From the first time I watched it, I loved The Ranch. Sure, some of the jokes were corny (three dogs named Florida, Georgia, and Line? Shoot me now…), the soundtrack was oftentimes unbearable pop-country nonsense, and there were times it was a bit over the top, but I loved The Ranch.
The town I grew up in has exploded in population, from less than 2,000 citizens 20 years ago to about 10,000 today. Registered voters remain about the same in proportion regarding party affiliation, but that old conservatism is dead and gone, giving way to former suburbanites in MAGA hats who blast Jason Aldean from a ¾ ton diesel they use to haul a single jet ski on the weekends.
To be blunt; my town, which was once full of people with character and substance, is now full of posers who have yet to find their own identity, even after 35 birthdays and a couple of kids. They think that they’re one of us, but they aren’t.
I didn’t grow up on a farm or spend my time riding bulls as a kid, but I ran with cowboys and rednecks, drinking in fields, and running the dirt roads. I worked at a feed store, helped toss hay, tried to rope my friend’s peacocks, and on and on. My life was a country song, and that’s why the modern representation of country life through music and film seems so fake to me; I lived it.
I found myself drawn to the Bennett’s because the writers did an exceptional job of making them feel authentic. Of course, that starts with casting, and Sam Elliott IS western. Throw in the fact that Ashton Kutcher is an Iowa kid who has said, “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” and the base is there. Kutcher’s chemistry with Danny Masterson still remains from That 70’s Show, and the appearances from Wilmer Valderrama, Kurtwood Smith, and Debra Jo Rupp reiterate that cast chemistry is what ultimately makes or breaks a show. The writers do an exceptional job with scenery and scenarios which keep the show from venturing into sitcom hell, and I never felt like they were pandering aside from the occasional dumb joke aimed at modern country music fans. That said, the key to making the show seem so authentic and honest, was in the way they showed the characters and the community.
The first thing which I noticed, is they’re always drinking…and making light of it. Ever since I was a teenager, my friends have devoured alcohol excessively, and it sadly continues for many today. Amidst all the jokes and funny stories, there is a lot of tragedy that comes from alcoholism, and alcoholism in small-town and rural America is incredibly common. My stepfather is 20 years sober, but the same people who were drinking in the bars when he was younger are still there today. Fish swim, birds fly, and we drink.
Another scoring shot by The Ranch is in the way they depict Beau Bennett as wise, but ignorant. That might seem crass, but it’s very honest. Yes, Beau is wise in the way he conducts himself and in his deep understanding of why his moral fiber matters, but he is ignorant of the world outside of Iron River Ranch. His knowledge of real-world politics is minimal, he doubtfully votes in his own self-interest, and he makes his life harder by clinging to the old. As I watched, it made me wonder how a New York liberal could con the good ol’ boys of the world through conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric. You can’t hate them for falling for it, though. These people are too busy just trying to keep their heads above water to think beyond some noise they heard from an AM radio parrot. Folks like Rush Limbaugh (may he have a speedy recovery) have manipulated these people for decades, making them think that he was one of them by flapping his gums about abortions and guns. Despite the bizarre statements which sometimes cross his lips, though, Beau Bennett is a good man, and The Ranch honestly depicts these folks who love their land and will sweat and bleed to save it until there is nothing left to give.
The Bennett boys are also wonderfully portrayed. Colt had dreams and tried to pursue them, but country boys don’t do well in the big city, so he was forced to come home after making a series of horrendous mistakes. Rooster never felt that need to leave home, and even when offered a grand opportunity which didn’t require him to leave his little corner of the world, he still screwed it up through being stubborn and stuck in his ways. I know too many of those people, and I’m probably one of them, too.
The Ranch doesn’t try to avoid tragic storylines, nor should they. From small-town romances gone violent to substance abuse to crippling financial situations, nothing is whitewashed. Rooster dying under mysterious circumstances was tied to one of these oh-so-typical rural love triangles which are incredibly common because the dating pool is so small. These things do happen. Crimes of passion are not isolated to urban areas plagued by gun violence. When you combine this with substance abuse, romance becomes a powder keg. Find yourself drawn to the wrong person, and you’re doing things you never thought you would do. The chain of alcohol to pills to heroin is frighteningly common. Who would have thought about that happening in rural America? When Mary walks into the Bennett home, all bruised up following an incident with Nick, it brought back some painful memories. We’ve all known someone who put his hands on a woman, and who stepped in and did something? On the show, lots of people tried, but Nick always came back. That left things in the hands of Heather, and as Reba once sang, “little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun.”
Setting all of that aside, what stood out most about the show was despite all his mistakes and every time he put the family business in jeopardy, Colt ultimately saves the Iron River Ranch. After doing all he could to unite the remaining local ranchers against Neumann’s Hill, Colt was backed into a corner following a bizarre bout of an STD in his herd which left him looking at losing everything to Lisa Neumann. But, for once, he finally thought a situation through, rather than getting emotional and irrational, and he turned the tides. When Colt was able to prove he had nothing to do with the outbreak, he was left with the high ground and a still viable herd which he tended to early and staved off a potential disaster. As his father was preparing to leave his ranch, which had been in the family for generations, Colt could have let Lisa Neumann’s operation burn and feasted on the remains, but, instead, he took the opportunity to be a good man and save Lisa’s operation and his father’s ranch in the same swipe by trading his herd to Lisa for the deed to Iron River Ranch.
Through 8 chapters, the show was summarized into one, simple lesson; we’re better than them.
The Bennett’s never wanted to be a huge conglomerate. All they wanted was to be secure in their home, business, and way of life. That way of life was more than just their ranch, too. It was their town, their friends, their family, and their neighbors and fellow ranchers which made up the tapestry of their existence. From their mom’s bar to the tractor dealer and everything in between, the Bennett’s existence and the existence of those around them were dependent on this world existing exactly as it is. It might not have been an economy that would be the envy of a Wall Street investor, but it worked for them, and it was self-sustaining. The people knew this, so they weren’t vultures when others were struggling, as made evident when Colt sought to buy the Peterson Ranch. Yes, competition is good, but people in these small towns realize that their stability should never rely on destabilizing others or kicking them while they’re down. Lisa Neumann didn’t operate that way, so as much as she tried to define herself as “a rancher”, it was plainly obvious that she wasn’t one of them. Lisa Neumann didn’t seek to coexist with other ranchers, she sought to overwhelm them.
Yes, The Ranch might have ended like an improbable fairy tale, but it was a welcomed change of pace to see common folks depicted on screen, through all their struggles, coming out on top without compromising who they are.
The show made me look back on my youth and the experiences which shaped me. The nights drinking in barns and jumping Subaru’s over dirt hills. The rodeos and random late-night drives into nowhere. The American Legion which helped to save my vision. Waylon and Willie (and Lukas and Shooter) and the slow decline of country music. The walk down a dirt road which resulted in finding a man overdosed in his car. The car accidents and DUI’s. The friend who died in front of the abandoned store, right across the street from the bar he was drinking at. The skater kids from the new subdivisions who just didn’t get us. The soldier who had a PTSD breakdown at a party. The manipulation of simple folks by people with an “R” next to their names. The collapse of decency and humanity which once warmed my heart at the strangest moments. The loss of the world I once knew.
Despite that, I still believe that we are better than them, and The Ranch explained it beautifully.
Matt “DiGi” DiGiallonardo
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