Each episode of “The Ranch” begins with a country song. (Its theme is a cover of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” performed by Shooter Jennings and Lukas Nelson, the sons of Waylon and Willie.) Each one ends with a different country song. But really this sitcom, whose first 10 episodes are available on Netflix, is a country song all the way through.
It’s got broken dreams, hard times and old flames. It’s got guns, trucks and cheap beer. Like many tunes, “The Ranch” sounds formulaic at first, and mostly, it is. But then it hits you with the hook: a note of raw, acoustic emotion that cuts through the slick studio production.
“The Ranch” is a prodigal-son story, complete with fatted calves. Colt Bennett (Ashton Kutcher), having washed up as a semipro quarterback in Canada, slinks back to Garrison, Colorado (pop. 512), where he was a high school hero. His father, Beau (the Western veteran Sam Elliott), puts Colt to work grudgingly alongside his dutiful but immature other son, Rooster (Danny Masterson, Kutcher’s onetime “That ’70s Show” co-star).
The show comes from Don Reo and Jim Patterson, the showrunners of “Two and a Half Men.” Think of it as “One and Two Half-Men,” with the crotchety Beau riding herd on his two man-children. Beau’s wife, Maggie (Debra Winger), happily lives separated from him, running the local bar. (“Give me a whiskey the size you’d need if you were still living with Dad,” Colt asks her. She hands him two bottles.)
Like Netflix’s “Fuller House,” “The Ranch” is reviving a defunct style of multicamera comedy, in this case the kind of rural sitcom that used to be common before networks started chasing the upscale Ross-and-Rachel demographic.
But it’s updated with the risque attitude of “Men,” on which Kutcher appeared as Charlie Sheen’s amiable replacement, and some not-for-prime-time content. It’s a little disorienting to hear a studio audience, a broadcast TV staple, laughing at punch lines that include a strong obscenity, or to catch a flash of Colt’s bare backside.
“The Ranch” is only a middling comedy, loaded up with corny and broad gags. (Colt spends a chunk of the premiere with his arm up a cow’s birth canal, and there’s a long, painful running joke that emasculates him for wearing UGG boots.) But for a few minutes every episode, it’s a surprisingly decent drama.
As Beau and Colt butt heads, it becomes clear they’re each fighting a version of their own stubborn selves. Kutcher’s Colt is essentially a 34-year-old version of his dim, cheerful Kelso from “That ‘70s Show” weighted with the knowledge that his best days happened half his lifetime ago.
Elliott, most recently a chillingly low-key villain in the final season of “Justified,” plays his rancher like beef jerky that can talk: leathery, all-business, more likely to show affection to his calves than to his kids. Beau’s red-meat rigidity is funny — he pronounces “quinoa” as if the word ought to be bleeped — but when he tells Colt to leave during a fight, there’s real menace: Beau in no way, shape or form believes he’s a sitcom character.
Amid all this USDA-prime masculinity, the female roles are secondary but strong. Winger wears Maggie like a lived-in pair of jeans; she and Beau have a detente, with occasional hookups, that suggests a long, complex history.
Elisha Cuthbert (“24”) is engaging as Abby, Colt’s woulda-coulda-shoulda former love, about to settle down — or just settle, period — with her stable, boring boyfriend.
Garrison is a long way from Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. It’s a hard-living, hard-drinking, nostalgic place where Colt’s not the only one who feels his best days are past. The show’s raunchy-but-wistful prairie populism feels especially relevant in this election year, when the media and political parties are confronting their blind spots for working-class concerns.
Not that “The Ranch” is overtly political. (Mostly, its politics are about spoofing Beau’s character; when he goes on the warpath, Rooster says, “I haven’t seen him that mad since Obama released the birth certificate.”) But it takes characters normally written off or romanticized and treats them as full, flawed people. The cowboy term for that would be “respect,” and “The Ranch” both gives and earns it.