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‘The Ranch’ is one of Netflix’s biggest shows — and it returns with controversy attached

“The Ranch” on Netflix. (Greg Gayne/Netflix)

Two months ago, Netflix did something extremely rare — it actually released a bit of viewer data about its shows.

The streaming service famously keeps its ratings a closely guarded secret, so this particular study — about the most quickly binge-watched shows in the first 24 hours after their release — was revealing. The fastest “binge-raced” shows were two highly hyped revivals: “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” and “Fuller House.” Next was “Marvel’s The Defenders”  and anime series “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Fifth on the list was rural sitcom “The Ranch.”

“The Ranch” reunites “That ’70s Show” co-stars Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson, who play brothers on the family ranch. It might surprise some to learn that the comedy ranked higher on the “binge-racing” list than series such as “Orange is the New Black,” “Stranger Things” and “House of Cards,” all of which get an enormous amount of media and awards attention. While you may not see “The Ranch” stars on the red carpet at the Emmys, the comedy is one of the most popular on the streaming platform.

But as “The Ranch” returns with the second half of Season 2 on Friday, subscribers who don’t watch the series might recognize the title from its recent controversy. Last week, Netflix fired Masterson amid an investigation into multiple allegations of rape, which the actor denies. This week, Netflix fired an executive after he told a woman who approached him in public (whom he didn’t realize was one of Masterson’s alleged victims) that the company’s higher-ups didn’t believe the accusers.

Danny Masterson is out at Netflix’s ‘The Ranch’ after multiple rape allegations

Four women accused Masterson of rape in the early 2000s, according to HuffPost, which reported that at least three of the women were Masterson’s fellow Scientologists. The Los Angeles Police Department started investigating the claims this past spring after one woman contacted former Scientologist Leah Remini (an outspoken opponent of Scientology who produces an A&E docu-series about the church), who encouraged her to file a police report.

“From day one, I have denied the outrageous allegations against me,” Masterson said in a statement. “Law enforcement investigated these claims more than 15 years ago and determined them to be without merit. 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.”

Networks are only beginning to figure out how to handle these type of situations in the wake of the avalanche of sexual misconduct allegations in the past two months in Hollywood, which have led to multiple high-profile departures from TV shows. Although Masterson is no longer filming, his character will appear in the new second season episodes, Netflix confirmed; Vox reported his character may also show up in the third season during previously shot scenes.

Before the headlines about Masterson overtook the show’s search results, the series flew somewhat under the radar, especially compared to some of Netflix’s other titles. Kutcher plays a failed semi-pro football player who, as the show began, moved back home to Colorado to help his brother, Rooster (Masterson) and father, Beau (Sam Elliott), run the family ranch.

Although the show has an unusual aesthetic, as it includes both a laugh track and restriction-free swearing, critics have been kinder than you might think — even when they called the show “problematic.”

“Netflix’s casually profane multi-cam sitcom was an odd pleasure in its first season, a curious tonal mix of ‘Roseanne,’ redneck comedy, and ‘American Playhouse’ that had surprising depth and texture,” Vanity Fair wrote. “The series felt like a generous, competent acknowledgment of that oft-referenced silent majority, the fly-over real Americans whom us snobby coastal elites ignore all too often.”

Sure enough, the show has become a hit with rural audiences — Netflix data also showed that viewers in Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana were especially big fans. As Kutcher explained, that was the goal of the series set in Colorado.

“It’s the middle of the country, the heartland, and those are the people that probably enjoy these shows the most, yet nobody makes content for them,” he told Entertainment Weekly before the show debuted in April 2016. “It’s conservative. It’s the red states. It’s God and country and ‘Merica, and we felt like that was the audience that we could speak to, where most shows would make fun of that audience. We are that audience, and so we embraced it, and it is the culture of our characters.”

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