“The Ranch” Gives the Sitcom Genre a Tune-Up

Netflix’s "The Ranch" is changing TV, but is it for the better?

On April 1, Netflix rolled out its newest releases. Standing out amongst the crowd is the streaming giant’s latest original sitcom, The Ranch and it’s not quite like any show we’ve seen before.

Starring Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson, The Ranch focuses on the return of high school football hero Colt Bennett (Kutcher) to his rural Colorado hometown after 16 years. Once a local champion, Colt failed to ever make anything out of his football career and returns to town to try out for yet another team. His dream of football comes to a screeching halt when he sees how much he is needed at the ranch ran by his unapologetically brash cowboy of a father, Beau (Sam Elliott). Now stuck in the life he thought he left behind, Colt comes to the realization that people eventually stop caring how cool you were in high school (shocking…I know). Now he has to deal with a resentful older brother named Rooster (Masterson), a mother and father who maintain a long-term “It’s Complicated” relationship status, and his first love of his life being in a serious relationship with someone else.

Since its release, critics and fans alike have been polarized by Netflix’s new baby. In a nutshell, it’s like no sitcom we’ve ever seen, and like every sitcom we’ve ever seen. As Netflix continues to devote its time to developing original content (66 releases set for 2016 alone), they have started to take advantage of their status as a subscription-based company with almost no censorship regulation. With Kutcher and Masterson on as producers, the show answers the question: “What would happen if a sitcom actually had the expletives and themes that network TV just can’t show?” The answer: a That 70’s Show reunion with a Two and a Half Men feel and the unapologetic rural grit of…True Grit? Maybe? Kutcher and Masterson haven’t lost their chemistry since the days they played Kelso and Hyde on 70’s. Despite its more adult tone it still has the classic components of a network sitcom – multi-camera setup and laugh track included. It’s the last listed aspect, however, that ultimately sets the show apart from any other television series today.

So why would a premium content provider like Netflix be interested in adding a sitcom that could more-or-less fit into the CBS Thursday lineup? One argument is that they are simply looking to break into the sitcom market that has been historically monopolized by the basic networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox). In fact, some of the most popular shows in Netflix’s catalogue are sitcoms from these very networks (Friends, How I Met Your Mother, That 70’s Show to name a few). By releasing their very own sitcom, Netflix is able to produce a classic sitcom with elements that the major networks aren’t able to touch. These elements of course include, but are not limited to, profanity, regular references and displays of drugs and alcohol, and plenty of sexual innuendo. Perhaps equally relevant, however, is the show’s runtime. With each episode clocking in at around 30 minutes without commercials, The Ranch uses its extra time to contribute to the content and structure of the show, rather than lose its content for the sake of advertisers. Similar to HBO’s subscription model, a Netflix show’s success has nothing to do with commercials ratings, but rather exists primarily to appeal to its intended “niche” market. As long as millions of people are paying to “Netflix and chill” every month, all that matters is that the people who like The Ranch or would consider watching The Ranch have the show available.

We can clearly see why Netflix would be interested in creating this show. The Ranch effectively plays into every stereotype you would imagine in a small, rural town. Beau loves whiskey with a side of steak and a hatred for liberals. Bennett matriarch Maggie (Debra Winger) runs a bar where everyone knows your name. Rooster is a failure to launch that lives by a regimen of beer, hunting, and selling drugs to high schoolers. Pain is fixed by booze, weakness is for wussies, and being a man means never wearing Uggs (see Episode 1 for reference). So why would people from major metropolitan areas necessarily care about a family like this?

The best moments in the show relate to the redneck, small-town nature of the Bennet family. And why wouldn’t we eat up the brash ignorance of these characters? In a year where Donald Trump is the GOP frontrunner, we can’t say we don’t love unapologetic arrogance. It’s entertaining. It’s the things we would love to say without judgement. Life on The Ranch is an escapism no different for the average urban viewer.

Call it a peek into the life of middle America, call it an experimental television format, call it a reflection of our grand ol’ USA. Just don’t call it perfect. It’s no question that the show still has to find its balance as it explores the possibilities of a classic sitcom with unseen creative freedom. Netflix will need to figure out a way for their innovative content to satisfy viewer expectation while still keeping us on our toes. After all, sitcoms weren’t originally made to be binge-watched. Maybe we’ll see a stronger show when Netflix releases Part 2 of The Ranch’s first season. But maybe they just won’t give a rat’s ass, y’hear?

Image Via Netflix