‘The Ranch’ Proves That Rural America Doesn’t Always Have To Be The Butt Of The Joke (Sort Of)

In the third act of The Ranch‘s first episode, “Back Where I Come From,” a moment occurs between Colt Bennett (Ashton Kutcher) and his mother, Maggie (Debra Winger) that many adult children and their parents can relate to. It also sets a precedent for the new Netflix series from former Two and a Half Men showrunners Don Reo and Jim Patterson, not only for the show’s preferred type of humor, but also for the subjects it chooses to cover, how it covers them, and who it caters its coverage to. As a result, The Ranch is less about reviving what The New York Times calls “a defunct style of multicamera comedy” and more about serving a rural American audience that laments its lack of representation in the current world of “too much television.”

Colt, a quarterback for a Canadian semipro football team who was fired following an unfortunate incident involving an ice sculpture of Wayne Gretzky and singer Shania Twain, returns home to the fictional town of Garrison, Colo. He’s trying out for a Denver semipro team, but until that happens, he’ll be staying with his temperamental, Obama-hating, moon landing-truther father, Beau (Sam Elliott) and his older brother, Rooster (Danny Masterson). Meanwhile, his parents are divorced for reasons that aren’t fully explained in the first episode.

Hence the scene in question, which occurs the morning of Colt’s tryout. He runs into his mother adorned in nothing but her ex-husband’s over-sized shirt, which confuses him.

COLT: Mom?

MAGGIE: Oh hey, Colt.

COLT: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa — what are you doing here?

MAGGIE: Your father.

A crude joke? Yes. Guaranteed to get laughs from the live studio audience and a few chuckles from those watching at home? Yup. Yet despite the line’s cheapness and viewers’ likely discomfort, both this feeling and the humor it inspires are truer than the town of Garrison. Few things are as awkward for families as the topic of sex (especially conservative ones), and while Colt didn’t catch his parents in the act, Kutcher’s subsequent exclamations, interruptions, and gags speak volumes — loud enough for anyone who gives the show a chance to hear.

Many of the jokes in The Ranch work as simply as this quick turn of phrase. A few running gags pop up, like Colt’s preference for UGG boots and he and his brother’s lustful machinations for the town’s recent high school graduates, but the comedy never becomes too complex. It remains accessible, much in the same manner that older sitcoms like RoseanneFamily MattersAll in the Family — and yes, even The Andy Griffith Show — programs focused on distinct family units that dealt with sometimes delicate matters like sex in uncomfortably funny ways.

Then again, a men’s club sense of humor is pervasive throughout The Ranch, and Beau, Colt and Rooster are more often than not the ones who deliver it. Maggie manages to swing it with enough one-two punches to hold her own with the rest of the Bennetts. Even Colt’s underwritten ex-girlfriend Abby (Elisha Cuthbert) gets a few good ones in at the would-be football player’s expense, despite the writers not giving her anything more than a tired romantic triangle subplot.

That is to say, yes — there are many valid complaints that can be directed at The Ranch. As Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson puts it, “There are no non-white or gay characters on the show, because this is a butch, good-times eden where no one should have to fuss with diversity.” The hyper-focus on white males is an element many reviewers have mentioned — even the ones who, like Lawson, enjoyed the sitcom for its watchability and its surprisingly adept blend of comedic and dramatic production values.

This focus also positions it as a show likely to appeal to the largely white rural population of the United States, which more often finds itself represented on reality television programs like Duck DynastyAccording to the 2010 U.S. Census, 59.5 million Americans (or nearly 20 percent of the total population) lived in rural areas. Two years later, the non-profit Housing Assistance Council determined that 77.8 percent of that rural population fell under the umbrella census term, “White Not Hispanic.” This particular facet of the country is the audience The Ranch could corner with its rough-around-the-edges story about the Bennetts, a somewhat dysfunctional family of ranchers living in rural Colorado.

It might not be limited to that audience, though. This Texan-turned-New Englander found himself noting all the times Beau’s heated jabs at his sons reminded him of his uncles, his friends’ fathers and other adult male figures. And Maggie’s uncanny ability to snipe back with the final word. And the sibling rivalry displayed between Colt and Rooster. So if this peaceable, Obama-loving, moon landing-believing Texpat can identify with The Ranch, then perhaps enough people with similar ties to the country’s non-urban parts will too. We like dick jokes just as much as the rest of you.

The Ranch is available to stream on Netflix.