Review: ‘The Ranch’ is an old-fashioned sitcom, but Sam Elliott and Debra Winger make it worth watching
Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson, who co-starred in “That ‘70s Show” in the Clinton and Bush (2) administrations, have wrangled themselves a new situation comedy. It’s called “The Ranch,” and like their previous situation comedies, including Kutcher’s four seasons on “Two and a Half Men” and Masterson’s “Men at Work,” it’s an old-fashioned multi-camera, live-audience affair. (Some laughs do seem to have been added later, but that is just a thing that happens.)
The venue is novel, however. The series’ first 10 episodes premiere Friday on Netflix, which means that words are said that can be identified here only by their initials, that there are more than the usual number of jokes referencing primary and secondary sexual characteristics, and that Ashton’s bare bottom is fair game for the camera.
Being on Netflix also means that, unlike sitcoms that live in the desperately competitive Thunderdome that is commercial television, “The Ranch” can afford to go a little longer without trying for a laugh. With episodes that last several minutes longer than the 22 usually accorded a “half-hour” comedy, scenes have room to breathe; the extra weight brings a kind of chronological gravitas, and it makes the show feel more theatrical than a typical situation comedy.
Kutcher plays Colt Bennett, a Colorado small-town high-school football star now in his mid-30s whose trip to the almost-big-leagues has led him finally back to his family’s grass-fed cattle ranch, reuniting him with brother “Rooster” (Masterson), father Beau (Sam Elliott) and mother Maggie (Debra Winger). His parents are separated — Maggie lives in a trailer behind the bar she runs — but continue to sleep together. His brother, who has remained at home, working hard and thanklessly for their father, resents Colt, as in the old story of the prodigal son and all the many stories modeled upon it; it is the basis for a good third of the jokes launched here.
Colt’s return also brings him into renewed contact with old high school flame Abby (Elisha Cuthbert), whose new boyfriend (Bret Harrison) has “mistake” written all over him, and brand-new contact with Heather (Kelli Goss), much younger, but old enough. And that’s everyone important until Megyn Price, as Heather’s mother, comes along in later episodes, making up in screen presence what she lacks in screen time.
The more-conservative-than-Hollywood milieu in which the characters live is expressed by an occasional swipe at President Obama, guns and tractors, an episode set around hunting, the eating of steak and the dismissal of any male interest in personal appearance or deeper feelings as girly. Beau is wary of government surveillance and an attack by North Korea, and he dismisses global warming as “a bunch of crap Al Gore made to sell books to Californians.” While it is a perhaps less than nuanced portrait of this slice of the polity, it is on balance not a mean one.
For the most part, this is a story of childish men and sensible women, and the series as a whole presents a similar mix of lunkheadedness and intelligence, of stubborn adherence to formula and formal ambition. The jokes when they come have the familiar pitch and swing of multi-camera sitcom humor, but the longer game seems directed toward something a little more naturalistic, with storylines that could as easily turn to drama as to comedy.
If he seems a little too dense at times, Kutcher has a good way with amiable idiots, and Masterson does well with bittersweet sarcasm. Still, it’s Elliott and Winger (it’s exciting just to see her working, I admit), coming from outside the genre, who make “The Ranch” feel at least a little new. Each plays with an economy of expression that makes the dialed-down performances of Kutcher and Masterson seem flamboyant in comparison; their scenes together, as restrained as they are, are the show’s most emotionally resonant. You will want to check them out.
When: Anytime, starting Friday
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