[This is a review of The Ranch season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
There was a time in the not-too-distant past where being a Netflix original series would guarantee a certain level of quality in a show. Back when such shows were more of a rare event, before they beefed up their programming and had a new offering seemingly every month. Now for every BoJack Horseman there is a Real Rob, for every Master of None there is a more low-key Flaked. Landing somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is the latest Netflix original offering The Ranch, starring Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Debra Winger, and Sam Elliott. This family dramedy was created by Don Reo and Jim Patterson, the same pair who served as executive producers on Two and Half Men, another sitcom which Kutcher starred in.
The premise of the pilot episode is simple, and sets the stage for the entire first season. In 'Back Where I Come From,' directed by David Trainer and written by Don Reo & Jim Patterson, prodigal son Colt Bennett (Kutcher) returns home to help out his family's struggling ranch, after his football career failed to take off. He clashes with his old-fashioned, stubborn father Beau (Elliott) who resents him both for leaving and for not achieving more, and drinks with his ranch hand brother Rooster (Masterson) at the bar his mother Maggie (Winger) owns.
This series also serves as a That '70s Show reunion between Kutcher and Masterson, who could both be playing adult versions of their former characters Michael Kelso and Steven Hyde. The former was dumb but well meaning and the latter was sarcastic and disinterested -- which are basically the defining traits of the Bennett brothers. Both men seem to be experimenting with adding a southern twang to their accents (odd, since the ranch is set in Colorado), and both will be better off when they inevitably drop the affectation. Elliott certainly fits in as the spiritual successor to Red Forman: old fashioned, tough, and perpetually disappointed in his sons. Their underachieving is played for laughs here, but funny barbs aimed at a young teenagers full of possibility strikes a very different chord when lobbed at grown men well into their 30s living at home with their father.
Colt and Beau spend most of the first episode fighting over everything, their bitterness and resentment is palatable. However, that bitterness is jarring when cut with the loud laughter of the studio audience, which creates a strange mix of a family drama and basic cable sitcom. Kutcher is clearly at home in the underachieving jock role, and he and Masterson easily pass for brothers with their relaxed, affectionate banter. Aside from a small appearance on Parks and Rec, this is one of the few times we've seen Elliott in a comedic role. It suits him well, and he serves not only as the stern foil to his wild kids, he also brings an emotional intensity to the role that occasionally makes their fights difficult to watch.
The tone of the show is hard to pin down, at one point Colt and Beau have an emotional confrontation while literally birthing a stillborn cow and giving it mouth to mouth. And the humor varies wildly; the show opens with a series of riffs on Shania Twain, which would have been considered outdated a decade ago, then goes on to mock Uggs, and the type of men who would wear them in lieu of cowboy boots. There's plenty of judgement to go around: millennials, democrats, and Al Gore all get a bit of credit for what's wrong with "America these days." There is some fertile humor the be had; Masterson's straight man gets many solid one-liners in, and Winger carries the few scenes in which she appears. Most of the humor zones in on the hardships of country living, though it is never in doubt that the ranch-life is the best. The show also takes advantage of Netflix's language rules, casually dropping f-bombs to remind viewers that this isn't your regular network comedy.
The Ranch does set up a few interesting relationships and themes, a drought has caused the property to go though financial hardships and Beau is in danger of losing the place. Colt decides to hang up his dreams of football greatness to help his family -- though it was made fairly clear his career was done for regardless -- and his re-acclimation to small town life will definitely be explored. Beau and Maggie are separated but still sleeping together, and somewhere under his easy going attitude there seems to be some resentment that Rooster was forced to stay at home, once Colt took off.
All in all, The Ranch is a disappointing start to a sitcom with a solid premise packed with talent. The characters are one-note and could benefit from more emotional development, and resolution to their many fights. Hopefully the writers focus more on the actors natural chemistry, and the stories that connect the characters, rather then pit them against one another.
The Ranch Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.