Binge-Watching The Ranch

In Colorado there is a town called Garrison and technically, it’s a sort of ghost town. In fact it is the old name of Hooper, CO, a settlement built on the hard-baked prairies of Alamosa County in the southern half of the state. It hasn’t been called Garrison since 1896. But in “The Ranch,” a television show set in the twenty-first century, the town takes the name of its ancestor, and that’s not the only battle between past and present in this original offering from Netflix.
Original may be a little too generous. The show is a sitcom in its entirety, so it’s good and bad and everything in the middle. Its primary subjects are a dysfunctional family blandly called the Bennetts; it is full of bad jokes and bad characters; it has sets obviously constructed in some warehouse; it proceeds at a pace comparable to a freshly oiled Ford F-150 pickup truck slipping down a hill with the parking brake pulled back before it reaches a leveled road and slowly stops. And despite having only two seasons it made for decent binge-watching material while I was at Swarthmore over Thanksgiving. Thus I partook in another time-honored American tradition—getting glued to free television.
“The Ranch” is an okay distraction. It’s passable entertainment. It has a straightforward premise and thick cardboard characters. The plot, not so cruelly summarized, is about Colt Bennett (Ashton Kutcher), a mediocre quarterback who returns to his family’s ranch, now run by his father Beau Bennett (Sam Elliott) and his elder brother Jameson ‘Rooster’ Bennett (Danny Masterson). Berated by their father for being slackers and having an overall lack of seriousness, the two siblings often drown their sorrows in free beer at a bar owned by their mother Maggie (Debra Winger). She is separated from Beau due to ‘complications’ in their less-than-relaxed relationship. The ensuing series chronicles the romantic interludes and problems the family members incur as they try to keep their ranch afloat under threat of foreclosure, divorce, harsh weather and their own stubborn opinions.
The material is mostly empty of substance, and it commits the worst sin of any sitcom: it’s painfully predictable. Its premise has some promise but it is squandered in a stereotype-ridden, multi-camera slog fest that loops back on itself with its recurring conflicts and settings. Instead of actually delving into the histories and feelings of its subjects—rural folk and the modern, de-romanticized cowboys of today’s America—it falls back on lame crude comedy that elicits a chuckle at best. Binge-watching it didn’t take too long and I passed the time swiftly.
The best and only good offset is the actors who rise above or at least skim on top of the material they have to work with. Or rather some of the actors rise above. Very few actors. The colossus of the cast is, predictably, Sam Elliott as Beau Bennett, who sports a silver brush of a moustache and a gruff sensibility to put it mildly. A stoic crank with Elliot’s mannerisms and distinctive baritone voice, Beau is by far the most entertaining element in “The Ranch,” often delivering the funniest jokes that either rely on his anachronistic attitudes or his staunch conservatism. In a promotional video for the first season, he says sardonically, “Twitter? A dog don’t moo, and a man don’t tweet,” while a banjo twangs softly in the background as if the player anticipated the punchline.
As I neared the end of the twentieth episode it occurred to me how much of the show’s comedy and little gravitas revolve around Beau. He embodies an American West lost amidst the Silicon wizardry of the modern era. “The Ranch” is a red-blood, red-state sitcom set in the purplish state of Colorado. There’s a lot of change going around the state both socially and politically. Beau’s wisecracks make for cheap comedy but sometimes they are almost sage-like in their delivery. In these tender moments, the importance of remembering the value of the past is passed to the viewer, to me. But these moments were so rare and so poorly deconstructed that they could have been left out and nothing would have changed in terms of storyline. That is how shackled this show is to its sitcom genome. It never really bothers to break free of it and mutate into something wildly different. As such anyone can watch “The Ranch.” But few will enjoy it and probably even fewer will remember it. I myself am struggling to recall anything other than the touching moments that espoused the necessity of family.
A better show would have built-up to those moments, twisted the
wire, accumulated tension. It would have explored the characters, stretched them to breaking points, interrogated their feelings and thoughts. But “The Ranch” doesn’t bother to investigate its premise or challenge its characters beyond the occasional moment, or God forbid the pre-planned plot of a sitcom, and in the end that’s all you have: a collection of interesting moments in a slew of generally dreary interactions. And those moments are often fleeting, like wheat in the wind. They don’t really stick with you unless you pay close attention and try to catch them. Now the show’s not terrible. It deals with real issues faced by real people day in and day out; it touches on themes that belong to an America in flux; but it just could have been so much better.

Maybe my expectations were too high for a sitcom—they were probably more suitable for HBO than Netflix. But given its setting (I am a Coloradoan at heart) and the fact that it exists in this current so-called Golden Age of Television, I expected it to be more fulfilling. Both its subjects and viewers deserve well-written representation.
I soon concluded my spree and returned to the somewhat healthier substitute of YouTube. I doubt “The Ranch” will improve or recognize its capability to be excellent online television. Maybe I’ll take another crack at it when the third season airs. Cue the laugh track!

Abhinav Tiku

Sheet1 Explore Abhinav is a Honors History major and Film Studies minor. He has lived in numerous countries around the globe and considers himself from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. He is a restless traveler trying to find someplace to stop. He loves creativity in all its forms, and he particularly enjoys writing, photography, and filmmaking. He can’t decide what his favorite books or films are as they usually change on the hour of the day, but his favorite comic series are The Adventures of Tintin. In his spare time, he loves munching potato chips, coining silly gibberish words, and searching for a pen that can double as a lightsaber.

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