Netflix's 'The Ranch' Just Gave Us a Weirdly Satisfying 'That '70s Show' Reunion
Good sitcoms thrive on familiarity. We know the sets, the characters, and the recurring jokes, but we tune in every week -- or, increasingly more likely, binge over the weekend -- because there's pleasure to be found in getting familiar with those elements, watching the actors settle into roles, and seeing the writers discover new ways to twist the same premise. Few shows feels as keenly aware of those rules as Netflix's The Ranch, a sitcom where even the special guest-stars come with a winking nostalgic glow.
If you became a fan of the Colorado-based comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson when it premiered on the streaming giant back in April, then you probably already know that part two of the show's first season dropped last night and features a multi-episode appearance by Wilmer Valderrama, the actor best known for playing the foreign-exchange student Fez on That '70s Show. If you watch The Ranch, you probably know that Kutcher and Masterson also got their starts on That '70s Show, a reliably entertaining high-school sitcom that ran on FOX in the late '90s and '00s for 200 episodes. If you watch The Ranch, I'm betting you watched all 200 episodes.
Netflix is betting on that, too. And judging from the available viewership data, that bet is paying off. Like its equally successful channel-mate Fuller House, which gets a clever shout-out in one of these new Ranch episodes, The Ranch is a show that hooks you with the promise of comfort, ease, and nostalgia. These aren't shows you have to "invest" in or read articles unpacking theories about the next morning. They work best as something to watch when you're cooking dinner -- or, if you're like the characters in The Ranch, when you're adding beer to your pancakes. Or pouring beer in your Cheerios. Or spiking your coffee with Muscle Milk. (Yes, these things all happen in the first couple episodes.)
What separates The Ranch from Fuller House is the level of professionalism and craft on display. Kutcher and Masterson, who play brothers named Colt and Rooster, may not be the most versatile actors, but they know how to sell the hell out of jokes about driving trucks, drinking whiskey, and having sex with sheep. That's one thing The Ranch has on all the other sitcoms out there: no other comedy makes as many jokes about having sex with animals. Not even BoJack Horseman.
More important, Kutcher and Masterson know how to sit in the little pockets of drama the show creates and even end the occasional scene without a punch line, giving the show a melancholy touch. Similarly, legendary character actor Sam Elliott, who plays the boys' cranky father Beau, brings a weary gravitas to all his scenes. He makes out-of-touch-old-man jokes like, "What the fuck is Adele?" and "What the fuck is Tinder?" sing. The character's anger and resentment feel lived-in. His pathos feels earned.
But let's get to the important stuff: how is Wilmer Valderrama? Well, for one thing, he doesn't show up until Episode 8, so don't get your hopes up in the early episodes. Like pretty much everyone else in the show's impressive cast -- Debra Winger and Elisha Cuthbert play Colt's mother and on-again-off-again girlfriend, respectively -- Valderrama quickly becomes a reliable part of the show's rusty but still-purring comedic motor. As Umberto, an ex-ranch hand on Beau's ranch who now works for a more corporate cattle company that's recruiting Rooster away from his life at home, Valderrama is playing a variation on his That '70s Show character. But, like Kutcher and Masterson, he gets to add a few layers to his established persona.
While Fez was the butt of many jokes on That '70s Show, here Valderrama gets to play a more savvy and less ridiculous stereotype. A hard-working immigrant who still sends money home to his family back in Mexico, Umberto occasionally calls the other characters out on their bullshit. More than anything, it's a pleasure to watch Valderrama elevate bad jokes like a groaner about an ex-girlfriend who got sent back to Mexico. "Her eyes were green," he says to Kutcher and Masterson while shooting the shit. "But her card was not." It's cheesy, but Valderrama is such a pro that he elevates the moment.
This is still The Ranch: like almost every other character on the show, Umberto is a sex-obsessed horndog, and there's a joke about him hiding in a truck full of piñatas that will probably make your eyes roll. If you see yourself as a discriminating consumer of television's latest batch of formally innovative half-hour dramatic comedies like FX's Atlanta or Netflix's own Easy, there's a lot about The Ranch that will probably make you roll your eyes. But you'll be missing a show that's quietly boundary-pushing in its own familiar way. Like Cheerios and beer, it's a lowbrow hybrid that somehow works. Especially if it delivers a Topher Grace appearance in Season 2.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.