Saturday, April 2, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Ranch' - Colt Makes a Decision About His Future When He Returns Home in 'Back Where I Come From'

Netflix's The Ranch - Episode 1.01 "Back Where I Come From"

When Colt Bennett returns home from Canada to try out for a semipro Denver team, he learns that his family's ranch has fallen on hard times.

Netflix has the ability to be very eclectic with its original programming. It's business model allows for many different types of shows to be produced. It's a network that is stockpiling shows at the moment with the goal of having some type of original debut every single week. That's very impressive. It's a strategy that basically says, "If you don't like this show this week, don't worry, there's something new next week." The Ranch comes after Daredevil, Flaked, House of Cards, Fuller House and Love. Meanwhile, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Grace and Frankie are next to debut. All of these shows are very different. Netflix is able to do that by trying to appeal to very specific voices with each individual show. With the sheer volume of series, each one can be targeted to a different audience.

The Ranch is only the second multi-camera sitcom Netflix has produced. The first was Fuller House in February of this year. This style of show has been popular since the early days of television. It's a format that has its high moments and its low moments. Right now is a great time for comedy. That extends to the multi-cam setup which has had some nice experiments over the past few years. The Big Bang Theory is the highest rated comedy on television right now. Mom and The Carmichael Show are great throwbacks to the type of serious storytelling that used to be so popular in this format. The Ranch continues this trend of experimentation. With fewer restrictions because it's on Netflix, this show has the ability to play with the rules a bit more than the shows on broadcast television.

The Ranch doesn't have to write to commercial breaks or avoid swear words. It doesn't have to condense its stories down to 20 minutes due to the increased volume of commercials. The Ranch has the ability to play with its running time and format in ways that are exciting. "Back Where I Come From" is 28 minutes long. Yes, there are moments that could have used some better comedic trimming. But overall, the show makes great use out of the time it has to truly dig deeper into these characters. This is a pretty formulaic premiere episode that just sets up a premise. But the creative decisions being made about what the show looks and sounds like are interesting. Does everything pay off in this first episode? No. It's already annoying that the audience bursts into laughter every time a character swears. The show is aspiring to dialogue that feels realistic - including people swearing. But it's just not something studio audiences are used to because of decades of being trained a certain way.

All of this experimentation is more interesting than the story of the actual show though. This episode has the time to play around with the premise and the characters. But all that time really doesn't add a whole lot to a story with an already foregone conclusion. Once again, it's a story about a prodigal son returning home. In this case, it's Ashton Kutcher's Colt who was a high school football legend around town but has consistently thrown away the many chances he's gotten over the years because of his temper and fondness for alcohol and woman. That is on firm display throughout this episode as Colt only returns home because he has a tryout for a semi-pro team in Denver. He's not returning to the family ranch defeated by a failed career. He's still hopelessly pursuing this venture even though it has destroyed his relationship with his family.

The premiere than introduces the rest of Colt's family in some pretty broad strokes. His brother, Rooster (Danny Masterson), had to stay behind to help manage the ranch. His father, Beau (Sam Elliott), is a stuck-in-his-way conservative who values the way things have always been done and is resistant to any type of change. His mother, Maggie (Debra Winger), runs the local bar and enjoys her independence from her former husband - though they still see and sleep with each other a lot of the time. All of these characters are defined in the broadest way possible. The premiere is able to dig a little deeper about what the family history has done to define the relationships of these four people. But it's still just building to that inevitable conclusion where Colt decides to give up on his dream in order to help his father turn the ranch around.

At first, it plays as if Colt's return is this big thing that suddenly makes everything better. He left because of how hurtful Beau was. That created a situation where Rooster had to stay as the land turned against the ranch. And now, that Colt is back the area gets its first decent storm all year long. Colt and the show want to connect those two circumstances. And yet, it's very wise of the show to say that not everything in this family will suddenly be fixed just because Colt has returned. His return does bring about a change. But this premiere succeeds during its more dramatic moments where Colt and Beau are fighting about the lifestyle choices that Colt has made even though he is a great ranch hand. It's still crass a lot of the time. There is still a lot of sex jokes in this show. But there is also enough of a hint that the show is interested in exploring who these characters really are while embracing the change in their situation. That's an exciting thing for the future. This premise may be too straight-forward. If the character work becomes strong though, then The Ranch could be something special and interesting.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Back Where I Come From" was written by Don Reo & Jim Patterson and directed by David Trainer.
  • It's great that the show is choosing to depict life in middle America and the struggles of how ranchers fit into today's world. Beau is judgmental about Colt wearing uggs and Rooster buying car parts on Amazon. Those beliefs do feel like the butt of the joke a lot of the time. But it's still an interesting place to build character.
  • It's also intriguing to see the characters actually working on the ranch. It could easily just be a job that happens offscreen all the time. But here, Colt actually helps deliver a calf in the middle of a breach delivery. That shows that he has the skill set to actually be an asset to this job. It would have been easy to have him be a hindrance who doesn't know anything about ranching.
  • Rooster somewhat plays as the comic relief character who's sole purpose is to break up the tension happening in any given scene. He does have one moment where he talks openly with Colt about what him leaving did to his life. But it's an awkward dynamic because Rooster is technically the older brother in this situation.
  • Colt picking up a woman, Heather, at his mother's bar was a pretty unnecessary moment. It largely just shows just how much of a womanizer he still is. He may have some clarity over his life. But he's still got his temper and his vices too.
  • Maggie and Beau are separated. But every time they see each other, they fight. And every time they fight, they wind up sleeping together. So, they'll still be prominent parts of each other's lives because Maggie's bar may be the only one in town.

As noted in previous reviews from series released all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.