It’s not exactly hard to see why Netflix would pick up a show like The Ranch. The streaming service’s programming has always aired on the thoughtful, progressive side, allowing more creative freedom and expanding the boundaries of serial and procedural storytelling on television. Whether in the flamboyant, wicked political melodrama of House of Cards, the surreal comedy of fame that is BoJack Horseman, or the astoundingly insightful modern romance of Master of None – or simply outdoing the entire MCU with Daredevil and Jessica Jones – Netflix has seemingly refused to play things safe, to look anywhere but forward in the TV landscape, even in their relative misfires (Sense8, Lilyhammer, Flaked). At some point, however, they had to feel the pinch to reach out to audiences that aren’t interested in discovery, who come to television for the comforts of the traditions of the sitcom format and everything that’s denoted that format in the history of television.
Thus, we get The Ranch, a borderline unbearable and patently unfunny attempt at the straight-laced sitcom, complete with a no-kidding laugh track, from two long-time producers of Two and a Half Men, easily the most unforgivable and inexcusable of the long-running sitcoms. It should come at no surprise that The Ranch is essentially Two and a Half Men, relocated to the heartland, with That 70s Show mainstays Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson playing brothers working to bring their family ranch, run by their father (Sam Elliott), back from the brink of desolation.
Debra Winger, a great actress slumming hard, plays the mother in the equation, a successful bar owner who maintains a no-strings-attached relationship with her ex-husband, but all this story is scaffolding for the, er, humor. Do you find making fun of a man as essentially feminine for wearing Uggs hysterical? How about when the same joke is made three or four more times within ten minutes? Considering this is from the minds that crafted Two and a Half Men, rampant sexism was to be expected here, but there’s no overstating just how lazy these laughs are, just how callous, unthinking, and shallow this brand of humor is. And when the series attempts to be emotionally resonant, the writing and characters come off as insincere and overtly sentimental at best.
The last piece of the puzzle is Elisha Cuthbert, who plays the one that got away for Kutcher’s character, whose transition from would-be sports star to blue-collar working family man is the overarching trajectory of the narrative. Indeed, the series acts as a manifesto for middle-American straightforwardness, complete with jokes about the ire incurred by bringing up President Obama or global warming and a ironclad belief that alcoholism is just a requirement for low-middle-income families. But then there are sequences, such as when Kutcher’s obnoxious alpha-male belittles Cuthbert’s character’s fiancee for his customer-service job, where any work that doesn’t involve strenuous physical labor is somehow beneath real men, which would mean that something like 88% of the male population aren’t really masculine.
There’s the seedlings of a good comedy in the proverbial soil of The Ranch, but neither the creators or writers seem particularly interested in truly facing the hardships and issues that plague the heartland. There’s a certain thrill and charm in proud, stubborn machismo, but it’s also incredibly foolish, ignores nuance, and often insists on the idea that women are lesser people. There is a certain freedom and pride in working outdoors on your own business, but there’s a toughness and honor in showing up everyday to a service job at a corporation in the hopes of making a decent life for yourself and your loved ones. These are complicated truths that shows like this have no time for and prefer to set their entire conception to the misogynistic, pandering default position.
That this show also features some of the most blatant and lazy product placement that I have ever seen only goes to compound the hypocritical philosophies and cowardly, inept humor that power The Ranch and the career of Mr. Kutcher. What’s most aggravating about Kutcher is that, when all is said and done, he’s a talented comedian, with unique timing and an impressive variety of physical reactions that he never seems to challenge or push forward. Comedy feels more like an entrepreneurial gateway than a passion when wading through his oeuvre, and The Ranch similarly feels like a platform in which to sell products and a pre-conceived, uncomplicated view of life rather than an exploration of the madness, joy, and genuine struggle of existence.
★ – Stay Away, Stay Far Away