Culture Magazine

The Ranch [all in the Family | Media Notes 51]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

I started watching The Ranch when it first started streaming in 2018 and stuck with it for, say, a season and a half and dropped it for whatever reason. I got back to it a few weeks ago and am now well into the fourth and final season. As the title implies, it's set on a small family-run ranch in Colorado. Willa Paskin noted in Slate:

The Ranch is a red-state sitcom, though it takes place in the swing state of Colorado, and is good enough to be watched by people of any political affiliation. The goodness sneaks up on you. It is a sitcom that is meatier than it is funny, unusually in touch with the painful, disappointing aspects of life. [...] But The Ranch is sophisticated in pursuit of its audience, preferring to dignify the Bennetts' hardscrabble circumstances than to raise anxiety by fixating on their precariousness.

That's a fair assessment.

The ranch is run by patriarch, Beau Bennett (Sam Elliot) and his two sons, Colt (Ashton Kutcher) and Rooster (Danny Masterson), while Maggie Bennett (Debra Winger) runs a local bar. She's estranged from, then divorces, her husband, Beau, but they maintain more or less cordial relations. Relations between Beau his two sons, Beau and Rooster, are at best problematic. While the individuals try hard, Bennetts are a dysfunctional family. In a way, the harder they try, the more dysfunctional they are.

There's some good work to be done analyzing just how this family functions, but that's more than I want to take on in this brief note. I note that Beau, Colt, and Rooster drink a lot and, as I already mentioned, Maggie runs a bar. Though she doesn't have a drinking problem, she does like marijuana, as do others in the community. And at least one character, who becomes central in the later seasons, has a serious addiction problem. The show harbors no pretense that this rural community is a drug-free zone.

The show runs a continuous narrative, rather than a succession of half-hour episodes, and the Bennetts seems to live at the edge of financial disaster. So the plot has the feel of free-form improvisation; these people are just making things up as they go along. That's one thing.

The other is that, because the Iron River Ranch is a family farm, family life and work life and intertwined. Much of the conflict within they family, especially between the three men, but not only them, is around and about roles in running the farm: Who is competent in what tasks and who has what rights and obligations? This dynamic is set off against the Neumann's Hill ranching corporation, which plays a more prominent role in as the series moves on. Neumann's Hill wants to dominate and buy up everything thing it can while the Bennetts want to remain free and independent. As the four season moves along - I'm only about half way through it - Neumann's Hill seems to be winning.

These two issues, the lack of security and constancy in life, and the relationship between family and business life, seem to define the overall scope of this series. How do those issues speak to the American public? I don't know. I'd really like to know the demographics of the audience. How will that audience be voting in this coming presidential election? There's an obvious appeal to Trump's America, but I'm not in Trump's America and I like the show. Yet, it's one thing for me to say that the show appeals to Trump's America, but does it? I was right about NCIS, am I right about this?

I note that the show makes no reference to current presidential politics, so one can only guess at how, say, Beau Bennett voted in 2016 or how he'd vote in 2020. I'd like to think that, though he's a gun-toting conservative and proud of it, he couldn't stomach Trump. But he certainly couldn't stomach Biden either. Perhaps he'd write in Reagan, which he's done before.

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