Obligatory thoughts on Ted Lasso

I have a natural affinity for soccer, puns, and especially soccer-based puns—so it should come as no surprise that I am predisposed to like Ted Lasso. And I do: watching season one was the most fun a person can have this side of The Great British Bakeoff. Season two, though? Well, with season three of Ted Lasso on the horizon, it is about time that I offer my unsolicited opinions on season two. (It’s not even worth a spoiler alert because the season aired a year ago, and if you haven’t watched it by now, you’re not likely to suddenly purchase an Apple product solely for those free three months of Apple TV.)

My first complaint with season two is mostly a personal one. The best parts of season one are the jokes about soccer and about England, and the best parts of season two are the jokes about soccer and about England. The moment when they discuss how all the fields are different sizes at Wembley is hilarious. When Ted finds out the NHS is free and is confused about how a country could provide health care without charging an arm and a leg — comedy perfection. And my favorite line of the entire season is when Ted reads Dr Sharon’s letter to himself in front of her and his only comment is, “You spelled favorite wrong.” I giggled with delight. The premise of the show—as stupid as it sounds—is just really, really funny.

The second season of the show mostly moves beyond this premise, which is probably the correct decision to make from a writing point of view. It does seem reasonable to conclude that it is not possible to do an entire second season of a show based on a premise that basically boils down to someone mixing up “American football” with “futbol.” I acknowledge this. An idea like this really should never have made it out of any self-respecting writers’ room. But no matter how stupid the premise sounds, it is still extremely funny. When the show moves away from this premise, it loses something essential that makes it cohere.

Seriously — the only things better than the first season of Ted Lasso are the original NBC commercials introducing Ted Lasso. They never get old.

My second complaint is a more substantive one. The characteristics that made the first season of the show so refreshing simply disappeared in season two. Part of what is appealing about season one is its insistence on rejecting all of the assumptions about what a television show ought to be. To start with, of course, there’s the premise—an entire show based on a television commercial, which is itself, as I mentioned, based on a really stupid joke? Then there’s the earnestness, the sheer earnestness. The show hits you hard over the head with kindness and good intentions, and it doesn’t let it go. It is not about unpeeling the layers of an onion to reveal a rotten, schadenfreude-filled core; you peel all the layers back, and it just keeps going. When I explain repetition jokes, I usually describe them by saying that repeating something a couple of times is funny, many times is annoying, and an extreme number of times is hilarious. The positivity of Ted Lasso is like this: it keeps on going past the point of being funny to the point where it’s funny and endearing again. There are bad characters—or, rather, characters who are bad due to the circumstances they are in—but the relentlessness of the positivity wins out in the end. 

Even the ending of season one, in which the team gets relegated but it still feels ok, refuses to reveal something bad at the core of the onion. Bad things do happen to good people, yet people can and should still be good. As far as I know, most television shows like to end with a surprise victory, with the good guys always pulling it out in the end. (Or, the bad guys win, and the moral is that the world is irrevocably evil.) But, no, in Ted Lasso season one the opposite is true: the good guys objectively lose, but nobody cares because objective measures are irrelevant to human flourishing. 

Season two, on the other hand, is just a sitcom. It feels exactly like what a sitcom normally is and wants to be. The earnestness of season one becomes smugness in season two, as though the whole project has become a meta-commentary on earnestness. The characters are flattened and morphed into easily identifiable shapes. As I described to a friend at one point, in season two it feels like the writers are “high on their own supply,” so to speak: they know that they have such likable characters that they can just make meta-jokes about everyone being nice to each other. The much-maligned Christmas episode in the middle of the season, in which everyone just enjoys a holiday together and shows how kind they are to each other, epitomizes this. It’s as if they are nudging us, saying, “Isn’t everyone just so darn nice? Isn’t that great?”

This is where my first complaint merges into my second: there is a substantive cost to moving away from the original source material. Part of the appeal of Ted Lasso was that it merged the appeal of soccer and of the sitcom, creating room for new jokes. Another great moment from season two is when newly-minted coach Roy Kent realizes that the positioning of players on the field is a giant metaphor for his relationship with Keeley—in other words, that he needs to give her space. By engaging with the actual game of soccer, the show creates an opportunity for new and interesting humor material. When the role of soccer is sidelined (pun intended), there are fewer opportunities for these kinds of jokes. 

