Netflix has been opportunistic about seizing upon titles, talent and genres that more traditional TV sources have neglected, which likely explains its interest in doing a multi-camera sitcom, albeit one peppered with pay-cable-type expletives. Enter “The Ranch,” which, starring Ashton Kutcher, and coming from “Two and a Half Men” alums Don Reo and Jim Patterson, might as well be called simply “Three Men” given the similarities.
Certainly, nobody strained any creative muscles in crafting this concept. Kutcher plays Colt, a perpetual Peter Pan who has spent the last several years pursuing a semipro football career, still something of a local hero because of his exploits as a college quarterback. Colt stops by home in Colorado en route to a tryout, and quickly finds himself at odds again with his dad, Beau (Sam Elliott), and older brother Rooster (Danny Masterson), who never left and, between put-downs, fills his sibling in on the fact that the ranch is struggling. That prompts Colt to – what else? – opt to hang around, even if that means butting heads with the old man.
Also in the picture is their mom, Maggie (Debra Winger, in a sort-of grown-up version of her “Urban Cowboy” role), Beau’s estranged wife, who runs the local bar, where everyone rather amiably hangs out. Subsequent episodes also bring in “24’s” Elisha Cuthbert as Colt’s old girlfriend, who has moved on, even if Colt hasn’t.
With Kutcher and Masterson back together, “The Ranch” might garner attention as a mini-“That ’70s Show” reunion, but the primary draw here is Elliott, operating well within his wheelhouse as the irascible dad. Beyond that, it’s tempting to dismiss this farm-friendly concept by asking, “Where’s the beef?”
Aside from the occasional bouts of blue language, and Beau’s obviously conservative political views, there’s virtually nothing here to distinguish the show from any number of failed network sitcoms, even if the project tries not to be quite as housebound by getting outside a bit. (Granted, even when they’re in the barn birthing a calf, the prodding laughs from the studio audience continue.)
That’s not to say the writing doesn’t periodically become a bit more pointed, with Colt at one point announcing, “I peaked in high school!” Still, that’s emblematic of a series in which everything feels not merely derivative but a little too on the nose, as if an audience weaned on such fare couldn’t discern where its various beats are heading, like Beau’s admission that he was tough on his kid because he saw so much best-of-the-family potential in him, with the inevitable “I can hear you!” rim shot from Masterson to follow.
Kutcher, of course, was rather famously enlisted to wring a few more seasons out of “Men” after Charlie Sheen’s public meltdown, and somewhat ironically, he’s much closer to the Charlie Harper role here than he was in that series. Elliott doesn’t get to do that much comedy, and seems to relish the opportunity here. Mostly, it’s hard to escape a sense that everyone involved is leveraging past performance in the name of a paycheck for what doesn’t exactly look like a backbreaking gig.
As noted, Netflix has enjoyed some success (as measured by media attention, since nobody knows the viewer numbers) by seeking to zig where other outlets are sagging, such as its family-oriented “Fuller House” revival. Yet while there’s clearly room for a wide array of original product, “The Ranch” doesn’t exactly feel like the sort of series that merits shelling out money for a subscription. It’s more a mild way for committed Netflix users to pass the time – something to graze on, presumably, once they have consumed pretty much everything with any substance in their queues.