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Ashton Kutcher bucks conventions on his Netflix sitcom 'The Ranch' and ponders reviving 'That '70s Show'

Ashton Kutcher bucks conventions on his Netflix sitcom 'The Ranch' and ponders reviving 'That '70s Show'
Actor Ashton Kutcher sits on the set where his new Netflix series, "The Ranch," is being filmed at the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank on March 22, 2016. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Ashton Kutcher was holed up in his dressing room on the Warner Bros. lot, surrounded by Chicago Bears memorabilia, contemplating how he'd go about binge-watching his new series, "The Ranch."

The 38-year-old actor and producer officially joined the Netflix club last week with the release of the multi-camera comedy. The family sitcom, which reunites him with his "That '70s Show" friend and co-star Danny Masterson, stars Kutcher as Colt Bennett, a thirtysomething semi-pro football player who returns to the family cattle ranch in Colorado, which has fallen on hard times, and attempts to run the business with his brother (Masterson). Sam Elliott and Debra Winger also star.

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The 20-episode first season is being released in two installments — the second batch of 10 episodes will roll out later this year. Ultimately, Kutcher decided he's an all-in kind of binge-watcher who would kick back with the first set over one weekend. But that was only the start of what this new Netflix endeavor had him thinking about.

You were coming off "Two and a Half Men" when the idea for "The Ranch" started forming ...

Danny and I wanted to do a show together for probably the last 10 years — since we finished "That '70s Show." I was not sure I wanted to do another sitcom. But I thought, "If we can come up with something great, it would be awesome." I really enjoyed working with [executive producers] Jim Patterson and Don Reo when we were working on "Two and a Half Men." So we started kicking around ideas — could it be a "Two and a Half Men" spin-off? We didn't really want to do that. We really ended up bearing down on the question of "How can you be funny today in a very PC world in a way that isn't super meta, that's available to a lot of people, but that doesn't offend everyone?" What we realized was that nobody had really made a show about blue-collar, conservative, Middle America, small-town family values in a long time that wasn't making fun of these types of people. I mean, there's a reason why "Duck Dynasty" has an audience on television.

Is Colt someone you identify with, given your background?

The show is like pretty deep in my bones. I grew up in a town of 100 in Iowa. I understand what this blue-collar life is. I know these characters and the places and the feeling of living in that part of the world and the discontent with it. And I also understand the feeling of wanting to get out of it. Because when I was 19, I wanted to go. And I know the feeling after I've left of the fear of having to go home and say I didn't make it. And so I have deep connection to this character from that perspective. And what I realized, and I think what Don and Jim realized, is there is a generation right now of kids that go off to college with these giant aspirations of what they're going to do in the world and then they get into the workforce and they go, "Wait, there is not a job for that degree I just spent four years and $200,000 getting."

"The Ranch" isn't your traditional multi-camera comedy. You can be looser with the language, the lighting is different. How was it bucking with the conventions?

Coming off of sitcoms and having done, collectively between Danny and I, about 800 episodes of sitcoms, we know this format really, really well. And we keep working in this format because we love this format. There's an extraordinary energy when you get to shoot in front of a live audience. What we realized when we set out to do this is we didn't want to do it just the same way everything else is. If you look at the history of the sitcom, going back to Lucille Ball's show, not much has changed. And when you get to things like lighting and music, you go, "Why is every sitcom set lit up like it's a play?" And we wanted to challenge that convention.

Was that an easier endeavor to get away with, given that you guys always intended to take this to Netflix?

Yeah, it's the only place that we took it, because I knew that if we were going to really push back against what this kind of content is, we were going to have to do it with a partner that was willing to take some risks. And you know, the truth is, making network television is a great honor. But at the same time, their job is to deliver to advertisers a show that they're willing to buy.

You're someone in the know about technology that aims to make life easier for people or solve a problem. You've invested millions in companies like Airbnb, Spotify and Foursquare. Was doing business with Netflix the next logical step?

Any time somebody gives you an opportunity and platform where you can do what you want to do and make money as an artist, that's where you're going to go. I look at Airbnb — it's really a platform that allows more people to travel and probably have a better experience at a cheaper rate and allows people who want some extra income and turn an asset into a value center for them. I think that's just win-win. Twitter provides a voice for anyone that has the capacity to build an audience. I think everybody wins with that. Netflix is the same thing, in a sense where if you're an actor or producer, you want to be able to make content, but you want to be able to make a living, you want to be able to make it authentic and true, and for the consumers and not for advertisers.

Sam Elliott, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson in "The Ranch" on Netflix.
Sam Elliott, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson in "The Ranch" on Netflix. (Greg Gayne / Netflix)

You know the other aspect of this partnership that you should consider — the reboot, reunion part. You know everyone is wondering when we'll get a "That '70s Show" return.

As far as a "'70s Show" reboot...

You're going to deny us.

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Well, most likely. But I don't think I'm denying you. Here's why: I think when you make something great, and I think some people felt "That '70s Show" was great and they connected to it — sometimes the nostalgia of what you experienced the first time doesn't exist anymore because you're in a different place in your life. You have to remember, we filmed "That '70s Show" in the late '90s. I remember when 9/11 happened, we didn't go to work. It was pre the terrorist movement thing that is happening today in Brussels and Germany and in France.....there was this kind of feeling of like everything is safe. Nobody had anything to protest. It was kind of post the protest. And "That '70s Show" was post-Vietnam. It was post the protests. It was these kids in the basement that didn't have anything to protest. Today, I think we have things to protest again and so, I don't know if that show would have the same resonance it had when it first aired. That's my super-long, I-haven't-thought-about-this-too-much answer.

So I'm guessing you haven't watched "Fuller House"?

I actually watched a couple of scenes from it to see what they were doing because when we sold "The Ranch" to Netflix, I wanted to be the first half-hour multi-cam on Netflix. And "Fuller House" accelerated their timeline and beat us. But we are the first original half-hour live action comedy. I like to be the first. So I watched a little bit of it. I saw a scene in a bar with the guys from "Dancing with the Stars" and what I realized was that that show is probably perfectly serving the audience that is relative to that show, but I don't think it's moving the dial on what a half-hour is. I did watch it for reference in that perspective, and I thought everyone was very funny. And I'm very impressed that Andrea Barber [Kimmy Gibler] was able to go off and be a nurse for years and then come back and be a funny actor on a show. I thought that was pretty impressive.

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