Netflix’s ‘The Ranch,’ Starring Accused Rapist Danny Masterson, Is Now TV’s Most Problematic Sitcom
The popular Netflix series is the first project starring a man accused of sexual misconduct to air completely as planned. And it’s a troubling watch in the age of #MeToo.
The Ranch is a surprisingly charming TV show. The Netflix comedy, which stars Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson, is a unique animal.
It’s a multicam sitcom with laugh breaks but, freed from the constraints of network television, has casual curse words mixed in with the one-liners. The humor is broad and sophomoric, yet long stretches of many episodes are deadly serious, as the characters deal with affairs, separations, death, job loss, and disappointment. Set in rural Colorado, its pacing is unique, too: hardly the madcap energy of most sitcoms, instead humming at a leisurely drawl.
We found all this out while binging the 10 new episodes of the series that Netflix released Friday, less than two weeks after the streaming service announced that it had fired Masterson, who has been accused of rape by at least five women. Masterson is featured in all 10 episodes, and will also appear in numerous episodes that were already filmed and will be released later in 2018. But the company said his character has been written out of the show and December 4 was his last day on set.
Candidly, we perused the episodes for any content or jokes relating to Masterson’s character—the deadbeat brother of Kutcher’s, who, in this string of episodes, helps his mother (Debra Winger) run a bar—that seemed particularly cringeworthy or tone-deaf given the allegations against the actor.
While Netflix was swift to act in response to accusations made against Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey, it was frustratingly reticent in addressing the allegations against Masterson, which the service was certainly aware of as it continued production with the actor as multiple news outlets, including The Daily Beast, repeatedly pressed for comment about them.
In other words, we set out to find any off-color jokes from the new episodes to shame them with.
Truth be told, there really aren’t many. At one point his character, Rooster (really), is with Kutcher’s, and when a woman walks towards them, Rooster calls, “Dibs!” There’s a groaner about kinky sex he had with his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. At another point, he jokes about his taste for younger woman, saying, “I always wanted to know what it’s like to hook up with a college graduate.”
The biggest wincer is when Kutcher’s character sees Rooster with a one-night stand the morning after. “How’d you two meet?” he asks the girl. “Did you smell turpentine and wake up here?” (One of Masterson’s alleged victims claims that he anally raped her in her sleep.)
We quickly realized—well not that quickly, after an hours-long binge—that it’s not so much one distasteful joke to shame Netflix with, but these episode’s existence at this time, both in terms of the personal conduct of its star and executive producer, and the greater conversations within the industry.
As we said earlier, we were lulled into a mild appreciation for the series. It’s hardly the best comedy on TV, but there is something endearing about the characters and a dignity given to their storylines that’s rare for a comedy this broad, particularly one set in the heartland. Everyone does a labored country accent and it’s both goofy and fun. The most dramatic plot points stem from complicated land leasing, which is wild. The show is hardly high art, but it is solid art.
It also happens to be one of Netflix’s most popular original series, according to data released by Symphony Advanced Media (Netflix doesn’t release its own viewership numbers). That one of its leads stands publicly accused of sexual assault and there such a loud media outcry for it to be dealt with should catastrophically shake up of a television series as popular as this one. And it has, with networks, studios, and production companies delaying, canceling, and even recasting projects in response to allegations against men involved in them. Netflix included. Yet it hardly seems to have made a blip on The Ranch.
Netflix waited until production was completed on the show for the year to fire Masterson, a prominent Scientologist. The launch date of the new episodes wasn’t altered at all. If there were conversations about delaying the episodes or altering them so as to not include Masterson, reshooting any content, or reacting in any of the other ways that many TV shows and films have in recent months, Netflix did not publicly reveal those considerations and there has been no reporting to that effect. Masterson’s co-stars nor anyone involved with production have spoken about the matter; there was no press tour promoting these new episodes. Ashton Kutcher, Masterson’s longtime friend—and co-star and co-executive producer on The Ranch—has repeatedly ignored The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
In a statement via his attorney, Masterson said, “I am obviously very disappointed in Netflix’s decision to write my character off of The Ranch. From day one, I have denied the outrageous allegations against me. I have never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. In this country, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, in the current climate, it seems as if you are presumed guilty the moment you are accused. I understand and look forward to clearing my name once and for all.”
Interestingly, and with the caveat that we were watching these episodes with a soured taste for Masterson to begin with, his character seems the most tangential, and certainly the least interesting. While we’re sure the reteaming of Kutcher and Masterson, who famously co-starred for so many years on That ‘70s Show, was part of what got the show greenlit in the first place, it’s not hard to imagine it continuing successfully without him.
In fact, one of the main characters was written off halfway through the season: Debra Winger, who plays Masterson and Kutcher’s mother and is a core member of the cast, is missing from the first string of episodes entirely. The show trudges along just fine.
As we found, it is surprisingly easy to have goodwill toward this series. But that doesn’t absolve the gross mishandling of this situation: 10 episodes of a sitcom starring a man accused of rape released just in time for the holidays. By our surveying, The Ranch may actually be the only project to move forward with its planned release against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement with the accused still involved. That’s quite a message for an outlet to send.