Ashton Kutcher highlights the value of telling unexpected narratives through humor on Netflix’s ‘The Ranch’
From its name alone, The Ranch, a Netflix original sitcom, signals to viewers that it ain’t like many other sitcoms, past or present. It’s not named after its lead family, The Bennetts, as with The Jeffersons or The Goldbergs. It makes no lofty declaration, like I Love Lucy or Everybody Hates Chris.
The show’s name is emblematic of more than just its setting. “The Ranch” represents the sense of place, the lifestyle, and most importantly, the purpose of its characters.
With such a name comes a distinct take on the work-life balance that seems to plague the characters “punching the clock” in most other modern comedies set in cities or suburbia. The work is hard, the hours are long, but it’s that very nature of the job that makes it unlike anything else in these characters’ lives — even that of Colt, the Bennetts’ prodigal son who returns to the ranch after a 15-year hiatus pursuing a professional football career with a middling level of success.
Played by A Plus co-founder Ashton Kutcher, Colt is “a guy that, when he decides he wants something, he’ll either get it or die trying,” whether that something is his father’s approval or the long lost love of his high school sweetheart.
“The whole first 10 episodes were really a product of establishing Colt’s return to home and all the complications that come with that,” Kutcher tells A Plus. The other members of the Bennett family — his father (Sam Elliot), older brother Rooster (Danny Masterson, a co-executive producer and fellow That ’70s Show alum), and mother (Debra Winger) — greet their youngest son’s reappearance with surprise and a grain of salt, or rather, salt lick.
“We all have adult relationships with our parents that are very different than the relationships we had when we were kids, and we have adult relationships with our siblings that are very different than the relationships we had when we were kids,” Kutcher, who’s an executive producer on the show, adds. “I think really exploring that and learning about it and laughing at it opens up a window to laugh at our lives and the silly kind of hijinks that ensue.”
Those hijinks culminated in part one with two cliffhangers. According to Kutcher, the second part began on October 7 — like an old Ford truck teetering on a ledge — with everything “sort of up in the air.” Consequently, those relationships the first part spent so much time and effort establishing are destined to come into greater “conflict with one another.”
“And [Colt] has to go from having recognition that he’s home, and that’s where he’s gonna stay, to actually get the life that he wants once he’s there,” Kutcher adds. “So, it’s one thing to decide that this is where you’re gonna be. It’s another thing to try to build the life that you want in the place where you decide to be.”
While Colt fights for what that life might entail, he and his family fight for the life of their ranch and the age-old, hard-won values that guide it. Kutcher describes the show as “a country album … because one week it’s about drinking beer and getting drunk and doing something stupid, and the next week it’s the dance, and the next week it’s a love song, and the next week it’s tractors and semi-trucks and getting the cattle to the green grass,” but it’s also a swan song for the country way of life.
The rancher, as the show discusses, is a dying breed — hunted by large, corporate farms wanting to consolidate as much land and livestock as possible.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, farm and ranch families, like the Bennetts, currently make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population. The threat of large agricultural corporations to not just their livelihoods but in many ways their very life blood, looms briefly over The Ranch in this season’s first half, but becomes one of the key narrative arcs of the second. It centers on Colt’s brother Rooster, and his friend Umberto, an immigrant worker played by Wilmer Valderrama, another That ’70s Show alum.
The problems these characters encounter may be unfamiliar to the average Netflix user, but that just provides viewers will all the more reason to (binge-)watch and learn. “There’s probably a lot of stuff in it that will go over the heads of ‘city folks,’ which you don’t get to say about much,” Kutcher explains. “Most of these shows you see about people in the middle of America, they’re making fun of [them] — the things they do and the ways they do it — and this show actually makes fun of the rest, of city folks.”
While he hopes the city folks who sit down to watch his show in the comfort and company of their smart TVs “find a little sense of humor about themselves in the things that they have as priorities in their lives,” he also hopes the comedy provides insight into the often unseen lives of a typically marginalized “other” in our society.
“I think that great shows are built on cultures we don’t always understand and are curious about,” he said. “I think that for a lot of people, getting a glimpse at this culture … is really, really interesting.”
The show’s first part shed light on the enduring culture of America’s small, family ranchers. The second aims to inform its audience on that of the modern immigrant worker doing his best to carve out a living in the middle of a foreign, and sometimes hostile, country.
While Kutcher and Masterson reached out to Valderrama for the part of Umberto because he’s both a good friend and even better actor, he’s also arguably most well known for playing Fez, an immigrant, albeit of unknown origin, onThat ’70s Show. While the actor of Colombian and Venezuelan descent was born in Miami, Valderrama’s characters often become incidental representations of the immigrant population in the U.S.
Unlike Fez, who is a lovable if somewhat too love-hungry goon, Umberto is — yes, still a bit of a goon (anyone who hangs out with Colt and Rooster must be) — but overall, an intelligent, hardworking, and resilient person pursuing the elusive dream named after his adopted country.
It’s awkward, if not outright embarrassing, to feel compelled to draw attention to these characteristics that would be automatically assumed of any of the white, natural-born citizens on the show. However, as Kutcher pointed out: “I think there is a lot of rhetoric in the public right now about immigration, and I think there’s a lot that’s misunderstood about immigration because a lot of these farms and ranchers … are actually built on the backs of immigrant labor in many cases.” He hopes viewers “will see from the arc of [Valderamma’s] character … a slightly more informed understanding of what that’s about and how it holds things up and potentially what happens when it goes away.”
With these kinds of storylines, “The Ranch” lives by Newton’s unwritten law of comedy — for every moment of levity there is an equal and opposite moment of drama.
“It sort of harkens back to a time when sitcoms weren’t afraid to be dramatic. You get real characters where the laughs come out of who they are, not just what they’re saying or pre-canned jokes that we’ve all heard a hundred times,” Kutcher says. “And on a broader note, I think there’s a giant misconception about what conservative, middle, blue collar America looks like, and is like, and what the beliefs and values are of those people, and I think you get a glimpse into a slightly misunderstood culture.”
Like the star player of a high school football team, The Ranch aims to hit harder with each new season. This storyline is just the beginning as, when it comes to immigrant workers, many more are employed and exploited by the factory farming industry. An estimated 38 percent of all factory farm workers are from outside the U.S. and have an undocumented status, making them ideal candidates to pay a low wage, work more than 10 hours a day, and threaten with deportation if they try to fight these and any other harsh working conditions forced upon them. “We’ll get there,” Kutcher says, when asked about exploring the one-sided relationship between factory farming and immigrant workers. “I can’t say too much about it, but we’ll get there.”
Because “The Ranch” is a sitcom, hope — complete with its own laugh track — springs eternal.
It’d come as no surprise to The Ranch’s viewers if the way the characters “get there” is with a Bud Light in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Whether clad in cowboy boots or Louboutin heels, all that matters is that the audience drunkenly stumbles right along there with them.
By A Plus’ LINDSAY GELLER