When Colt Bennett (Ashton Kutcher) walks into his childhood home wearing UGG boots, he’s roundly heckled. His experience returning to cowboy country after stints on the East Coast and in Canada is not unlike the viewer’s during this first episode of Netflix’s The Ranch.
It’s a journey back to a time when sitcoms were filmed with multiple cameras on a soundstage in front of a live audience, a format that’s become quite rare. It’s also a departure from the coastal liberal characters who feature so prominently in TV comedy. In The Ranch, the characters’ politics, seldom surprising but often complex, are a departure from the norm for sitcoms—a medium that has long focused much of its attention on young people in big cities.
It’s a surprisingly timely take on a place seldom seen in scripted television, and presents a case for building bridges over modern America’s growing ideological trench, even when it fails to do so itself.
Since President Trump’s election in November, news outlets have treated us to a barrage of profiles attempting to “explain” the Trump supporter, largely overlooking the experiences of those in marginalized populations. In The Ranch, the leads are white, blue-collar, gun-owning country music fans. Colt is a football-wielding womanizer. His father, Beau (Sam Elliott), is a lifelong rancher and has written-in Ronald Reagan in the last three elections. His brother, Rooster (Danny Masterson), is a closet Democrat who never calls out their backward behavior.
Beau’s anti-vegan, pro-Fox News cracks, his tendency to believe conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace, global warming and the moon landing, all suggest him as a modern-day Archie Bunker, Carroll O’Connor’s iconic bigot from All in the Family. At first glance, Colt seems to be The Ranch’s Meathead, Archie’s equally stubborn cultural and moral foil—a role that Kutcher spoofed in a That ‘70s Show sketch back in 2000. This isn’t quite it, though. Colt never takes moral stands against his father, more often reflecting, to borrow the common excuse, “how he was raised.”
The Bennetts converse and try to understand one another. “I think your father means what he says,” Beau’s liberal ex-wife, Maggie (Debra Winger, great as ever), says, “but always goes back to the way things have always been.” His principles are respected when he refuses a “handout,” and partially justified when it’s explained that Colorado property tax increases threaten his ability to keep the ranch. It’s a little reminiscent of 30 Rock’s treatment of Jack Donaghy: let him spout his beliefs without color, then let us laugh at them.
The characters don’t always follow traditional party lines (read: everybody smokes weed). In Season One, which debuted in 2016 in two, 10-episode batches, politics is mostly off-hand character-building. Then Trump got elected. The first half of Season Two, which premiered in June, includes plot lines encouraging debate on two major policy issues: immigration and abortion.
In Season Two, Umberto (Wilmer Valderrama), a friend of Colt and Rooster’s from Mexico, is deported. This is the first that Colt and Rooster learn that Umberto is undocumented, despite obvious signs. Rooster, a Clinton voter who probably sees himself as a white ally, is angry that he didn’t know. He started the bar fight because a stranger made a joke about Umberto and “his kind.” Colt, politically ignorant but nominally Republican, stands up, calls the deportation “bullshit” and says they cannot give up. Most of what we hear of politics today is said by the loudest, proudest and most polarized voices, governed by party orthodoxy and stubbornness, but Colt and Rooster’s emotional responses don’t necessarily adhere to their political affiliations, placing both in a seldom acknowledged gray area: How they feel about their friend is not dictated by a left- or right-wing identity. Only they, or the series’ writers, don’t know where to go from there to turn empathy into action.
Both Bennett boys demand that if Umberto has to go, they’ll go too. It’s performative solidarity that teeters between lionizing and apologizing, but what happens immediately before makes it an important moment for reflection. As Umberto is being processed by the police, Colt and Rooster joke about the fight and their past arrests. Umberto sits beside them silently. They are cocooned by the privilege of native citizenship, fearless and careless as their best friend’s life as he knows it is slipping away.
In this episode, the show leads up to the deportation by telling us, and Colt and Rooster, that Umberto just bought a house. He complains about his mortgage and taking care of his yard. It’s the old ideal of the American Dream, where anyone can come from anywhere and work his or her way to a home of one’s own. It makes the audience watch how easily that can be taken away.
While all this is happening, Colt’s ex-girlfriend Heather is pregnant. Abortion isn’t immediately addressed, but the audience knows what the options are. When it finally is, it’s when Rooster asks Colt whether Heather is going to keep the pregnancy. “Of course she is,” Colt scoffs, clearly not having considered the alternative, nor having asked Heather about it.
In his shortsighted and casual misogyny, Colt forgets to think about what Heather wants. He tells her she’s not thinking things through. He judges her.
Then, the Bennetts talk. Through respectful conversation employing empathy and reason,
Colt sees that what he believes does not matter right now, and that he must be supportive.
Beau: She’s just upset. Understandable. She’ll come around and do the right thing.
Maggie: Maybe she already did.
Colt: You want her to do this?
Maggie: No, I’m not saying that. It’s just that it’s Heather’s choice. The last choice you had was whether to wear a condom. By the way, you chose wrong.
Colt: O.K., so when the kid comes, it’s my responsibility, but to decide whether or not it comes, I don’t get a say?
Maggie: Yes, Colt. That’s exactly right.
Beau: That’s not how I see it. Colt’s got just as much right as Heather.
Colt: Thank you, Dad.
Beau: Shut up. You’re the dipshit that got yourself into this.
Maggie: It’s Heather’s choice because she’s gonna have to carry this baby and it’s gonna affect her life a lot more than it’s gonna affect yours.
It’s an entire pro-choice debate squeezed into two minutes, and results in Colt respecting Heather’s right to choose. It makes what is often treated as an abstract policy issue present and lived-in, and reverses Colt’s understanding.
Experience breeds progressiveness. When a friend is sent to Mexico, it’s easier to see the wrong in mass deportation. When someone you care about considers abortion, you get why right-to-choose is so important.
The fatal flaw in The Ranch’s ostensible political awakenings is that none of them are revisited. Ever. After Heather changes her mind and chooses to have the baby, the reality of parenthood edges out political discourse. Saying they won’t give up getting Umberto back into the U.S. is the last we hear of it (until Valderrama’s next break from NCIS, I guess).
Kutcher took The Ranch to Netflix because he wanted to make a different kind of sitcom, one with bad language and gags about specific products (those UGGs). He wanted creative freedom. It makes sense that Kutcher, socially active investor and co-founder of counter sex-trafficking organization Thorn, also brought in politics.
The second half of The Ranch’s second season should appear on Netflix this fall, a year after Trump’s election reminded us how many Archie Bunkers and Beau Bennetts America still has, and will have to address the political moment more directly. It should continue to make its audience think about voters for both parties, but in the future it needs not to back off or move on. It needs to hold people like Colt and Rooster accountable for their inconsistent morals while still respecting that all voices deserve to be heard.
The Ranch is now streaming on Netflix.
Brandon Latham is a freelance writer and photographer in the Boston area. His entertainment writing has appeared in Indiewire, Teen Vogue Online, Paste and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrALatham.