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[This is a review of The Ranch season 1, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]

“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys, don’t let ’em pick guitars or drive them old trucks. Let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such.” It’s hard to be a cowboy in this modern world. Country songs have been telling us this for ages, and the warning is right there in the theme song to Netflix’s The Ranch. The Bennetts are a more modern family with Maggie Bennett (Debra Winger) owning a bar, and brothers Colt (Ashton Kutcher) and Rooster (Danny Masterson) both pushing to move the ranch into the 21st century. The show is decidedly old-fashioned throughout its first season (with its multi camera sitcom formula and laugh track), and unapologetically republican with a strong distrust of the government. The very same qualities that made the pilot episode ‘Back Where I Come From’ feel grating and sophomoric have been smoothed out in the ensuing nine episodes though, making the first season (or Part One) far better than it needed to be.

As with every episode in the season ‘Down the Road’ was directed by David Trainer; its story was done by Don Reo & Jim Patterson & Nathan Chetty and the teleplay handled by Matt Ross & Max Searle. Still struggling with financial problems, Beau Bennett (Sam Elliott) grapples with if he should sell his cows for record-low prices. Having settled into a stable relationship with Heather, Colt chafes at Rooster’s new relationship with her mom, and his ex-girlfriend Abby’s (Elisha Cuthbert) engagement.

Matters of the Heart

The show’s forward progression is one of its best qualities. Rather than hitting the reset button at the beginning of every episode, or focusing on situational hijinks (of which there are plenty) The Ranch took a more serialized approach to the sitcom. Events from one episode have a ripple effect into the next and are discussed, reacted to and processed. Romantic and financial woes dominated the back half of the first season, and they took center stage as the finale set up a number of romantic cliffhangers.

Maggie’s thirst for independence is a through line of the show, and her leaving town rather than move back in and settle down in a more traditional marriage is a twist that feels earned. One of the strongest choices the show made was to focus not only on the romantic exploits of Colt and Rooster, but to explore the very realistic marital troubles of Beau and Maggie. Winger and Elliott are well matched, and even as they dabble in stereotypes – Beau is the stoic, stubborn cowboy, Maggie is the free spirit – they bring love and humanity to the pairing.

Arrested Development

The Ranch Ashton Kutcher as Colt Bennett and Danny Masterson as Rooster Bennett The Ranch Season 1 Finale Review: Cowboys Aint Easy To Love

Colt also spent the episode embroiled in women trouble, first as Rooster continued dating his girlfriend’s mother, then dealing with Abby’s engagement. He listens to Abby when she tells him to take her relationship seriously and he tries to not be “that guy” as she moves on, despite his obvious feelings for her. The final scene where Abby confesses to Colt that she’s not sure if she should marry Kenny was an outstanding performance from both Cuthbert and Kutcher and encapsulated what makes this series so watchable: these relationships feel real, and these charachters are somehow, surprisingly, lovable.

The show pokes a great deal of fun at Colt for his immaturity. After spending the better part of two decades trying to make it as a footballer, he is a 34 year old man child just learning how to be an adult and work hard in a world where his looks, charm, and football record have gotten him everything. He’s the most obvious example of arrested development but he comes by it honestly, whereas the entire Bennett clan has stalled in neutral. His parents have been stuck in their differing ways for years and  Rooster, one year older than Colt, spends most of the season hitting on high schoolers (as long as they’re 18) and sending pictures of his balls to his new girlfriend. He’s been working hard in Colt’s absence, but this is the first time anyone has told him to grow up. His wearing a tie may seem like a small thing, but it shows a lot of growth from when we first met Rooster.

Maggie’s desertion, Abby’s cold feet, and Rooster changing for a woman are all stories that will be explored in Season 2 of The Ranch – and as long as the show’s writers continue to develop the charachters and deepen the relationships, that will be worth tuning in for.

The show benefits from airing on Netflix; at 10 episodes The Ranch tells a story that is often trying to do to much, but still feels lean without being stretched to fill a 22-episode requirement. When taken as a whole, the series is a surprisingly warm sitcom with formulaic plots that are elevated by the performances of its outstanding cast. The surprise isn’t that The Ranch explores love, heartbreak, and the financial woes of ranching – the surprise is how well it’s actually done.

The Ranch Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.

April 8, 2016

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