'The Ranch': TV Review

The Ranch S01E02 Still - H 2016
Greg Gayne/Netflix

The Ranch S01E02 Still - H 2016

Easy to overlook, but don't.

Ashton Kutcher, Sam Elliott and Debra Winger shine when Netflix's multicam sitcom about a Colorado ranching family gets serious.

While "showy" and "attention-grabbing" are the watchwords of Netflix's mission, the streaming giant's new comedy The Ranch may be designed to be overlooked, or at least underestimated.

A multicamera sitcom created by a pair of Two and a Half Men veterans (Don Reo and Jim Patterson) and driven by a reunion of That '70s Show stars (Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson) is an invitation for derision if you're glib or dismissal if you're just too busy to pay attention. Those who take either approach will be missing something surprising in The Ranch, which turns out to be unexpectedly sensitive, well-acted and formally adventurous, in addition to often being broadly funny.

The Ranch features Kutcher as Colt, a former high school football sensation nearing the end of a mostly disappointing semi-pro career. Plagued by physical impediments and the stench of disappointment, Colt returns to the Colorado family ranch he abandoned 15 years earlier. No longer a hero, he's greeted with skepticism by his father Beau (Sam Elliott) and mockery by his brother Rooster (Danny Masterson), who have struggled to keep the ranch going, and loving tolerance by his mother Maggie (Debra Winger), who runs a local watering hole, lives in a trailer and still sneaks over for quickies with her not-quite-ex. Colt's hometown return includes reconnecting with the high school flame he left behind (Elisha Cuthbert's Abby) and coming to terms with his failures and his future.

You come into The Ranch with quick assumptions and some early punchlines impugning Colt's masculinity due to his love of Uggs seem to confirm, but it quickly emerges that an unexpected set of elements are coming together here.

The Ranch has a somewhat typical 20-minute network comedy as its foundation. It's initially odd and disarming to hear the frequent four-letter words allowed by Netflix, but other than a brief and random glimpse of Kutcher's rear, the content barriers aren't being pushed very far. Most of the sex talk is still driven by double-entendres and the audience is generally amused, but rarely at a grating volume, by pop culture references, gruff-and-dismissive father figures, animal bodily functions and statutory rape jokes that aren't all that funny, but generally tend to be directed mockingly at the arrested development of Colt and Rooster. It's not always hilarious, but there's no denying Kutcher and Masterson's trained proficiency with the format, Elliott's absolute mastery of a withering put-down or Winger's relaxed bemusement with the men in her life. The Ranch also finds respectful humor in the economic difficulties and political variations in this world.

Even calling this part of the show "somewhat typical" might be underselling what Reo, Patterson and director David Trainer are attempting. The show's look is an unusual artificial naturalism that plays off what you normally get from multicam comedies. Rarely overlit and stagnant, The Ranch embraces a staged darkness, whether in Maggie's bar or the intriguingly expansive space between Beau's porch and the spread of the ranch. With the audience holding laughter to a respectable volume, The Ranch layers in a sound design that's also immersive beyond the format's normal standards, ranging from the country songs woven throughout or the rural Foley work. These are things most viewers will just process as "strange," but they're the foundation for what makes this series truly interesting.

If Netflix's comedies haven't always justified their padded running times, The Ranch uses that extra room to breath. Episodes go 30-ish minutes and the additional material tends to leave punchlines behind in favor of emotional interactions that ring consistently true. In comedic mode, this isn't an especially interesting character for Kutcher, but I don't know if he's ever done better dramatic work than the glimpses he gives into Colt's insecurities and his own role in his shattered aspirations. Elliott digs deep enough to let us see how Beau's stubbornness is both a way of life and a defense mechanism, and there are unfolding, joke-free scenes with Elliott and Winger that make this into one of the relatable spousal relationships you'll see on TV. Those bonus minutes let Masterson's Rooster go from the cast's perhaps-too-sitcom-y weak link in the early episodes to a much less creepy asset by the end of the first run of 10 episodes sent to critics. Not being beholden to the rigor of gags and setups allows the writers and co-star Kelli Goss to turn Colt's waitress love interest Heather from the jiggly butt of initial jokes into a character with spark and spine. The threat of a lost farm or wasted dreams have stakes.

The Ranch operates with two different rhythms and leading with what seems hacky and familiar actually makes it even more satisfying when Kutcher lands a regretful beat, when Winger and Elliott make you care about this strained multi-decade marriage or when Elliott reciting the plot of Shane to an ailing cow makes you just a bit teary.

While not as dramatically daring as CBS' Mom or as perception-challenging as The Carmichael Show, The Ranch is part of a new breed of multicams trying to remove the stigma from the genre. It's a process of innovation that isn't without bumps. There's a critique of contemporary Western masculinity here that's sometimes savvy, but sometimes gets undermined by shticky jokes about traditional gender roles. There's a stab at authenticity that's hobbled by an essentially all-white representation of a state with a surging Latino population. And It isn't always clear that the series knows how to make its female characters funny, though at least it's trying to give all of them dimension.

Most of the criticisms I have for The Ranch come from seeing past what it looks like on its surface and how it's being sold in its trailers; they're criticisms that come from also understanding that there's a lot to enjoy here if you don't sell it short, and a lot to respect if the show continues not to sell itself short.

Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Sam Elliott, Debra Winger, Elisha Cuthbert, Kelli Goss
Creators: Don Reo, Jim Patterson
Premieres: Friday, April 1 (Netflix)