode and immediately wanted a spinoff about these mid-’70s kids.

So let’s get back to The Bear. Much has been written, including at your fine publication, about the idea of this dark, panic-attack-inducing show being categorized as a comedy entirely because it’s a half-hour long and occasionally has moments that are meant to be funny. Emmy categorization in general is a mess by now, but that one more than most. In a magical world where we expect a dozen or more Reservation Dogs nominations, where would you prefer them to be: comedy or drama?

K.V.A.: I think that this show should get nominated for Best Comedy and that it has more of a place there than a lot of the other iffy “but it’s so sad” half-hours that’ve been successful in that zone in the past few years. Yes, Rez Dogs is also sometimes “so sad.” Yes, it is a show about a lot of dark and sometimes overwhelmingly intense emotions, and it occasionally flirts with scary moments or supernatural elements, like the Deer Lady, that could scoot it into other territory. Its baseline, though, is comedy, and it’s more often that than it is anything else. When it grapples with grief and anger, it is perpetually filtering those through its own understated, very dry sense of humor. It can be beautifully silly. This season’s “Send It” shows a heist to spring an elder Rez Dog from a hospital with all the shenanigans and misfires that entails. Heck, the important backstory episode you’ve just pointed to ends in a star person arriving. It’s a comedy, right?!

A.S.: Oh, it’s absolutely a comedy. Even the Deer Lady episode has a very funny framing device involving her love of pie. The finale is about a funeral, yet it is full of great bits of comic business, like Big putting his favorite book in the casket, followed by the very next mourner stealing it to read at home. Speaking of Big, can I go somewhat off the board here and wish for a Zahn McClarnon double nomination: one for this show in comedy, one for drama acting for his incredible work on Dark Winds? And while Goldtooth’s William Knifeman isn’t the show’s most narratively important character, I might argue he’s the most tonally important. His presence as a parody of a wise old Native warrior spirit tells you early and often that Reservation Dogs is going to be irreverent and that it’s going to take every chance it gets to make you question all of your pop-cultural assumptions about Native stories. This is a show that gave me the feels a whole lot, and it was spectacular at that — wait! Wait! I just remembered another wish list item: Lily freaking Gladstone for guest actress for her chill-inducing finale cameo — but it was also fundamentally a comedy, and even the sad material felt comedy adjacent. Whereas The Bear is much more in that Breaking Bad vein of being intensely dramatic but with funny elements.

Honestly, the solution is just to move The Bear over to drama and allow two of the best shows of this decade to have enormous Emmy nights, right? When you wish upon a star person, anything can happen.

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