In January 2013, Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix, told GQ that the streaming company’s “goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” At the time, House of Cards, Netflix’s first heavily promoted original series, had yet to premiere. Sarandos’ remarks seemed eyebrow-raisingly ambitious, a bit of braggadocio from an underdog picking a fight with a heavyweight. Three years later, thanks to dozens of shows, apparently bottomless funds, and no publically available mechanism for registering failure, Sarandos’ comment no longer accurately reflects the scope of Netflix’s ambitions. Netflix doesn’t want to become HBO. Netflix wants to become every channel on your television.
The Ranch, a new sitcom premiering this week on Netflix, seems like a modest entity to be proof of Netflix’s grandiose intentions—but it is. Created by Two and Half Men’s Jim Patterson and Don Reo (also the creator of Blossom), The Ranch is a multicamera family sitcom with a laugh track. It stars Ashton Kutcher as Colt Bennett, a 34-year semi-pro football player who returns to the family cattle farm, a homestead in rural, drought-stricken Colorado that has fallen on hard times, after 15 years away. Colt has a deeply contentious relationship with his withering father, Beau (Sam Elliott), and the tension between these two stubborn know-it-alls is constantly being remediated or exacerbated by elder son, Rooster (Danny Masterson, Kutcher’s That ’70s Show compatriot), and Maggie (Debra Winger), Colt and Rooster’s mother, who is estranged-with-benefits from Beau and runs the local bar.
The Ranch is a red-state sitcom, though it takes place in the swing state of Colorado, and is good enough to be watched by people of any political affiliation. The goodness sneaks up on you. It is a sitcom that is meatier than it is funny, unusually in touch with the painful, disappointing aspects of life. Television, with its relentless focus on upwardly mobile, young, cosmopolitan white people, underserves all kinds of audiences: people of color, older viewers, the working class, rural Americans, and “values” voters. The Ranch is aimed squarely at these last three categories, members of which, in the broken calculus of American politics, often believe their circumstances to be inversely linked to the circumstance of members of the first. But The Ranch is sophisticated in pursuit of its audience, preferring to dignify the Bennetts’ hardscrabble circumstances than to raise anxiety by fixating on their precariousness. Unlike the immensely popular red-state sitcom masquerading as a reality show, Duck Dynasty, The Ranch’s dog-whistling to conservatives never becomes a bigoted shriek (even though there is an episode in which the Bennetts go duck hunting).
The Bennetts live in a small town with one streetlight. Everyone drives a pickup truck. Maggie resides in an Airstream trailer. One of the sets is a hayloft. There are guns all over the house. The only person of color on the show is Pedro, mentioned but never seen, the farm hand Beau had to let go when the farm fell on hard times. The Bennetts work hard, from before sunup, and they can barely keep the electricity on. Everyone is a borderline alcoholic, for lack of anything better to do. Beau and Maggie love each other but can’t live together, and it is alternately heartbreaking and romantic. Colt is asked to speak at his high school about his glory days as a quarterback and shows up wasted, embarrassing himself. Driving home drunk on a tractor, he gets pulled over by a cop who he knew in high school. “What’s wrong with you,” the cop asks Colt. “I peaked in high school,” he replies, in domestic-draft-beer veritas.
Elliott’s Beau is the taciturn hero of the piece, a man way too hard on his son, but admirable in his self-reliance, who works ceaselessly to hold onto that which he has built himself. He is an out-and-out conservative and probably a supporter of Cliven Bundy. Colt, explaining how upset his father is about his return, says to his brother, “Remember how he reacted when Obama won? This was worse.” Colt threatens to tell Beau that Rooster voted Democrat. Losing his temper at Colt, Beau tells him, “There are enough people in this country with their hands out!” Despite being affected by it, Beau does not believe in global warming. When a long-awaited rainstorm arrives, he screams to the heavens, “Screw you, Al Gore!”
But the best moment in the early episodes is a joke on Beau that turns into a kind of noble character beat: Beau comes out on the porch at 10 p.m. to berate Rooster and Colt for talking too loudly. The laugh is that he is wearing tighty-whities, so often seen in the wild, but so rarely seen on television (with Breaking Bad as a notable exception). But Elliott, standing ram-rod straight through to the tips of his white hair, is unabashed and uncowed. By force of personality, the punch line withers away, transforming into a telling detail: Beau would wear tighty-whities, and he wouldn’t spend one second feeling embarrassed about it. You can laugh, but he’s no joke. It’s a moment that reminds you that The Ranch’s barebones plot description—a prodigal son returns to a dysfunctional family fighting for its livelihood in the American West—could serve a drama just as well as a comedy.
The Ranch makes too many cracks about Colt’s girlishness, the ultimate insult on a cattle ranch, and the brothers have an unseemly interest in younger women. But even this interest plays out less seedily than it might. In the first episode, Colt hooks up with Heather (Kelli Goss) a 23-year old, the former student of his ex-girlfriend (Elisha Cuthbert), and she seems like a familiar prop: the ditz down to have sex and walk through a sitcom in just her bra. But over the course of the season, she transforms, first into a “cool girl”—sex-positive, relaxed, not looking for anything complicated—and then into a real person, a woman who raised calves, does rodeo as a hobby, and will call Colt on his bad behavior. (To Colt’s credit, it’s only after she becomes a real person that he starts to really like her.)
The Ranch has more cursing and pathos than most network sitcoms, but it is the kind of show that the networks should be airing: a sitcom set in a real place, dealing with real issues. Maybe it could have been slotted in on CBS, where Kutcher was until Two and Half Men went off the air last season, or next to ABC’s The Middle, another show about a struggling white working-class family whose characters are treated respectfully, even though, in the privacy of a voting booth, they just might go Trump. (To be fair, Beau has written Ronald Reagan’s name in on the past three elections and the short-fingered vulgarian will probably make it four).
And yet this show is not on network television: It’s on Netflix. Netflix made a splash by playing the prestige game, creating shows that could air—or looked like they could air—on esteemed cable networks. But those shows always rubbed shoulders with Netflix’s other offerings, workaday comedies, dramas, and reality shows from other networks. Netflix’s utility, if its not its brand, has always been built on the broad nature of its content. Netflix only continues to grow insofar as it attracts new subscribers, and The Ranch and other recent Netflix series Fuller House are a signal that it wants to go wider, continuing to compete for cable’s audience while going after the networks’ too.
Netflix has the same advantage over the networks that it has over cable, but it’s even more powerful in the network context: Netflix doesn’t have to care about ratings. It can air broad comedies, without actually needing them to be broad—i.e. it can air multicamera sitcoms with a widely accessible comedic style without worrying about attracting a large audience. As network audiences are dwindling and more and more sitcoms are becoming single-camera, the multicamera sitcom is becoming a niche product, if not yet a niche taste (though, it stands to reason that the latter is a matter of time, given the former). Netflix is designed to serve niches, while niches are the bane of the networks’ existence. For the networks, The Ranch should look like a scary thing—not just a series for Netflix subscribers with right-leaning inclinations, but one for any viewers who long for a good ol’ sitcom.