It’s a strange time in the life of the sitcom. Somehow, television seems suddenly incapable of producing a true hit comedy, a show that goes beyond simple ratings success and enters the cultural zeitgeist. While Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory—both of which premiered last decade—capture viewers and Emmys, the shows have never penetrated the fabric of Western culture. No one calls another “such a Claire” or inserts “Bazinga” into their everyday parlance. The last sitcom to find such relevance was Friends, which left the airwaves in 2004. While the drama, be it Game of Thrones or Mad Men or the soap of Shondaland, has found a way into life beyond television, the sitcom has been left out of our conversations and colloquialisms. This is partly because of ambitionless productions, partly due to the ebb and flow of viewers’ tastes, but mostly because we, as viewers, have been left wanting for better comedy fare.
I’m critical of the sitcom, and yet hopeful for its return to prominence. But, perhaps I’ve been too hard on the form. Maybe it’s time to lower expectations to find a suitable metric with which to measure artistic success. I came to this realization while watching Netflix’s The Ranch. When I first tried the latest Ashton Kutcher project, I got about two and a half minutes in before giving up. Formulaic plot, grating laugh track, Ashton Kutcher. But a day later I returned, because I felt I owed any attempt at art more, because I have the utmost respect for and affinity with co-stars Sam Elliott and Debra Winger and wondered what they were doing in a sitcom, because I have fond memories of Kutcher and co-star/co-producer Danny Masterson in That ‘70s Show, and because I was bored and there’s not much left I haven’t watched. And though The Ranch won’t single-handedly change the sitcom, it is a surprisingly deft, funny, and insightful portrayal of Middle America, and a hopeful sign of a resurgence of the multi-cam sitcom. Once a prominent form that was always TV’s connection to theatre, its association with art over entertainment, the multi-cam has given way to the single-cam sitcom, reserved mostly for family comedies (The Middle, Last Man Standing, Fuller House) or Chuck Lorre.
The Ranch is about a former high school football star Colt Bennett (Kutcher) who returns home to his family’s struggling Garrison, Colorado ranch after failing to make it as a pro. His parents Beau and Maggie (Elliott and Winger) live separate lives, torn apart by Beau’s stubbornness and a dying way of life. Maggie owns a bar in town, and lives in an Airstream out back. Beau runs the family business with the son who stayed, Rooster (Masterson). They are middle-class farming Americans: Bud, bourbon, and bovines. But while TV tends to make caricatures out of the red states and their denizens, The Ranchtreats them with respect and deference. The characters in The Ranch feel genuine; people struggling to make ends meet in a world that doesn’t pay them much attention.
The Ranch is the first sitcom, or TV series for that matter, to accurately and respectfully discuss middle class families and values since Roseanne. For whatever reason, sitcoms tend to revel in the lives of the upper class, featuring characters with fabulous jobs, luscious apartments, and lives of privilege. Poverty is either mocked or ignored, though usually played for laughs. The Ranch doesn’t aspire to find its characters better lives; it concerns itself with the hardship of the lives they live. Like Roseanne, The Ranch is about paying bills, supporting your family, and settling down with a beer at day’s end.
Politically, The Ranch differs from Roseanne in its right wing leanings. Jokes are made at Al Gore’s expense; the liberal world of the blue states is mocked for its folly. But, in turn, The Ranch doesn’t mine Beau Bennett’s conservatism for easy laughs, but rather respects a character who may have voted for George Bush simply because in his democracy that seemed like the best choice for his family, his ranch, his livelihood. And The Ranch doesn’t linger on the clash between Democrats and Republicans as a point of narrative, but lets it exist in the fabric of the show’s setting.
The Ranch also shares a kinship with Roseanne in the way it allows the comedy to disappear into drama. Roseanne was graceful in its discussion of adolescence, poverty, domestic abuse, gender roles, loss, and sexuality. While The Ranch has yet to delve into such issues, and perhaps never will, like ‘Roseanne’ it is not afraid to leave the jokes and laugh track behind and settle in silence, or anger, or sadness. Freed of the twenty-two minute episode constraints of the network model, Netflix gives The Ranch the luxury of long scenes that defy the laugh-a-minute construct of the contemporary sitcom. The way that part one of season one (part two will be released later in the year) evolved promises that issues of substance may be addressed, and the series has proved itself capable (aesthetically, anyway) of crafting such television.
At the core of the show is redemption—primarily in the reparation of a fractured family, a fractured way of life, a fractured class—as Colt tries to make amends for his failings as a son, as a football player, as a man. In many ways it’s also about the redemption of the multi-cam form, an art lost in the raging sea of single-cam comedy and a form that’s lost its way. But beyond that it’s about the reclamation of the careers of its cast. Kutcher never became the rom-com/action star that Hollywood and Demi Moore expected after the breakout success of That ‘70s Show, and always seemed like Charlie Sheen’s stand-in on Two and a Half Men. Masterson disappeared into the abyss of on-and-gone series like Men At Work and off-camera successes as a DJ and entrepreneur. Winger, once Hollywood’s it girl, a three-time Oscar nominee, left acting for seven years in the late 90s. To see her in a multi-cam sitcom—and being wonderful in it—goes against the image of a preconceived difficult star, who took her craft (and self) too seriously. And Elliott, well, Elliott was born to play a rancher. His genius pervades each scene, and to see him both satirize and build upon his caricature is sitcom perfection.
I didn’t have high hopes for The Ranch, but somehow fell for its simple charm, its subtlety, its quiet ambition, and its cast. When season one, part two arrives, I hope it’s able to maintain its delicate balance between comedy and drama, its affection for blue collar America, and its use of the liberty of Netflix. I also hope that they give Elisha Cuthbert, who plays Colt’s high school sweetheart, more to do. Cuthbert was sublime in the gone-too-soon Happy Endings, and the only thing worth watching in One Big Happy. While I would also love more of Elliott and Winger, Cuthbert hasn’t quite gotten her due as an actress, perhaps because the industry prefers to see her as a Maxim pinup, literally The Girl Next Door. She seems to embody the essence of comedic brilliance, and the ability to temper that with dramatic flare. There’s a quiet perfection to her comedy, like she doesn’t seem to know she’s in on the joke. Hers is role that is often left scraps, the love interest. But her talents beg for more screen time, which would allow The Ranch to continue to evolve into, dare I say it, a model for what a relevant multi-cam sitcom can be.
Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.