"Meanwhile, back at the ranch …"
In olden days, when Westerns ruled Hollywood, this clumsy transition was used quite literally. After a fight at the saloon or showdown near the train depot, the narrator would whisk the action back to the ranch, where Ma might be fending off creditors or Pa would be teaching young Billy how to rope. The transition was so familiar that it entered into the realm of cliché. And now, long after Westerns faded from American ubiquity, the phrase is still with us—with a wink and with tongue firmly in cheek.
You don't see a lot of Westerns on television today. Our cable airwaves are saturated with ancient scheming kings and modern rampaging killers, real housewives and the walking dead. But there's still at least one ranch left where viewers can escape all that. It's called Heartland.
Amy and Lou Fleming are the sisters at the center of this gentle CBC drama (imported to the U.S. from Canada by UP). Amy spends her days caring for and training horses (many of them injured and abused), just like her dearly departed mother once did. Lou, who used to live in New York, returned home after her mom's death to help run the Heartland ranch. She and her hubby, Peter, have a little girl named Katie, who by turns charms and exasperates granddad Tim and great-grandfather Jack. And then there's Ty, a one-time foster kid who'd like nothing better than to, you know, ty the knot with girlfriend Amy.
Set in the Canadian Rockies, Heartland has yet to face a zombie attack or an assault of Others from the frozen North. And after galloping through an episode, I'm pretty positive it never will. Both the ranch and the show are grounded in a far more gentle realm of storytelling. Fans worry about whether Caleb gets the tires he needs to return to the rodeo circuit, not whether he's secretly a serial killer. They worry over whether Lou can make her new startup financial service work, not if she'll be a pawn in an international web of intrigue. Back at this ranch, life is filled with homegrown pleasures and less sensational (but, hear me clearly, no less important) problems. In a television landscape dominated by blood and sequins, Heartland's a home-cooked meal, a comfy quilt, an evening spent talking on the porch. It's both strangely familiar to us and yet radically different: a 21st-century version of The Waltons.
In keeping with its downhome feel, Heartland tamps down the problematic content. And at least in the States, even what little is there sometimes gets scrubbed by UP. (I noticed that the audio was muted for a "h‑‑‑" and a "d‑‑n.") Amy and Ty may share an intimate relationship, but the series never shoves viewers' faces in it. Folks may throw a fist or two, but they rarely start shooting up the place.
That makes Heartland a sweet show filled with likable characters who try, for the most part, to do right by themselves and for others. It's filled with the sort of old-fashioned values that, really, never go out of style. And especially in an age when television programming can sometimes feel rough and lawless, it's nice to know there's a ranch to go back to—a place where there's always a countercultural meanwhile.
"Life Is a Highway"
Chase Powers and Amy used to be horse-riding performers together. He shows up at the ranch with a new wife in tow. Chase tells Amy he's in love with Hayley—but that she wants him to give up the circuit. He feels trapped and, perhaps as a result, rediscovers his old attraction to Amy. Meanwhile, Lou quits her investment firm job, Tim meddles, Caleb tries to scrounge up some money for new tires (begging and borrowing are his primary plays) and Jack teaches new foster kid Georgie to herd cattle.
Ty vows to rough Chase up if he gets fresh with Amy. But when Chase impulsively kisses her, she takes care of things by slapping him across the face for his presumption. There's a line about newlyweds getting "romantic" at their Las Vegas hotel. (But even that is "too much information," says Amy.) When Hayley tells Chase that they're pregnant, the couple kisses passionately. Amy and Ty smooch in Ty's trailer.
Characters talk about and serve beer, and someone has a glass of wine. Three instances of mild profanity ("d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑") are expunged from the UP version of the episode. We hear God's name interjected a couple of times.