In Netflix’s ‘The Ranch,’ new sitcom twists, same old laugh track
If you get Netflix and have noodled endlessly through its epic menu, looking, looking, looking, the Ping-Pong sound bouncing around the room, you know it’s a home for all varieties of TV. Original HBO-ish dramas such as “House of Cards,” single-camera comedy-dramas such as “Nurse Jackie,” classics such as “The West Wing,” old-school multi-cam sitcoms such as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and lots of British stuff. Netflix wants to be everything to all people, and there are those rainy days, after you’ve settled in with just the right program, when the streamer seems to have succeeded.
So I guess there’s no reason Netflix shouldn’t go out and make a sitcom driven by a laugh track and the kinds of repetitive dumbo punch lines that have fueled crap TV from “Two and a Half Men” to “$#*! My Dad Says.” I guess a bad network-style sitcom — the kind that tends to either stick around forever (“According to Jim”) or die quickly (“Cavemen”) — is not off-brand, since the Netflix brand is ultimately so broad and nebulous. I guess a show built around former “That ’70s Show” stars Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson pitching out tired Tom Brady goofs and uncomfortable calf-birthing jokes makes a strange kind of sense. I guess.
“The Ranch,” executive produced by “Two and a Half Men” alums Don Reo and Jim Patterson, is actually a different kind of bad sitcom, since it has the freedoms of a streaming network, and the resulting twists make it oddly fascinating for an episode or two. For one thing, the look of “The Ranch,” whose first 10-episode season is available on Friday, is very unlike most laugh-track sitcoms. Usually, the lighting is bright enough to double as a tanning booth, a way of pushing the show to seem just a little bit happier for viewers. On “The Ranch,” the lighting is naturalistic and even, at times, moody. The sets, too, are deeper, more like real rooms than giant shelves.
And then the “Aww” moments that pop up on network sitcoms — usually at the end of the half-hour, when the clueless dad, the kooky mom, or the precocious child learns something about love and life — are long “Aww” stretches on “The Ranch.” The setup is that Kutcher’s Colt Bennett, a one-time local football hero, has returned to his family’s struggling Colorado ranch to help his partying brother, Masterson’s Rooster, and his crotchety father, Sam Elliott’s Beau. The three men tease one another about old girlfriends and underage women — and then they make up, in pause-filled scenes that become awkwardly dramatic as the minutes pass and writing fails to rise to the occasion. Usually, the drama arises out of some Arthur Miller-esque thing Beau has said about Colt’s fading football dream, or a snipe Rooster has made about Colt having abandoned the family. The sitcom takes on vestiges of stage drama — almost like Louis C.K.’s “Horace and Pete” except ineffectively.
Other changes to the network-sitcom model: explicit language that allows for a really bad series of Shania Twain jokes, a bland title sequence that goes on forever, and none of the relief that comes with regular commercials.
So far, I haven’t mentioned Debra Winger, who plays Maggie, the mother of Rooster and Colt and the wife — even though she lives in an Airstream behind the bar she runs — of Beau. Her scenes are the most tolerable, as she makes the material seem a little less like a standup-comedy BB gun. Another performer would make the following joke a lot more unbearable: When Colt sees Maggie at Beau’s house late at night, he says, “Mom, what are you doing here?” Her answer: “Your father.” Winger doesn’t try to make it funny — that would be impossible — opting, instead, to make it seem more like a natural comment. Still, what is she doing here? Someone needs to come up with a better off-network role for her soon.
The other three main actors are a lot more sitcomy, by which I mean artificial. Masterson sounds like he’s mimicking George W. Bush, Kutcher has no range (his attempt to play drunk in episode three is painful), and Elliott plays the same morally toned note over and over and over. Their endless, regressive jokes about sex and their tired assumptions about gender roles only add to the fustiness playing around the edges of the show. An ideal version of “The Ranch” (pruned of its laugh track and many of its cruder jokes) would be a bittersweet take on masculinity, fathers and sons, competitive brothers, and red-state men in an evolving world. Until then, though, here’s “3 Broke Men.”
Starring Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Sam Elliott, Debra Winger
On Netflix, Season One streams Friday