Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The size of your nostalgia threshold will greatly impact the degree of enjoyment siphoned from Netflix’s newest throwback sitcom The Ranch. Unlike the last one, the new Ashton Kutcher-starring series is an original creation in concept, but as backward thinking and redundant as any other of these stuffy, acrid sitcom cliché retreads that crib all of the worst part of 90’s-era shows and drops everything that made them work (i.e. interesting characters, actual jokes) for the most shameful of lazy, negligent humor.
Take for example, the pilot’s most esteemed running gag: when Colt Bennett (Ashton Kutcher) returns home to Garrison, Colorado after a failed football career, he comes trotting into the family’s Iron River Ranch in a pair of Ugg Boots. Visually humorous for a scene or two, without even needing to be mentioned, co-creators Don Reo and Jim Patterson hammer the joke home so repeatedly over the pilot’s 30 minutes that it makes the first impression of this already cantankerous clan aggressively trying. It doesn’t help that, with regard to the first six episodes, it’s probably the show’s best joke.
At least there’s the cast. Kutcher is more than fine in the lovable doofus role, even though his put-upon good-ol’-boy country accent sometimes distracts. He has a built-in rapport with older brother “Rooster” (Danny Masterson), thanks to their years working on That 70’s Show. Masterson largely spends the show flipping between exuberance about his brother’s return and petulantly complaining about being overshadowed after 15 years as the de facto only child. Those tonal shifts befit the script more than the character, so Rooster can be a bit of a mixed bag of comic relief.
The cast is rounded out by Colt and Rooster’s mom Maggie (Debra Winger) and dad Beau (Sam Elliott), who is so ridiculously perfect as the grumbling, grunting tired-of-my-family sitcom dad that he goes a long way toward justifying the mess of a show around him. Elliot has a few good scenes with Kutcher, but The Ranch can’t handle dips into topical seriousness that a sitcom like, say, Mom handles in its sleep.
Winger is the other no-brainer best part of the show, elevating the weakest and most elementary aspects of The Ranch (she runs a bar called Maggie’s where everyone always tends to create and/or resolve problems) with a sincere grit that only someone with a resume like her’s could conjure. Thing is, she’s barely in the show, and her story mostly centers around her on again/off again thing with sort-of ex-husband Beau. They have a relatively believable caustic reaction towards one another, but that dynamic still gets tied down by The Ranch‘s vanilla-plain, dull writing.
And the writing and scripts are essentially the beginning and ending of The Ranch‘s problem. Maybe that’s a good thing – I never did cringe as much as I did during the first half of Fuller House‘s premiere season – but it’s certainly a part of the show that’ll essentially rob it of any potential hit-status that Netflix has successfully generated in shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and (admittedly smaller) Grace & Frankie. Unlike those series, this one is all-too-predictable, navigating viewers through its straight corridors of routine plot with the redundancy of a professional air traffic controller landing a paper airplane.
The Ranch is simply aggressively okay with being aggressively ordinary, and the lilt and lackadaisical cadence of the writing might be thematically appropriate to the ranch hands at the nexus of the show, but it makes any attempts at cutting edge laughable. A set-piece at the center of the pilot revolves around Beau interrupting Colt pre-sex with a younger woman named Heather (Kelli Goss), to help birth a calf. A few scenes later, when Colt stands at the kitchen sink washing his afterbirth-filled arm, he deadpans, “That was not the vagina that I thought I would be in today.”
Not exactly shocking coming from a couple of Two and a Half Men writers, but the raunch never finds a comfortable home in The Ranch. The laugh-track, multi-camera, blatant studio lot aesthetic constantly careens into dialogue as interspersed with F-bombs and scenes with Kutcher’s bare backside as they are with Travis Tritt and Blake Shelton lyrics (if you can’t find the humor in a drunk person crooning “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” while on a tractor, run!) The idea of a Chuck Lorre-style sitcom allowed to “go there,” without the restrictions of CBS’ censors, is surprisingly intriguing throughout the first few minutes of The Ranch, but Reo and Patterson never figure out how to strike a balance: it’s either aw-shucks sentiment or sex-on-a-Winnebago-kitchenette bawdiness, with no middle ground.
When the dialogue is good, there are a few lines worth of good-natured humor, mostly erupting from Abby (the unavoidably reliable Elisha Cuthbert), Colt’s very own version of the one that got away that the show really wants you to think didn’t entirely get away. Like Winger, she’s mostly there to be a speed-bump on the road of the show’s male cast, helping Colt slow back down and remember his roots.
On the other hand, the absolute rock bottom of the already low-brow humor shuts down The Ranch of all endearment for entire episodes. A full sequence at a high school repeatedly pokes fun at Colt’s and Rooster’s sexual interest in Abby’s underage students, which they hurriedly justify by having the guys ask one disgusted girl if she’s a senior.
The Ranch is likewise eager to drag Colt’s metrosexuality through the mud with gleeful abandon, not letting the guy get away with a stray manicure kit or owning a pair of $80 jeans with anything less than sneering cruelty. There’s a sort of justification in that given how single-minded the Bennetts can be – someone jokingly places a Hillary bumper sticker onto Beau’s truck at one point – but the humor isn’t earned because of the feeble writing it’s coming from. It constantly feels like jokes and punchlines came first – mention a guy being on a period, check; make fun of a grown man’s strict shower schedule, check – and then the writers remembered to create characters and stories in attempts to prop the humor up.
The overall idea of the show – to embrace failure and to keep moving forward – is laudable, but like every other novel thing in The Ranch, it’s underpinned by a state of mind more comfortable with belittling and degrading its fleetingly endearing characters than with giving anyone a reason to keep watching. Its straightforwardness is downcast, its humor wearisome; by episode 6 I wasn’t angry anymore when Rooster called Colt his little sister – I was legitimately exhausted.
Like Netflix’s own Flaked before it, The Ranch is a timely reminder of how the proliferation of a genre – here, throwback sitcoms – can eventually lead to a peak of tired, superficial detritus that’s only there to add to the pile before being swept away by the next zeitgeist-harnessing wave. Despite initial potential, The Ranch‘s abundant lethargy and down-home feel don’t make it feel like the head-turning subversion it could have been in today’s attention span-deficit world. It’s not clever, or witty, or trying to be either. It’s just another dirt-level mediocre sitcom about a dysfunctional family that can say “fuck” all it wants.
That might be enough for some, and that’s okay. The Ranch, at the very least, isn’t all-out-appalling. And those who like it will get more sooner than expect: Netflix plans to drop another ten episodes of the show later in the year in a quicker turn-around (and higher episode count) than its other sitcoms. Like Colt slowly begins to learn over the course of the season, there’s undeniable prospectives for The Ranch to amount to more, to mean more, in the future, but not in the ramshackle architectural structure that it’s been built upon in these first few episodes. Is it too late to ask for some renovations?
A good cast attempts to liven things up in The Ranch, but there's no getting around writing and bottom-barrel humor that's this superficial and exhausting.