THE RANCH is an original Netflix series that is groundbreaking in two regards: a) it is deceptively formatted as a traditional multi-camera 30-minute sit-com, shot on a soundstage, using the same sets every week, and employs a traditional laugh track as punctuation; but b) it is written, directed and performed as an adult comedy, using language and situations you will never see on the major broadcast networks. And in merging those two disparate formats, THE RANCH heralds a new form of television comedy – one that has been awaited since M*A*S*H invented the dramedy.
The actual stars are Sam Elliott, who plays a conservative, bone weary rancher and Debra Winger, who plays his wife of 40 years who owns the only bar in town, also bone weary – but mostly of being stuck in a small town with a husband from whom she is growing apart, despite their deep and abiding love for each other. It isn't that love has escaped them, but rather they've been beaten down by life's continuing erosion of the spirit and optimism it held for them when they came together. You kinda get the idea that what they really need isn’t a divorce, so much as the ability to date other people so they’ll have new stories to tell each other.
The name star that sold the series is Ashton Kutcher, an actor in the weight class of Pauly Shore and Pia Zadora. Actually, I have nothing against him except for the tiny detail that he’s not an actor; like Charlie Sheen, his roles are repetitive and bland and totally without the spicy snap of vanilla ice cream. Kutcher plays the son of Elliott and Winger; a failed semi-pro football player he returns to the ranch to re-think his life and future.
The hidden genius of this series is that it really isn’t about Kutcher’s character, nor the characters of the women (two) he dates, or his brother’s on-going crusade to live up to Kutcher’s reputation as a cocksman and minor celebrity. The genius of the series is that it’s not a comedy so much as a tragedy tarted up as comedy: the throughline upon which everything turns is the failing marriage of Beau (Elliott) and Maggie (Winger) and the fall-out wrought upon the family.
The writing is exceptionally good when you consider they are breaking ground by combing two formats everyone knows has never gone together: the broadcast sit-com where the worst word ever muttered is “freaking” and an actual adult storyline with the language adults use.
And while this IS a Hollywood production – which is code for the women are hot and the men cut and buff – it is not an unbelievable Hollywood production like Rizzoli & Isles where the women are hot and wear 5” Jimmy Choos to a bloody homicide scene. The supporting cast is seasoned and speak the language of a ranch town. And if you want to expand your horizon of what an adult sit-com could be, you haven’t lived until you hear Debra Winger shout “fuck” in complete exasperation.
And that, in a nutshell, is what makes this groundbreaking and worth wasting some time on. Not the language so much but rather the fact the show illustrates real life by punctuating its storylines with the language of anger, rage and frustration, and does not shy away from the adult topics of love, sex and commitment.
THE RANCH will not be everyone’s cup of tea. You may find your expectations of what kind of situations and language accompany a laugh track are jarred up by this adult combination. And you may find the humor banal and repetitive. But give it a couple of shows and see what you think after you get used to the format. One thing you won’t expect are the storylines: in a recent one, Kutcher’s character (Colt) and his girlfriend (Heather) are at a hospital so she can get an abortion; they talk themselves out of it and decide to have the child – not your usual Hollywood ending!
It just concluded its third season and has been renewed for its fourth, due out in December. Because Netflix is a streamer, don’t assume THE RANCH has been out three years; it debuted in 2016 with 10 episode seasons, which Netflix calls “parts” for some reason.
The melding of formats alone is worth your time. My guess is, however, that THE RANCH is going to be around for as long as the present actors want to be involved – it’s that different. And it will take everybody else a while to hold hands and convince themselves the paradigm has changed again.
Everyone wants to swim, but nobody wants to be the first to jump into the pool!