Take a passing glance or random sample of The Ranch and you might mistake it for a conventional broadcast network sitcom. It’s a multi-camera production, shot on a blatantly artificial set with a studio audience or a laugh track pretending to be one. Most of the comedy is middling and familiar; you can guess the punchlines before they land. (“We don’t fight, Beau. I bring something up, you shut me down, and that’s the end of discussion.” “That’s not true. [Pause. Wait for it…] End of discussion.”) The face of the franchise is Ashton Kutcher, a star who’s graduated from young adult edge (That ‘70s Show) to pan-demo mainstream (Two and a Half Men). The showrunners are Don Reo and Jim Patterson, also vets of Two and a Half Men. The credits say Netflix. Almost everything else screams CBS.
But almost. There’s no adorably quirky suburban family or upwardly mobile urban singles looking for love on The Ranch, only hardscrabble “just folks” who steer cattle all day and drink a lot of Budweiser deep into the night. No Blue State liberal worldview, either; the state of mind on The Ranch is a soft, sunset red. There’s some genuine edge, too, and not just because the lines are dirty with F-bombs and randy innuendo. The Ranch is admirably interested in ragged people grappling with shattered dreams and broken relationships. (If it did/could air on CBS, it would make a nice companion piece to Mom, Chuck Lorre’s very fine sitcom about mother-daughter recovering addicts.) Scenes run longer than the usual sitcom, not to milk jokes, but to find the emotion. Episodes run a few minutes longer, too, in service of resonant stories. (Netflix shows often veer flabby, but you don’t feel the fat here.) The Ranch is far from great. It takes time for its blend of broadcast and premium service sitcom sensibilities to gel (or for us to decide to just roll with it), and the laughs just aren’t good enough. But it ropes you with its peculiarities and fantastic cast and keeps you by making you care about the characters.
Kutcher is Colt Bennett, once a high school golden boy, now a peripatetic wastrel. He has rough history and tense rapport with his salty, judgy father, Beau (Sam Elliott), so neither of them are too happy when Colt has nowhere to go but home (again) after washing out (again) at semi-pro football. It’s “The Prodigal Son,” minus the all-forgiving paterfamilias and the dutiful older sibling, at least to start. In fact, in the beginning, big bro Rooster (Danny Masterson), who is responsible but is also a sleazy sloth, digs Colt’s return; it gives him a party buddy and takes him out of his dad’s crosshairs. The early episodes focus on Colt struggling to humble himself and earn his way back into the family’s graces, and the best scenes let Elliott and Kutcher play out the bitterness and fears; they’re both very good. Masterson is initially used mostly as comic relief, always good (or bad) with a tension-breaking quip whenever things get too dramatic. But he begins to develop into his own man with his own Colt-ish resentments and personal mess around episode 4. By mid-season, The Ranch evolves into a solid sitcom about three stuck-in-the-mud men moving toward and against each other as they fumble to shift gears in life.
Most of that flailing involves the Bennett men’s relationships with women. They may seem functionary — agents of redemption for the men; trophies for man-child maturation — but stick with them and they might surprise you. Debra Winger (always welcome, in any medium) is Maggie, mom to Colt and Rooster and Beau’s wife in name only. She and Beau occasionally share a bed but they don’t share a home, and the show slowly doles out the explanations. She runs the local bar (the boys drink for free), and she’s always good for some grace and sage advice, but don’t assume you know everything about her, especially as she and Beau begin working toward some formal reconciliation.
Less surprising is Colt’s love life. He spends most of these 10 episodes fooling around with a younger woman, Heather (Kelli Goss), while pining after an ex-girlfriend, Abby (Elisha Cuthbert), a high school teacher in a serious-yet-zero-chemistry relationship with dweeby Kenny (Bret Harrison), a proud middle manager in the Marriott organization. The love triangle proceeds exactly as you would expect, and Cuthbert (late of Happy Endings) and Harrison (late of Reaper and Breaking In) deserve much better than these cliché supporting roles. But kudos to The Ranch for assiduously developing Heather from pretty joke to decently fleshed-out character over the course of the season. Rooster gets a significant other, too. I won’t spoil her identity, but it could wind up being the most interesting relationship on the show.
The Ranch gives us a place unlike any other in the realm of studio-based, multi-cam sitcom. Yes, the set is blatantly artificial, but it’s meticulously dressed and smartly lit and engages the imagination. When a truck idles to a stop next to the front porch, I’m envisioning the long dirt road it traveled to get there, not the stage hands who probably pushed it into frame before sprinting back to the wings of the soundstage. But The Ranch could use more realism all the same. It’s Red State rural in the most generic, mass market, and not-provocative of ways. Beau isn’t a fan of President Obama, but he’s unlike any Heartland conservative I know; the past several elections, he’s written in Ronald Reagan’s name. The Ranch is country authentic the way The Big Bang Theory is geek authentic — all pop culture name-checking and well-dressed caricatures. The more true grit it can get into this Cracker Barrel, the better. An early episode has Colt processing issues with Beau while reaching into a heifer and pulling out a calf; it’s messy, poignant, and funny all at once.
Still: I’ll watch more. I want to know where Beau and Maggie will land. The early episodes suggest a series arc, with Colt finding new identity and dealing with self-destructive tendencies; the thread gets lost as the love triangle takes over, but it’s still there, and it could be winning. I also think The Ranch represents something worth nurturing and replicating. I watched The Ranch under the influence of Willa Paskin’s wise review of another Netflix offering, Flaked, in which she explored the poor abundance of so-called “prestige” comedies that take the damage of their male anti-hero protagonist much too seriously, sabotaging the laughs and everything else. The Ranch rebuts that trend. You can easily see the cable-cool treatment of this material — single camera, shot on location, unsentimental to a pretentious, unfunny fault. The old school multi-cam format may not be the way forward. Simply stretching sitcom banality until it becomes pathos and spiking it with swears and raunch certainly isn’t enough. Mediocre is mediocre, whether the format is conventional or unconventional, or, like The Ranch, a measured mingling of both. But today, it’s a refreshing change of pace that offers some modest but meaningful rewards. Maybe tomorrow, it’ll offer even more. B-