When Sterlin Harjo sold “Reservation Dogs” to FX, he didn’t quite know what a showrunner was. “I remember calling a showrunner friend of mine and asking, ‘Am I supposed to be like holding meetings?’ There’s no template. It’s not laid out for you. Really, I was just going off instinct.”
But Harjo soon realized that running his own show was a lot like what he’d been doing for years in independent film. Harjo was a regular fixture at the Sundance Film Festival, where his short “Goodnight Irene” premiered in 2005. That led to his first feature, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” which debuted at Sundance in 2007, followed by “Barking Water.” From there, Harjo directed the documentary “This May Be the Last Time,” which tells the story of the disappearance of his grandfather.
Harjo also worked a bit in TV, including directing an episode of “The Magicians.” But “Reservation Dogs,” which he created with Taika Waititi, was a tremendous new challenge at first for the small-screen newcomer. “I think you have this dream of, ‘I’m finally out of independent film, I’m not going to suffer anymore, I have all this budget and this help!’ But really, being a showrunner is pretty much just like making micro budget indie films, because you kind of have your hand over everything. And a lot of decisions go through you. Being an independent filmmaker, writer and director really trained me for that.”
The reward, of course, has been the nearly universal acclaim for “Reservation Dogs,” including one of the TV programs of the year at the 2022 AFI Awards, as well as a Peabody, a Gotham Award and two Independent Spirit Awards. Now, Harjo will be honored with the inaugural Variety Showrunner Award at the annual SCAD TVfest, set for Feb. 9-11 in Atlanta.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the premise and cast of “Reservation Dogs,” which tells the story of a group of Native kids living on an Oklahoma reservation. The first two seasons followed the crew grieving over the death of their best friend and vowing to follow through on his dream of traveling to California.
It’s a goal that is fulfilled at the end of Season 2, which spent several episodes focusing on the individual stories of the characters.
“I think people were expecting them to go to California at some point,” Harjo says. “The way we were able to surprise people was to have it happen at the end of Season 2. … We’re not going to dilly-dally in California for too long. We have business to attend to back home. It’s a similar approach to Season 3, which is, ‘How do I make this feel like you’re not predicting where this is going?’ And honestly, I think that tonally, there’s some darkness coming.”
But Harjo says not to worry — “Reservation Dogs” remains a comedy, and a show that aims to tell the rarely seen, yet truly relatable story of the Native community.
“We were up against this thing that felt very monumental to us as far as the Native writers and Indigenous filmmakers that were behind this, it had never been done. Just telling the truth about who we are, and show our communities for what it is, with all of its beauty and blemishes,” he says.
“The things that were strikes against me in feature film, which was having Native lead actors, the stories that I wanted to tell were with Native people, and they would politely tell you that there are no Native lead actors that can sell movies. And then TV’s like, ‘We don’t care about that.’ I wanted to make a show that was very culturally specific, but could resonate with the world and have very universal themes. I think that’s the best of storytelling when you can kind of hit that mark. I had an opportunity to do that.”