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Home on the Range

‘The Ranch’ is a new kind of sitcom, made by old pros

Jungyeon Roh
Jungyeon Roh

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

I still remember the feeling. It was late 2003 — a cold night in Brooklyn, but I was sweating, running down a street, on a mission. Failure was not an option. If I didn’t come home with the goods, I might as well not come home at all. It was a big borough, a big city. Somewhere, there was a video store — one — that had the last disc of the first season of 24 in stock.

Oh, how we used to degrade ourselves in the days before streaming television. Back then, we rented what we watched, and prayed the discs weren’t scratched. What could we do? TV had us right where it wanted us. Those early days of the binge-watch were fueled by the cliff-hanger. I mean that both in the “what happens next!?” sense, but also in the “Jack Bauer is definitely hanging this dude over the edge of the cliff, and there’s a 70–30 chance he drops him into a canyon full of mountain lions, regardless of whether he gets the information he needs. … Wait, where’s Kim?” sense. Throughout the ’00s, shows like Lost, Heroes, Dexter, and 24 (and later Homeland and Game of Thrones) played on an audience’s need for closure by never giving them any, ripping open new holes at the end of every episode. It was like The Panic in Needle Park, only with “next time on …” previews instead of smack. The thing I remember most about those crazy days? The faces of the survivors: people stumbling into offices, bags under their eyes, nerves frayed.

“What happened to you?”

“We started watching Breaking Bad last night, and the next thing I knew the sun was coming up.”

They just needed to know what happened next.

Like any drug, it got harder and harder to maintain the binge-watching high. Whether it was Jack Bauer’s Season 3 heroin addiction, or Shonda Rhimes entirely cracking the OMGTV code with Scandal, I stopped getting in a twist over plot twists. But just because I weaned myself off cliff-hangers didn’t mean I quit binging altogether. And that’s why I found myself at home one day this past spring, watching Elisha Cuthbert, some 13 years after I first saw her in 24, for five hours straight.

The Ranch debuted on Netflix this April to mixed reviews and raised eyebrows. The first 10 episodes of the first season dropped all at once, with a second batch coming on October 7. Chronicling the ups and downs of the Bennett family, a blue-collar brood running a Colorado ranch, the series stars Ashton Kutcher as Colt (I know), a failed quarterback prospect and small-town hero, who moves back after his luck and money run out. Danny Masterson, Kutcher’s costar on the long-running That ’70s Show, plays his brother, Rooster (I know). The two work somewhat hard and play much harder, toiling away for their father on the Iron River Ranch during the day, and drinking for free at their mother’s bar at night. Sam Elliott and Debra Winger star as their separated-but-still-involved parents, and Cuthbert appears as Bennett’s old flame.

What notoriety The Ranch did garner around the time of its release came from the promo work of Kutcher, one of the show’s executive producers, along with creators Don Reo and Jim Patterson. Kutcher told Entertainment Weekly, “I wasn’t interested in just doing another pat sitcom. I was interested in doing something that was irreverent, not only tonally but also just irreverent to the medium in general, because it’s a medium that people love, but it really hasn’t changed in for however long.” The Ranch was aiming to “disrupt the sitcom.” So: It’s an (approximately) 30-minute sitcom, shot in front of an audience, on a soundstage, but the characters swear, the music is, for the most part, diegetic, and with no commercial breaks the scenes bleed from one to another. And as an antidote to the coastal-elite sensibilities of most scripted TV, The Ranch would be geared toward small-town America: “It’s conservative. It’s the red states,” Kutcher said. “It’s God and country and ‘Merica, and we felt like that was the audience that we could speak to, where most shows would make fun of that audience. We are that audience, and so we embraced it, and it is the culture of our characters.”

Sight unseen, a Red States Matter sitcom that smirks through dropped F-bombs is a hard pass for me. But the power of the platform compelled me: In an act I would repeat a few months later with Stranger Things, I started The Ranch for a simple reason. I turned on Netflix, and it was right there in front of me.

For all the talk about the edgy, red-state humor, the show isn’t angry or hateful, essentially so. There are references to Florida Georgia Line and Billy Ray Cyrus; Sam Elliott’s Beau Burnett doesn’t care for Obama, and doesn’t want anyone to tell him what he can and can’t do; there are jokes about women’s chests, characters giving each other herpes, and Colt wearing Uggs. Maybe that sounds fine (or better than fine) to you, in which case, go forth and stream. But if it doesn’t, let me make a pitch.

The Ranch has way more in common with Atlanta and Horace and Pete than it does with Two and a Half Men (which Kutcher also starred in for a spell). It is largely uninterested in The One Where This Happens sitcom structure, instead taking full advantage of the 10-episode block as a storytelling device, doing away with A-plot, B-plot rigidity. Colt comes home full of piss and vinegar, learns to work and eventually love the ranch, falls back in love with his ex, and helps family through an emotionally and financially dire winter. The Ranch’s elevator pitch was conservative values with blue language, but the show’s theme is universal: Not having money in America is really hard.

There’s just enough drama — will the Bennetts make it through the winter; will-they-or-won’t-they plots with Sam Elliott and Debra Winger, and Kutcher and Cuthbert — to compel you to continue. But the real draw is how lived-in the show feels. The sets have incredibly detailed dressing, and the acting is naturalistic, especially as the season gets its legs and the show finds its voice. It feels more like a play than a sitcom. Despite the audience, the performers never play to the crowd for winking LOLs; they’re present, because they’re playing in a world where something sad can happen right after something funny.

In traditional sitcoms, characters are fixed — the cool guy, the weirdo, the hot girl, the neurotic, the I’m Too Old For This Shit dad. Characters on The Ranch change; they do things out of character — Winger’s matriarch, especially — just like real people.

That’s what makes The Ranch interesting. What makes it addictively watchable is the invisible professionalism of almost everyone involved. Roast Kutcher for investing more than $2 million in an Uber for laundry, but this guy knows how to hit a mark and land a joke. After 184 episodes of That ’70s Show, and 85 appearances on Two and a Half Men, he knows what he’s doing. The Ranch’s writers are old hands, too. Don Reo created Blossom and The John Larroquette Show, and wrote for M.A.S.H. and Golden Girls. It may feel traditional at times, but it’s nice to watch a comedy that doesn’t go out of its way to put its characters in the most cringeworthy scenarios possible. Everything flows here. You may see the joke coming from the beginning of a scene, but there is a certain comfort to the delivery that fits with the laconic atmosphere of the show. The Ranch looks like it’s not trying too hard, but it’s actually working its ass off.

That comfort is why you watch, and then it’s why you watch another, and another, and another. If 24 was like slamming adrenaline into your veins, The Ranch is a slow drip of gauzy painkiller. It can be as surprising as anything that happened on 24. Just with less torture.