With Netflix’s commitment to producing more original content than any human could ever possibly watch, it’s pretty much impossible to keep up with all their new shows. The Ranch, Ashton Kutcher’s new sitcom for the site, seemed like it was going to be one I wouldn’t mind missing, so I didn’t bother even trying it out when it was released last weekend.
But then I started reading the headlines from other critics who had bothered watching, and they were intriguing. The reviews were calling it an “experiment,” and the “weirdest” Netflix show yet. Entertainment Weekly promised it was going to “disrupt” the sitcom. The general consensus seemed to be that this was unlike anything else on television. So I watched. And I’ll tell you that that analysis is entirely true. It also means exactly nothing.
The best thing I can say about The Ranch is that it feels like it was created to be a James Franco project. Like when he did that soap opera, and we all kind of knew it was an art project or a commentary on something, but also he really was just acting on a soap opera. This show feels like it should be subverting something or commenting on something. But there’s some final step missing, like the project of a first year art student, who hasn’t yet realized that simply presenting something cliche or banal isn’t making any sort of statement about banality.
The show centers on Kutcher’s Colt Bennett, who has returned home at the age of 34 after he drank and dipshitted away a promising football career. He’s moved back in with his brother Rooster, played by Danny Masterson (and yes, much of the show does feel like a That ’70s Show laugh track reunion) and his hardass father (Sam Elliot— no, really). There’s also a mother (Debra Winger) and a hometown ex (Elisha Cuthbert) in the mix. It’s a completely familiar, formulaic sitcom, both in set-up and execution, and that’s what ends up making the show so unusual. When you turn on a Netflix show, you don’t expect it to look like Roseanne or have Chuck Lorre jokes. One of the most disconcerting things about the show is that it’s a traditional soundstage three-camera sitcom set-up, and it is filmed in front of a live audience, but either I have no idea what human laughter sounds like, or they deliberately warped the actual audience because nothing in the history of television has ever sounded more canned than this laugh track. There’s also a slowness and a penchant for profanity that’s jarring in something that looks so network. All that plays into that “experimental” tone. The first couple of episodes really do feel like they’re on the verge of subverting the sitcom. But by the third or fourth, you realize that no, the experiment was simply to make a sitcom exactly like all the rest, and just air it on a new platform. So how is this unlike anything else on television and also exactly the same as everything already on television? I HAVE NO IDEA. That’s why I kept watching. It was so confusing, I thought there had to be some genius magic behind it. There wasn’t.
Kutcher says his inspiration for The Ranch was to make a sitcom for people in the Heartland, because most are set in big metropolitan cities. So this is meant to be more conservative, more red-state-friendly, although all that seems to really mean is to feature Sam Elliot’s mustache and a lot of jokes about banging underage girls.
The Ranch really does have a few truly touching moments, mostly in the father/son bits of every episode, and those will sneak up on you, but they’ll also get lost for the reason: because they’re mired in swamps of mediocrity.