In recent years I’ve seen many mediocre television shows described as “urgent,” “necessary,” “revelatory,” and any number of other adjectives that imply that watching TV is an act of self-improvement. After a while this starts to feel like listening to an excited child trying to convince his mom that he should be allowed to stay up past his bedtime on a school night to watch a very special episode of ALF. (That child was once me.) This sentiment also applies to the much-discussed Apple+ show Ted Lasso, the second season of which premiered July 23. Ted Lasso isn’t actually teaching you to be a better person, but it’s nice to think it is, because then you are watching it for more flattering reasons than simply that the plot of the 1989 film Major League is still a good concept.
Like many people, I watched the first season of Ted Lasso last summer. The show is a fish-out-of-water comedy about an American football coach (Jason Sudeikis) hired to coach an English football team by a team owner (Hannah Waddingham) who’s trying to run her team into the ground. I really enjoyed it — it went down easily, largely because it was so remarkably unambitious, so happily toothless and uncomplicated. There’s minimal conflict and every character is good-hearted, with even the show’s putative villains quickly revealing themselves to be lovable. It was slight, pleasurable, and almost instantly forgettable, a charming diversion in a time that I needed one.
But the thing about Ted Lasso is that even though it’s billed as a comedy, it’s not very funny. The show’s humor is broad and obvious, mostly rooted in things like kooky facial expressions and catchphrases and groany Dad shtick from Sudeikis. Ted Lasso doesn’t really have jokes so much as it has material for gifs that can circulate on Twitter and produce quick dopamine rushes by reminding people of the time they watched Ted Lasso. The show’s second season, currently airing, is brazenly lazy in both concept and execution. Early episodes offer nominally comedic riffs on Mexicans being superstitious, British people not knowing what pickup trucks or “the yips” are (the term was coined by a Scotsman in the 1920s), and men not wanting to go to therapy. An interminable amount of story is driven by text-message exchanges and social media, presumably as an excuse to show people looking at Apple devices. A recent Christmas episode about the importance of togetherness featuring a subplot about a child with halitosis was so preposterously cloying that it felt openly cynical. None of this is smart, and none of it is funny.
And yet the show continues to be rapturously well-received. A Vanity Fair review with the headline “In Season 2, Ted Lasso Is Still #Goals” praised the show’s “enlightened bawdiness” and its “many balms for the soul.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “sweet, hopeful, and obstinately corny,” then concluded that “its worldview hasn’t lost any of its necessity.” When Ted Lasso won a Peabody Award, the jury praised the show “for offering the perfect counter to the enduring prevalence of toxic masculinity, both on-screen and off, in a moment when the nation truly needs inspiring models of kindness." This type of rhetoric was so prevalent that Doreen St. Félix’s mildly dissenting New Yorker review was headlined “Ted Lasso Can’t Save Us.”
This is correct; Ted Lasso cannot save us. He is a television character on a show made by arguably the most powerful corporation on earth. But this way of talking about TV shows, of which Ted Lasso is merely the latest example, makes me want to climb into a catapult and fling myself into the sun. Once upon a time when discerning adults called something “feel-good” it was a pejorative, a dismissal of middlebrow art that eschewed complexity and coddled its audience. Now we are being told that watching a feel-good television show can actually make us better people, and make the world a better place. Ted Lasso is #Goals.
This way of talking about TV also aligns with a tendency for viewers to imagine themselves into the shows they’re watching, escapism that mistakes itself for enrichment. This has become a bizarrely prevalent mode of TV comedy in particular, in which characters’ goodness is constantly reinforced so that you can feel good about watching them. Shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation made people feel like they were hanging out with confidants who addressed them directly through the camera. The Office jettisoned the caustic satire of the (immeasurably superior) UK original for a vision of work where everyone has fun and goes to each other’s weddings; Parks and Rec offered a fantasia of Middle American liberal technocracy in which even hardcore right-wingers are secretly benevolent altruists. At least those shows were sporadically amusing. In a great essay for The Cut a few years back, Molly Fischer pointed out that the reason the monumentally unfunny but critically-praised Master of None was so boring was because of how much time it spent having its main character learn “neat lessons in empathy,” like the fact that sexism exists, or that elderly people are human beings.
Yet television viewers continue to love being taught about such complex moral issues as the Golden Rule. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik, in a recent piece about what he calls the current “sincerity era” in television comedy, says the crowd favorite Schitt’s Creek “began as a tart, “Arrested Development”–style sitcom about a wealthy family forced to earn their own livings in a small town. But it came into its own — and found a devoted audience — when it shifted into a warm, earnest mode, in which the rich fishes-out-of-water embraced their community, finding purpose and love.” I have only seen a few episodes of Schitt’s Creek and I know many people do love it, but “Arrested Development but nicer to rich people” doesn’t seem like a formulation anyone should be praising with a straight face.
Returning to Ted Lasso, Time’s Judy Berman recently wrote that she had “never seen another fictional character who seemed so deliberately constructed to teach other adult men how to behave in the world.” This initially struck me as an absolutely insane thing to say about a TV character, but the more I’ve thought about it the more I think it might be right. The show’s vibe of decency, after all, functions didactically, or at least it wants its audience to believe it does. Much in the way that liberals apparently took comfort in a sitcom character imparting sunny lessons to them in the aftermath of the 2016 election, at the time of this writing Ted Lasso — not the show, but the guy, who does not exist — has nearly 360,000 Twitter followers, to whom he tweets advice like “Doin’ the right thing is never the wrong thing” and periodically encourages them to donate to charity.
Donating to charity is absolutely something people should do, and doing the right thing is indeed never wrong. (I mean, Jesus fucking Christ.) But the relationship didactic comedy like this has with its viewers is always rooted in mutual self-satisfaction, which is not enough to produce anything actually funny. The pleasure it produces comes from teaching you lessons that you already know; it reinforces your own values and assures you they are correct. It can’t surprise you, which is what good comedy needs to do. Ted Lasso isn’t actually undoing “toxic masculinity” because everyone who watches it and says that it is already understands “toxic masculinity” as something that should be undone, as someone else’s problem.
For comedy to get away with not being funny it’s got to convince you it’s doing something else other than being funny, something smarter or better. Ted Lasso, lacking any actual jokes, desperately needs you to think it’s making you a better person, because it sure isn’t doing much of anything else.
And that need will ultimately curdle into contempt, because it treats its viewer as someone to be fixed, someone debased. The aforementioned Christmas episode was an incoherent wreck of sentimental yuletide signifiers: a twee acoustic version of Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” an excruciatingly long homage to Love Actually in which an adorable little girl “forgives” her bully, a closing sing-along to Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” that takes a nice warm piss on one of the greatest songs ever made. Doesn’t this all feel good? Drink it up.
Jack Hamilton is associate professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.