The Ranch. Available Friday, April 1, on Netflix.
The most interesting thing about The Ranch is in the credits. That's not intended as a put-down; this sitcom about a football hero returning to his hometown after playing out the string in the wide world is reasonably funny, its touches of poignance satisfactorily bittersweet, and there are lots of less profitable ways to spend half an hour with your TV, many of which do not even involve a Kardashian.
The Ranch's significance lies in its ordinariness, starting with its plot. Ashton Kutcher stars as Colt Bennett, a local boy made not so good. A star high school quarterback whose wastrel ways undid him in college, the NFL and now even Canadian football, he's come home to the hardscrabble family ranch in Colorado while he tries out for a $250-a-game semi-pro gig.
His father, Beau (Sam Elliott), isn't exactly thrilled to see him. "Every opportunity you've had," Beau notes with a hard stare, "you've either smoked it or drank it or screwed it away." Less astringently, the sentiment echoes through Colt's family and former friends.
Older brother Rooster (Danny Masterson, Men at Work), who stayed behind to work on the ranch while Colt pursued and then botched his dreams, isn't happy to resume his place in the shadow of the star. His ex-cheerleader ex (Elisha Cuthbert, Happy Endings) vomits on him. Only Colt's saloon-keep mother, Maggie (Debra Winger, in her first major Hollywood project in two decades), long and mysteriously estranged from Beau, seems pleased.
But Colt's arrival seems to ignite some flickering family spirit. He and Rooster resume brotherly pursuits like sports talk ("You are insane, there's no way Jack Daniel's kicks Johnny Walker's ass!") and lines guaranteed to end a romance just before Valentine's Day, thus avoiding an expensive dinner ("Hey, has your sister got a new set of titties?") Even Maggie attempts a fitful semi-reconciliation with Beau, with decidedly mixed results.
In short, The Ranch broadly resembles about a thousand other TV show you've already seen, including a couple (CBS's rehabbing-mother-daughter reunion Mom and Fox's return of the Hollywood-airhead prodigal son The Grinder) on the broadcast air right now. Its rural red-state setting offers a few unusual trappings, chiefly Elliott's rough-hewn turn as a cowboy whose political convictions (the moon landing and global warming are hoaxes, but the North Korean military threat to Colorado isn't) are only slightly less tenacious than his parenting style. (Maverick: "We don't fight, Beau. I bring something up, you shut me down, and that's the end of discussion." Beau: "That's not true. End of discussion!")
But basically, shorn of a few four-letter words and an occasional arm thrust up the cervix of a cow, there's nothing about The Ranch that wouldn't fit in just fine on network television, and that goes for both sides of the camera: The veteran, bankable cast. The workmanlike producers (Don Reo and Jim Patterson, lately of Two and a Half Men, as is Kutcher). The cookie-cutter sets. The three-camera photography and editing. The laugh track.
Yet The Ranch isn't on broadcast or even cable TV, but Netflix. (Ten episodes go on-line Friday; another 10 later in the year.) And, far more than push-the-envelope series like Orange Is the New Black, experimental oddities like Sense8, or hey-check-us-out blockbusters like 11.22.63, television executives should hear a distinct alarm bell on the soundtrack of The Ranch. When producers and stars with easy access to the TV suits take their perfectly conventional work online instead, the digital future stops being the future and becomes the right now.
Photo Credit: "The Ranch," Netflix