‘How to Be a Cowboy’: On ranch reality show, mending fences means mending real fences
No villains or catfights in sight as charming Netflix series celebrates hard work and wide open spaces.
Don’t be surprised if you see more than a few city slickers sporting Radiator Ranch ball caps, T-shirts, hoodies, etc., after Netflix rolls out the good-natured and charmingly cornpone reality series “How to Be a Cowboy,” featuring ranch manager and YouTube star Dale Brisby and a likable cast of supporting characters as they ride horses, mend fences, feed the cows, buck horses, ride broncs, attend livestock auctions and shoot the breeze from sunrise to sundown.
A six-episode series available Wednesday on Netflix.
Heck, there’s already enough merch available to fill a barn on Brisby’s website, and he has an endorsement deal with Rock and Roll Denim and lots of other irons in the fire — but his primary product is Dale Brisby, in the tradition of the self-promoting stars of “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars” and those 2,985 shows where houses are renovated and flipped and such. Brisby has an enormous ego but it’s wrapped in a world of charisma, and he knows how to play it up for the cameras. In other worlds, as is the case with all reality TV stars and all reality shows, there’s real life, and then there’s the heightened, sometimes manufactured, heavily edited version of real life seen on TV.
Some might compare “How to be a Cowboy” to “Tiger King” in that both series show us a slice of rural life unfamiliar to many urban and suburban Americans. But whereas “Tiger King” was a true crime documentary about mostly awful people doing terrible things to each other while exploiting beautiful cats that deserved better, “How to Be a Cowboy” is much lighter fare with lesser stakes, with each episode clocking in at about 25 minutes as we get to know this colorful bunch, including:
- The aforementioned Brisby, who looks and sounds like a country & western star with his flowing locks and Jesus beard, his aviator sunglasses and his well-worn cowboy hat. Brisby loves to talk about his employees and mostly himself, and his various rules for being a cowboy (“A Cowboy is Always Prepared,” “Cowboys Look After Their Own”) and he’s prone to hyperbole, as when he proclaims Radiator Ranch is “the largest ranch in Texas — I haven’t fact-checked that, but I imagine it’s probably true.” (It isn’t.)
- Cheech, an amiable, egg-shaped fellow who’s a lifelong cowboy and provides the comic relief and talks about his “bugaboos,” such as lottery players who hold up the line at the convenience store.
- Dale’s brother Leroy, who describes himself as the 180-degree opposite of Dale and has a low-key, ongoing competition with him on a daily basis. “He works harder than he ought to, so it’s my obligation to work less,” says Leroy.
- Donnie Ray Dayton, “saddle bronc rider extraordinaire,” a former intern and bartender who is now a full-time employee at the ranch and is looking to try his hand at bull riding.
- Jorden Halvorsen, a female bull rider from North Carolina who signs on as an intern and is looking to return to the rodeo after sustaining a serious knee injury.
“How to Be a Cowboy” is a well-photographed show, filled with gorgeous overhead shots of the Texas ranch, and it mixes moments of beautiful authenticity, such as the birth of a calf, with clearly staged moments, as when Dale and Leroy and Cheech are riding their horses across the tall grass to the sounds of a Western movie type score, and Dale says, “On horseback we ride together, but in our hearts we are self-reliant and answer to no one” — at which point Dale’s cell phone rings and it’s his mother, asking him for help in attaching photos to an email she wants to send to her cousin. Gee, it’s a good thing multiple cameras were there to catch that spontaneous comedic moment! But that’s OK, we’ve come to expect and accept such contrived albeit entertaining vignettes in these types of series.
There’s not a traditional reality TV show villain or even a sad-sack walking punchline in the bunch. (Even the sometimes hapless Cheech is a true cowboy and a good guy and a team player.) Watching this show is like going to one of those dude ranch vacations without having to leave the sofa or risking a burr in your saddle. You can enjoy “How to Be a Cowboy” until the cows come home, and spoiler alert: They actually do come home.