This has been a year full of strange TV, and with trippy shows like Legion, American Gods, and Twin Peaks dominating much of the cultural discussion, one of the very strangest series on TV (streaming, actually) continues to go almost entirely ignored.
Netflix’s The Ranch deserves your attention for a host of reasons. I’ll lay out some of them here, and the ones I don’t get to you’ll have to discover by actually watching the show.
In its unique take on the classic multi-cam sitcom format, The Ranch has reinvigorated a dying form (there are other good multi-cams presently on TV, but none, other than The Ranch, do anything particularly interesting with the form itself). It trades in the brightly-lit living rooms of past multi-cams for dimly-lit, atmospheric sets that set the tone for what is, overall, a melancholy series.
This third chapter, released on Netflix on June 16th, has three major throughlines: In one, Colt Bennett (Kutcher) deals with the ramifications of his ex-girlfriend’s pregnancy, at the same time maintaining a relationship with his now-girlfriend Abby (Elisha Cuthbert). In another, the feud between Rooster Bennet (Danny Masterson) and his father Beau (Sam Elliott) continues to evolve from previous seasons. In Part/Season 3, Rooster has to figure out what he plans on doing with his life. And in the least successful subplot of the season, the newly divorced Beau and Maggie (Debra Winger) Bennett explore their newfound freedom by dating other people.
Regarding the Beau/Maggie storyline: whenever Sam Elliott and Debra Winger have a scene together, it’s electric. There’s real chemistry between them, and each actor brings their own brand of movie star charisma to the proceedings. However, due to the nature of their relationship this season, they spend most of their time onscreen with their new love interests, neither of whom are remotely as engaging. The whole deal is almost worth it for the few strong Elliott/Winger scenes we do get, but not quite.
Danny Masterson is great. He was great on That ‘70s Show and he’s great here. Rooster’s arc this season is compelling and doesn’t play out like you would expect . Masterson has found a really interesting character in this guy who has a love for ranching and is genuinely talented, yet is unable to motivate himself to do good work in his new, high-paying job.
Rooster’s relationship with Beau is central here, as their intense feud carries over from the last season. The butting of heads between Beau, the old, set-in-his-ways Cranky Old Bastard and Rooster, the proud but perpetually not serious manchild, is not only written well, but bolstered by strong performances from Elliott (from whom you’d expect no less) and Masterson (who is every bit Elliott’s equal in this instance).
Cuthbert is charming and funny as Colt’s girlfriend Abby (she was recently so, so very good on the amazing, late Happy Endings, which I urge you to seek out) and works well off of Kutcher’s schtick. Still, it’s Kutcher who continues to be the really surprising performance on The Ranch, because while juvenile-Kutcherisms abound in each episode, it’s Colt who consistently gets the hardest-hitting emotional beats – and Kutcher sells it every time. His performance oscillates between dumb-jock inane stupidity and silent pathos. This season he’s dealing with accidental pregnancy, the question of abortion, real, impactful financial struggles, and other serious issues taken seriously by the show.
And that’s the most important thing that can be said of The Ranch. While it is ostensibly a comedy, its power comes not from jokes but from quiet, contemplative moments of familial conflict and existential crises. When, on The Ranch, Ashton Kutcher makes a dumb joke, the live studio audience reaction is actually commensurate to the hilarity of said dumb joke. This is in obvious contrast with the Chuck-Lorreverse of shows (to which Kutcher is intimately connected), where the most inane of knock-knock jokes produces distractingly inappropriate and uproarious laughter. On The Ranch, either the audience is better/smarter, have better senses of humor, or the show’s creatives have enough confidence in their series to not necessitate pumping up the volume on the audience’s laughter in post-production.
The Ranch has problems. It has problems in the Beau/Maggie stuff mentioned above, and it has problems whenever Ashton Kutcher veers too far into Kelso-from-That-’70s-Show. And yet, its existence itself speaks well to the Netflix model and if not for the cultural saturation of quality television output, its innovation would likely have sparked the interest, if not approval, of the TV commentariat.