Last Friday, Netflix unveiled the newest project from Ashton Kutcher: The Ranch, a little sitcom about a dysfunctional family who reunites in the Midwest. Since it’s first trailer prompted fairly dubious reactions, no one expected much of this broadcast-network-throwback piece of Americana.
The Ranch is anchored by former That 70’s Show co-stars Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson. Kutcher plays a semi-pro football player who returns home to work on the family farm, which is managed by his brother (Masterson) and father (a grumpy Sam Elliott). Along with a bar-owner mom (Debra Winger) and a plucky ex-girlfriend (Elisha Cuthbert), the brothers work through the day-in, day-out yada yada yada sitcom stuff with a small town angle.
Just a few days after its release, The Ranch has turned out to be exactly as good as one might expect — from a family comedy starring those guys from That 70s Show. Which is to say, that if you were excited by that initial preview, you’ll probably be super-satisfied by the actual show, and if you were completely put off by the initial burst of footage, well, you agree with most critics. That said, there’s still a lot of positive buzz from fans. Enough so that Netflix has agreed to pick the show up for a second season, at least.
Over the weekend, I watched the first season. The whole thing. And, upon finishing it, I will say that The Ranch isn’t terrible. It’s aggressively mediocre, like sitcom white noise. With a little more confidence and a few more deliberate moves, there just might be something there.
How To Fix Ashton Kutcher
The main problem with The Ranch is Ashton Kutcher, who yes, is enthusiastic, but not particularly good. You can’t knock the guy’s desire to get inside his character and impress the audience with his acting chops, but there’s a limit to how much pure talent has to flex. As the show’s star, Colt Bennett, nearly every episode revolves around Kutcher. And as a result, nearly every episode falls flat. Just as critiques of his misguided Steve Jobs biopic notes*, Kutcher’s talents do not lie in emotional depth.
However, when he’������������������������s at home in his sitcom territory, Kutcher is moderately entertaining. When he keeps it light, shallow, and dumb, he’s even pretty funny; that’s what he did best on That 70’s Show. If the writers can access Kutcher’s inner Kelso and shuffle him into the narrative background, he’d be very palatable.
Double Down On the Supporting Cast
Outside of Kutcher, the rest of the cast showed up to work, and they have tools necessary to get the job done.
Sam Elliott and Debra Winger actually have some real chemistry as Kutcher and Masterson’s parents, Beau and Maggie Bennett, aging lovers in the midst of a tumultuous, decades-long affair. Their considerable talents elevate the material into something watchable. His wry delivery and her commitment to the part make several of their lines very chuckle-worthy.
Elliot alone manages to get the majority of the series’ laughs with his gruff, unrepentant asshole-ish behavior. Fortunately, the writers leaned heavily on that, and upped his screen time as the series progressed.
Danny Masterson is also allowed bright spots as Rooster, the older brother who stayed behind when Cole ran off to be a superstar. He may have a ways to go to as the moron he’s meant to be, but occasionally, Masterson lets his acidic bitterness seep out, and those moments — when we get to see the world from his jaded perspective — are actually great.
Pick a Tone and an Audience
Perhaps the largest issue with The Ranch — beyond its reliance on Kutcher — is its inability to find a consistent tone. It seems as though creators and showrunners Jim Patterson and Don Reo are still hamstrung by their Two and a Half Men origins. That is to say that The Ranch has difficulty reconciling Netflix’s no-holds-barred landscape with the showrunners’ family-friendly roots.
Jokes about herpes, and plot lines about the seemingly inevitable failure of the family ranch are ill at ease when juxtaposed against the studio lighting and canned laughter. There seems to be a strong influence from HBO’s bizarre Life With Louie (as well as more than its fair share of Roseanne) that plays into the ribald, blue-collar humor, but in its attempts to stride the line between acceptable and innovative, The Ranch just ends up feeling confused.
To their credit, as the series moves forward, the writers become more confident with their cast (that second season pick up probably helped) and they use that to veer into darker territory, amping up the cursing and dropping a lot of the expected set ‘em up and knock ‘em down sitcom jokes in favor of some (surprise!) character-driven humor. Watching the uncomfortable morning-after conversation between Cole, his girlfriend, Rooster, and Cole’s girlfriend’s Mom is awkwardly rewarding.
What’s more, the writers start to make some use of their assembled Oscar talent, squeezing in a few dramatic moments from the odd family formation. Elliott and Winger are stirring, as they struggle through their weird relationship. In these moments, when the show isn’t trying so hard, there’s something very special at the edge of The Ranch.
It’s Getting Better
The last episode in the first season of The Ranch was much better than the first. A frame of reference you might understand: the best episode of The Ranch is on par with the lowest-rated parts of That 70’s Show. The stuff late in the final season with the fake Eric when the writers were trying to make the Jackie/Fez travesty work and Hyde was, like, black or something. That stuff.
Considering the fact that most sitcoms’ first seasons are rarely their strongest — it’s usually season three or season five — then the verdict on The Ranch isn’t all bad. If the series keeps improving at this pace, it’s entirely possible that The Ranch could get into That 70’s Show season seven territory, when Kutcher and Topher Grace were slouching their way towards the end of their contracts.
Yeah, The Ranch could be that good.