Sometimes it seems as if almost every TV series that lasted more than two years eventually took their cast to a dude ranch. The dude ranch plot device is a chance to give cast and crew a little working vacation as well as shake up the setting that may have reached the point of constriction. Older TV series could take advantage of the western town set on the studio’s backlot and then, of course, there was the natural desire before “Star Wars” changed everything for every actor in Hollywood to play a cowboy at least once. The real impetus behind the widespread TV plot device of the dude ranch has to be related to the profound influence on American culture made by the Hollywood Western.’
The very best dude ranch episode of a TV show is also the one that subverts expectations the most. In “Dick the Kid” Bob Newhart’s character Dick Loudon takes off for a dude ranch to live out his boyhood dream of being a cowboy. He shares the bunkhouse with a bunch of real cowboys, but he finds very little connection to the mythic western. These cowboys give Dick a smackdown for smoking in the bunkhouse and fight over the right to watch Muppet movies on the VCR. “Dick the Kid” is also one of the few dude ranch episodes that doesn’t feature any scenes on horseback.
If there had never been an episode in which Fonzie literally jumped over a shark on skis, that moment when a TV series loses all its former charm and wonder would be known as Riding the Bull. Your memory of “Happy Days” may be telling you that the truly dreadful three-part arc that took place at a dude ranch occurred late in the run of the series. Actually, the “Happy Days” dude ranch episode occurs almost exactly in the middle of the show’s run. It may well stand forever as the worst dude ranch episode there could possibly ever be.
“Modern Family” is one of the few post-Star Wars TV series to take a chance on a dude ranch vacation. What really separates the “Modern Family” dude ranch from those that came before is that the dude who is the cowboy-in-residence actually turns out to be the kind of creepy stalker that you imagine a lot of these guys who spend more time with horses than women might be.
THE THIN MAN
Cowboy shows were all the rage in the late 1950’s era in which this TV spinoff of a popular movies series aired. Nick and Nora Charles, the highly sophisticated urban couple who solve crimes between cocktail parties find themselves in a dude ranch. Unsurprisingly enough, mystery ensues when a doctor disappears from the ranch. Since pretty much every TV character during this era had to ride a horse at least once during the series’ run, Nick and Nora hope on horseback to solve the case of “The Departed Doctor.”
“Dude, Where’s My Ranch” finds Homer, Bart and the family headed to a dude ranch. In true Simpsons style, the impetus for the meat of the plot is an extended preface in which Homer’s novelty song “Everybody Hates Flanders” becomes one of those songs that you can’t escape no matter where you go. Well, I guess you could go to a dude ranch to escape the frog-sterilizing stylings of the Biebers and Gagas of the world. Worked for the Simpson family who wind up at a dude ranch where Lisa falls in love and Homer and Bart give some Indians back their land.