There’s a certain artifice about laugh tracks in traditional, multi-camera sitcoms. The laugh track can be an overused, frequently unnecessary aural element on TV that strives to elevate a show’s humor but instead becomes too distracting for its own good. CBS’s “Mom” and NBC’s “The Carmichael Show” are currently some of the only TV comedies with a laugh track that manage to subvert traditional sitcom standards by incorporating socially conscious themes and emotionally involved characters into their plots. Netflix’s newest sitcom “The Ranch” has the potential to do the same, but it first needs to learn how to escape the dreadful quality of the laugh track. And then some.
Balancing on a tricky tightrope between ribald comedy and melodrama, “The Ranch” centers around the dysfunctional Bennett family. Considering its conservative undertones, you might expect “The Ranch” to take place somewhere in the South, but the show is surprisingly set in the swing state of Colorado. Regardless, everything about the show screams red state values, from the country-themed opening credits to the good ol’ American town backdrop. Ashton Kutcher (“Two and a Half Men”) and Danny Masterson (“Men at Work”) reunite from their “That ’70s Show” glory days as the two dysfunctional Bennett brothers — swaggering Colt and sarcastic Jameson “Rooster,” respectively. After six years apart from his stern father Beau (the stellar Sam Elliott, “The Big Lebowski”), Colt returns home to make amends while trying out for the local football team. Colt’s endearing mom Maggie (Debra Winger, “Rachel Getting Married”) also comes back into the family picture after Colt presumed her and Beau to be separated, but that they are in fact seeing each other again.
While most of “The Ranch” ’s humor is crass and childish — there’s a recurring pee joke and jab at Ugg boots in the first episode “Back Where I Come From” — there are a few instances of witty dialogue, especially when it involves a cuss word or two. “The Ranch” benefits from allowing its characters to curse, a factor that obviously wouldn’t work in the sanitized confines of network and standard cable censorship. Because Netflix is a great platform to showcase TV programs with explicit content, “The Ranch” has the opportunity to be a raunchy family sitcom à la HBO’s short-lived “Lucky Louie.” Yet it still suffers from the strains of ordinary sitcom tropes, even with sitcom veterans Kutcher and Masterson at the helm of the show’s acting and executive producing. They don’t make nearly as much of an effort as Elliott, whose charismatic Southern drawl, bushy mustache and strong emotional range are enough to make him stand out. In addition to the show’s god-awful laugh track, the comic timing of almost everyone, except Elliott, is way off, with each character spewing rote joke set ups and predictable punchline after punchline. The only hilariously down to earth line in “Back Where I Came From” comes during a nice scene between the Bennetts during a rainstorm in the end of the episode, when Maggie utters, “You know, if someone took a picture of us, you’d never know how fucked up we really were.”
Even with the comedic qualities dragging the show down, “The Ranch” could be a mild success if it continues to highlight the faults of its characters and the family tensions that reside underneath the surface. Unlike a lot of Kutcher’s previous sitcom characters, his role as Colt feels more mature, with the character occasionally making dumb decisions but also taking responsibility for his actions. Despite being in his 30s and having gone to Florida State University to play as a backup quarterback, Colt isn’t back in Colorado just to try out for football, but to regain a trusting bond with Beau. If it weren’t for the talent of Kutcher, Masterson, Winger or Elliott, “The Ranch” would also have trouble finding some form of dramatic depth and seriousness.
Like Colt, “The Ranch” still has some growing up to do. But with the right tools and mindset, the show has the ability to come back from its mistakes and find a way to make things right again.