Ashton Kutcher is sitting at a fake kitchen counter while his old That 70s Show friend Danny Masterson pretends to cook breakfast. “S**t!” Kutcher exclaims, and right on cue the studio audience laughs. We’re on the Warner Bros. lot, taping episode 19 of The Ranch–Netflix’s second-ever multi-cam sitcom, after Fuller House. The 20-episode Season 1 has been divided into two runs of 10 and as of this taping, Netflix has just ordered a second season.
The show centers around the Bennett family and their Colorado cattle ranch. Colt (Kutcher) is a failed semi-pro footballer returning home, while his brother Rooster (Masterson) stayed behind to help their dad Beau (Sam Elliott). Debra Winger is mom Maggie. So far, so standard sitcom fare. But swearing was never on the menu for a network sitcom and neither was this low, moody lighting.
Then comes the evidence of what really sets this show apart: Sam Elliott stalks onto set and delivers a blistering speech, full of vitriol towards his son. Elliott plays it totally straight and the audience gasps at an only-too-real dysfunctional family moment. It’s a stark contrast to the light comfort TV of sitcoms past.
Sitcom veterans Kutcher and Masterson–who both exec produce–had set out to break the mold from The Ranch’s inception. “We’ve done, between the two of us, probably 800 episodes of situational comedy,” Kutcher says, “and there were things that we liked and things that we didn’t like and things that we just begged to ask the question, ‘why is it this way?’”
With fellow Two and a Half Men alums Don Reo and Jim Patterson as writer/showrunners, they began to hash out how their new breed of multi-cam show would work.“We started getting into the conversation with Don and Jim,” Kutcher says, “and we had an idea of how hard we wanted to push comedically and that we wanted to have these guys talking the way real people talk and have them deal with real drama, real things.”
Despite a long history of multi-cams in his back pocket, Reo recognized the oddity of what they were taking on. “We’ve chosen to take what is basically an antique form of television,” he says. “I think Chuck (Lorre)’s shows are the last standing. There are four or five sitcoms that are done this way, and to a lot of the audience going into this, it feels like their parents’ show. It’s old. But if you stick with this show, that’s not what we’re doing. We’re doing something much deeper that has something that your parents never saw before.”
The most immediately obvious difference between The Ranch and sitcoms of old is of course the language. “When we started writing it and we made a deal with Netflix,” Reo says, “it was like, well, s**t, we can say anything here, but will it offend the very audience that we’re going for? And we decided that it wouldn’t.” Patterson adds, “It’s startling and jarring, but again, you go back, and you go, okay, especially Ashton and Danny, would they swear? Of course they would.”
In fact, every character has his or her share of bawdy lines. “We wanted Maggie to reflect that lifestyle too,” Reo says, “and have that kind of Annie Oakley character, you know, Calamity Jane. That she was a woman who could give and take with the guys, and she would have the same language.”
Stepping outside of these standard boundaries called for a non-network approach, so Netflix was one obvious choice. “We knew the only place that we could make this show was Netflix,” Kutcher says, “because there’s a rumor about town that they actually give you the liberty to creatively do what you want. Networks like a lot more of what they have, because they pre-sell it to advertisers, and they like to go, ‘well, it’s just like this other show that you made millions of dollars by advertising with us on.’”
The creative freedom of Netflix, it’s lack of note-giving, is, according to Reo, the future of television and is rendering network rules obsolete. “If you look at the biggest comedy hits over the last 20 years,” he says, “they are all shows that, for one reason or another, don’t take notes either because that was the deal in the beginning, like The Simpsons, or when the showrunner becomes so powerful, like Chuck Lorre’s whole regime, or Larry David. You know, those are the hits, the ones that don’t take notes. You’d think someone at the top would notice this, but it’s a real bad business plan, what they have going.”
“Netflix, from the beginning, has said, ‘think of us as partners.’” Patterson says. “Jane (Wiseman), Blair (Fetter), and Andy (Weil) are listed as executive producers on the show, which is very unusual, obviously, because networks don’t get that. But they’re like, it’s not us against them, we’re partners in this whole thing, and they truly want to do what’s best for the show.”
That creative freedom and a streaming format allowed other sitcom conventions to be thrown out too. “We knew we wanted to light the sets in a way that felt more real,” Kutcher says. “And because we didn’t have commercial breaks, it gave us the liberty to not have to end every act on this giant joke blow, and that we could actually leave scenes hanging with drama.
“We knew we wanted to hire actors that weren’t traditional sitcom actors. If we surrounded ourselves with other actors that could carry a little bit more of the weight and the drama of the show, we could build something that had a different feel to it, and it was a learning curve for them to figure out how to do this sort of live audience thing.”
Indeed, Sam Elliott had some reservations about that learning curve. “I was on the fence about it because it was new ground,” Elliott says. “You know, I’ve been doing this for 50 years almost, and it was very daunting and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to get involved, but the more I found out about it, the more I talked to Don Reo about it, the more I felt like it was worth getting my feet wet. Just simply the fact that it’s shot in front of a live audience, in front of four cameras. That probably is, for the most part, the most daunting, and it’s still the part that gives me fits more than anything else right now. I get totally anxiety ridden on tape day still, but I’m kind of that way anyway when I work.”
But Elliott certainly holds the center of the show, as the foil to Kutcher and Masterson’s banter. “He has that gravitas,” Patterson says. “He’s never done even a play, really, let alone a live action sitcom. We’re in episode 19 now, and last week he was like, ‘the audience. I’m screwing up.’ He feels horrible.”
That audience and their attending laughs are one way in which the show at least sounds like a conventional sitcom. But Masterson is a fan of the laughter, saying that feedback is hugely beneficial to the show. “We have a joint experience of having that live audience,” he says. “It’s like, you’re going to enjoy watching Dumb and Dumber on your computer, but when you go to the theater and everyone’s laughing with you, the movie is one of the funniest movies of all time. You don’t notice when you’re watching Seinfeld that it’s filmed in front of a live audience or not–you’re just laughing along with everybody. People now are watching everything on their phones, and their iPads, and their computers, so, for us, it’s important to have that feedback. Is this stuff working? If they don’t laugh, we change it.”
Masterson also emphasizes that the laughter we hear is entirely real. “There’s no laugh track,” he says. “There’s no button to push. It’s they laugh, and then we clean that from 10 seconds of laughter to two seconds of laughter. Otherwise, the show would be 45 minutes long.”
The sets are reaching outside the usual sitcom box, however. Today there are six inches of shredded paper ‘snow’ covering the yard section of the soundstage–it’s winter in Colorado. “If you do an outside shot on a sitcom,” Reo says, “it’s usually a porch, and it has a hint of a little bit of snow, and we were like, ‘no.’ When it’s all lit up, it looks like a winter wonderland, basically.”
“It looks great.” Patterson says, genuinely excited. “There are icicles and we’re experimenting with putting breath in because it’s cold,”
“We have wind blowing. You see people’s hair move!” Reo laughs.
We agree nobody’s hair has ever moved in a sitcom before–this really is new ground.
The remaining ten episodes of Season 1 will be released later this year, with Season 2 set for 2017.