The Ranch, Netflix's new sitcom, is caught between what it wants to be and what it actually is.
What it wants to be is a surprisingly effective collection of one-act plays that are sprinkled with laughs but mostly dramatic in nature. What it is is an occasionally effective (but always daring) sitcom, filmed before a live studio audience and packed with smutty jokes.
It's kind of like if Two and a Half Men spent roughly half of every episode taking its characters' disappointments seriously.
Yet despite all of that, I quite liked The Ranch, which debuted the first 10 episodes of its 20-episode first season April 1 and will debut the remaining 10 episodes later in the year. It has the feel of a series that's just getting its legs underneath it, which could lead to great things down the road. For now, it's enjoyable enough, thanks to the way it uses the freedom afforded it by Netflix to try new things with the sitcom format.
Here are five ways The Ranch breaks ground — even as some of its more hackneyed elements hold it back.
1) It's one of the only Netflix comedies to make good use of its extra episode time
A perpetual complaint about Netflix comedies — from Arrested Development to Love to Fuller House — is that their episodes are so long, sometimes hewing closer to 40 minutes instead of the traditional sub-30, for no particular reason. They tend to contradict the generally accepted truth that comedy is often best when it's concise.
The Ranch suggests, however, that extra time is one of the big reasons the multi-camera sitcom (the TV industry term for shows filmed primarily on sound stages before live audiences) slowly fell out of favor in the past 15 years or so. As networks sold more commercials that in turn ate into running time — wearing down episodes to 20 minutes or so — it became harder and harder for shows to tell original stories in the format. (I wrote a little bit more about this trend in connection with the terrific CBS sitcom Mom.)
But episodes of The Ranch routinely surpass 30 minutes, and the show smartly uses that extra time to set up a world rarely seen on television. It also employs the sort of adult language and occasional nudity you might be used to from Netflix originals, but not from shows filmed like this.
A laugh-track-scored retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Ranch is set in the world of ranching. The first episode deals, gravely, with the threat of drought and features a sequence where a calf is born. It's also got Sam Elliott (as the central family's patriarch) making fun of his son for wearing Uggs.
And the extra time gives the show room to add depth to its world and weight to its dramatic storytelling about a family mired in a series of disappointments (more on the latter in a second).
But... The jokes added to fill that time are more miss than hit (though there are several funny ones). In particular, The Ranch overrelies on gags where Elliott's character tells his sons they're wussy little women for [insert gender stereotype here] or where said sons joke about sleeping with high schoolers.
I believe these jokes are typical for these characters — who are hyper committed to their masculine ideals — but they're too predictable and not funny enough to really work. It all feels a little like one step forward, two steps back.
2) It commits seriously to its dramatic moments
Across the board, The Ranch's best moments are the ones that skew toward the dramatic. This is a series about the the kind of disappointment that snowballs and accumulates over the course of a life, and the way that families can hurt each other. Disappointment and regret are themes that resonate throughout the work of Ranch co-creator (with Jim Patterson) Don Reo, and this series could be his fullest expression of them.
Beau Bennett (Elliott) was not an easy father to grow up with, and both of his sons — the prodigal Colt (Ashton Kutcher, ostensibly The Ranch's lead actor) and good son Rooster (Danny Masterson) — have their own scars as a result. Meanwhile, their mother, Maggie (Debra Winger), is still technically Beau's wife but no longer living with him, and must grapple with how little her marriage matched up to her expectations of it.
Add to this the uncertainty of an agricultural life, the way it's tied to the whims of nature, and you wind up with a recipe for a show that frequently concludes that you can never quite be sure what will make you happiest. Indeed, one of The Ranch's recurring themes is that whatever happiness you do achieve will ultimately evaporate.
It's all surprisingly heady stuff for a show where Sam Elliott makes fun of Uggs, but in its best moments, it feels consistent and richly constructed.
But... The show occasionally lurches between its wildly different tones, awkwardly speckling dramatic scenes with bad jokes and vice versa. The clashing smooths out as the first 10 episodes progress, however, so it's likely the show is just figuring out how to blend its various elements together.
3) Its cast is surprisingly deep
The Ranch only has four series regulars — the four members of the Bennett family — but its cast is so deep that Friday Night Lights veteran Aimee Teegarden pops up in what amounts to a very small guest part. The small town the series is set in boasts a surprisingly robust population of comedic ringers, many of whom get multi-episode arcs.
In particular, The Ranch continues to reveal that Elisha Cuthbert (late of 24 and Happy Endings) is a delightful comic actress — her spin on a tired line like "New phone, who dis" even provokes laughs — and that Barry Corbin (best known for his days on Northern Exposure) can wring laughs from a premise as tired as "old man who can't hear so well anymore." Every new character the show introduces proves to be as interesting and amusing as the central four, and that's no easy feat.
But... The Ranch sometimes loses sight of its central family because it gets too caught up with its supporting players. In particular, the romantic travails of Colt and Rooster, while allowing for the frequent, welcome appearance of Cuthbert as Colt's high school girlfriend, distract from the more immediately compelling stories about both men learning to deal with their parents. This is mostly a balance issue, and it's another one the show will likely figure out going forward.
4) It's surprisingly empathetic to just about everybody in it
On most series, the longtime boyfriend of Cuthbert's character — a fussy hotel manager played by Bret Harrison, another great comedic actor — would be presented as an obviously inferior rival to Colt. Here, however, he offers just as much to her as Colt possibly could, if not more.
Similarly, Colt might be a dolt, but the show is genuinely sympathetic to the fact that his dreams of playing professional football didn't work out, leaving him with no recourse but to return to the little town he thought he'd left behind forever.
Rooster, meanwhile, struggles to manage the resentment he feels toward his younger, more popular brother. Beau's ranch seems perpetually on the brink of failure, and he's not accustomed to dealing with that. Maggie wonders whether she missed out on something better in order to be a wife and mother. And on and on.
Yes, as on most sitcoms, these types of characters endlessly insult each other, and the audience drones with laughter after each zinger. But The Ranch seems interested in who they are beyond those insults. It's the kind of show where the jokes seem to leave actual marks.
But... The Ranch is still full of not particularly clever insults. That will grate on lots of viewers.
5) It showcases a world you don't see on TV very often
Diversity on TV is generally discussed in terms of racial diversity, LGBTQ representation, and stories with women protagonists rather than men. And all of those forms of diversity are hugely important.
But diversity can also mean diversity of economic class, of political opinions, and of religious faith. In all three cases, The Ranch scores big points. And that's to say nothing of its interest in the love lives and regrets of older people, something television also rarely touches upon.
This is unabashedly a show with characters who pray before dinner, or who are Obama-hating Republicans (although, since it's set in Colorado, that's not true of all of them). Admirably, it takes those characters' lives seriously; while you might disagree with their political opinions or religious beliefs, The Ranch wants you to at least understand why they think the way they do.
It's also a show set in the world of agriculture, which might as well be a foreign country to most of us, and though it's been simplified for television, it still features a scene where a long-delayed rainstorm prompts genuine cries of joy. The ranch on The Ranch feels real somehow, and given how much of a multi-camera sitcom relies on a believable setting, that's a promising omen for the future.
But... I don't actually have a "but" here. The ranch is the best thing about The Ranch, and its presence makes me fascinated to see where the show goes next.
The Ranch is streaming on Netflix.