2021 Was A Historic Year For Indigenous Television – Here’s What You Might Have Missed
It shouldn't come as a shock that the first storytellers made some of the deadliest television in 2021.
There are a lot of things we’d like to leave in 2021, but mainstream TV finally beginning to fully embrace Indigenous stories sure isn’t one of them.
2021 had its up and downs when it came to TV. The pandemic both revitalised the industry and congested it, with streaming series higher than ever but productions stilted due to COVID. But Indigenous representation on television, both in so-called Australia and overseas has had a year that could only be described as fully and historically deadly.
Here’s what you might have missed.
The groundbreaking year kicked off on Turtle Island, otherwise known as the USA. Navajo writer Sierra Teller Ornelas became the first Native American creator of a television comedy. Currently streaming on Stan, Ornelas co-created the sitcom with legendary Brooklyn 99 creator Mike Schur.
Rutherford Falls follows lifelong best friends Nathan (Ed Helms) and Reagan (Mniconjou and Sicangu Lakota woman Jana Schmieding), and the rift that grows between them when a historic statue of Nathan’s colonising ancestor is scheduled for demolition. Reagan tries to juggle her loyalties to her best friend and to her tribe, the Minishonka Nation, but the centuries-old tension between the people of Rutherford and the Minishonka begin to reveal everyone’s true colours.
Small town sitcoms are a rarity these days. Once a staple of TV, they eventually gave way to the workplace sitcoms of the 2000s, which favoured big city settings. But Rutherford Falls revives the genre with cutting Native-centred perspectives and humour. No longer relegated comic relief caricatures, Rutherford Falls centres an Indigenous cast and a distinctively Indigenous sense of humour that’s rooted in the absurd ruthlessness of surviving colonialism.
Produced by Te Whānau-ā-Apanui director Taika Waititi and Seminole Muscogee director Sterlin Harjo, teen dramedy Reservation Dogs is the first TV series in so-called America’s history to have an almost entirely Indigenous cast and crew. Set on a Native reservation in rural Oklahoma, teenagers Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Elora (Devery Jacobs) are so determined to get the hell of the rez and out to LA that they’ve started committing petty heists for cash.
Their drive to get to California is spurred by the grief of their fallen comrade, Daniel, whose death casts an immovable shadow over their excitement to get to LA. As Bear says, “We’re saving our money so we can leave this dump before it kills us, too.” It may seem a bleak set of circumstances, but Waititi and Harjo find Reservation Dogs‘ comedic irony in the strength of the reservation’s community and its people.
That community includes endearing figures like Uncle Brownie, Elora’s uncle and renowned shut-in who gets his kicks smoking 15-year-old weed. He’s not your stereotypical on-screen Native elder and that’s the point. When the gang hear Uncle Brownie once took down 30 guys in one night, they ask him for advice on fighting a rival gang. Uncle Brownie agrees to help on the condition the kids help him sell his 15-year-old stash on the streets and chaos ensues.
If you’re looking to laugh, cry and decolonise your binge-viewing, Reservation Dogs is streaming on Binge
Back on home soil, we were treated to the two-hand tour-de-force that is Season 2 of Total Control. Co-starring Bidjara Ngati Porou, Te Arawa screen legend Deborah Mailman alongside fellow legend Rachel Griffiths, Total Control is a homegrown political drama to rival the greats. After Alex Irving (Deborah Mailman) draws media attention for her heroic actions in a shooting, cunning Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) recruits her to the senate. As you can imagine, a Blak woman in parliament is far from an uncomplicated scenario.
After almost two years, the wait for the resolution to the first season’s cliffhanger was over. Despite a global pandemic between seasons, Total Control lost no momentum, steaming ahead into a gutsy second season that takes a hard unflinching look at exactly how hard it is for women and Blakfellas alike on election campaigns, as Rachel and Alex run as Independents in the hopes of getting back into parliament on their terms.
Unforgettable as always, and a sheer privilege to see two homegrown legends sharing the screen, all episodes of Total Control are streaming on ABC iview.
Also on ABC iview is Preppers. Created by Gamilaroi Torres Strait Islander playwright and author Nakkiah Lui with her husband Gabriel Dowrick, Preppers is one of the cleverest and most chaotic comedies of the year. In the six-part series, young Indigenous TV presenter, Charlie (Lui), returns to her nan’s land to find it occupied by hapless doomsday preppers, and decides to stay with them to avoid facing the shame of her cancellation back in the real world.
The deadly cast also includes Uncle Jack Charles as the cheeky wizened leader, Meyne Wyatt — who you might remember from his spine-chilling monologue on Q&A earlier this year — as a wannabe Blak Bear Grills, and Aaron McGrath. Together, they make up the shambling prepping community of Eden 2. Grant Denyer also stars as a chaotically evil version of himself as Charlie’s producer, slimy boss, and fiancé.
Doomsday prepping might seem an odd situation to explore all at once themes of being cancelled, environmental colonialism, landback, and the hostility of popular media toward Blakfellas. But Lui and her incredible crew make it seem like the obvious choice. Even in the most absurd situations, Lui and Dowrick’s scripts continuously allow pain, comedy, and pithy observation to build a deliciously clever comedic allegory for modern Australian colonialism.
Last but certainly in no way the least important is Firebite. Premiering last week on AMC in the US and streaming on Amazon Prime here at home, Firebite introduces Blakfella father-daughter vampire hunting duo Tyson (Rob Collins) and Shanika (Shantae Barnes-Cowan). Co-created, written, and directed by Warwick Thornton and Brendan Fletcher, the series reimagines so-called Australia’s invasion and colonisation as one committed by vampires.
The series subverts this continent’s known colonial history, replacing the European coloniser’s spreading of smallpox with vampires who became addicted to Blakfella blood — a war between bloodsuckers and trained blood hunters has raged ever since. The series nails an eerily distinctive gothic tone reminiscent of Thorton’s Sweet Country, with a dystopic edge. It’s safe to say there’s never been a production quite like it, and certainly not one that has Blakfellas front and centre on an international stage
These series are not just created by Indigenous peoples for settlers to think about their place — they’re for Indigenous folks who are processing the grief and glory of survival on stolen land in 2021. It’s TV that reminds settlers the land was never lonely and Indigenous peoples that they are not alone. An Indigenous TV renaissance is long overdue, and it should come as a shock to no one that peoples from the world’s oldest cultures, the first storytellers, made some of the deadliest television in 2021.