This is why I found the whole multi-episode arc making fun of romantic comedies so grating. It wasn’t that it wasn’t funny or clever; it was just banal. There are already an infinite number of shows about entertainment and Hollywood. Half of the television shows that are produced are about Los Angeles and/or the television writing industry, and the cultural reference points are always bits of our collective understanding that relate to the entertainment industry. This makes sense: you write what you know, and this is what the writers of television know. But the world doesn’t need another show offering a meta-commentary on the rom-com as an art form, because that’s basically what every sitcom already is. Ted Lasso has an opportunity to break away from that, to dispense with the same incestuous world where the only shared points of reference are other pieces of recognizable American pop culture. There is literally nothing less original than a Love, Actually parody—and how much better Ted Lasso‘s was than anyone else’s is irrelevant. 

It feels to me like the writers’ room of Ted Lasso mirrors the character arc of Nate (more on that in my next nit to pick). In season one, nobody took the show seriously, so it could try daring, surprising, and unexpected tactics. It didn’t feel like it was written by a standard, pedigreed Hollywood writing room, and it felt unencumbered since it had nothing to lose. Once it became widely recognized for its brilliance, though, the success got to its head, and it lost its way. 

I am very sensitive to crude sex jokes for an array of reasons, some of which relate to comedy (I think they are generally a cheap source of humor) and some of which I probably need to figure out with my therapist. Season two of Ted Lasso has way more sex jokes, more innuendo, and just a lot more sex than season one. Season one did not need to resort to sex to make jokes; when it did broach that territory—most notably when Ted slept with Rebecca’s best friend, Sassy—it was mostly oblique. Right off the bat in season two, everything becomes sexualized in a much more direct and, frankly, disappointing way. Ted Lasso season one proved that you don’t need to rely on sex to drive a show forward; Ted Lasso season two fell back on sex to derive much of its humor and its storyline. For all the talk of how “wholesome” the show is, in season two it really isn’t. It is the same kind of mediocre, sexualized, hackneyed vision of comedy that tries to be “nice” by eliminating the meanness in people’s personalities. But the appeal of the wholesomeness in season one, for me, was not because of its niceness, but because of its emphasis on people as people, rather than sexual objects.

The character of Sassy, Rebecca’s friend, epitomizes much of what I hate about a certain type of comedy. Sassy is not that funny; she is hyper-sexualized; and she is, frankly, just kind of annoying. Ted Lasso season two is her personality in a nutshell: sex is always on her mind, and she wants you to know it. In small chunks it can be funny, but humor seems to have a natural tendency toward devolving into ever cruder commentaries on the ubiquity of sexual tension. This gets old fast—much faster than puns about soccer, at least. 

And then there is Higgins. A discussion of Higgins segues nicely into my third major complaint: that the characters in season two have been folded and flattened like poorly constructed origami. In season one, Rebecca is genuinely mean to Higgins. Higgins is weak, subservient, groveling—a true manservant. In season two, Higgins and Rebecca are suddenly best friends and Higgins, far from being the butt of a joke, is suddenly the world’s most heartwarmingly wholesome man. It’s not that there is anything wrong with a character arc in which Higgins turns out to be silent hero rather than bumbling invertebrate—yet once he is revealed to be this character, and Rebecca, too, is suddenly the epitome of kindness, there’s just nothing interesting about him or their relationship. He’s not funny. He’s just nice. In season one, the show was “nice” and “wholesome” not because it was trying to be “nice” and “wholesome” but because Ted cannonballed into a distinctly not-nice world and kept up his optimism. In season two, the show seems so self-conscious about being nice that the whole point is that the characters are nice. 

Without conflict, it’s just a bunch of nice people being nice. And without conflict, the only way to make things funny is to rely on stupid sex jokes. 

The most frustrating character to me, though, is not Higgins but Rebecca. Rebecca’s character in season one is best described by any of her monikers: “girlboss,” “boss ass bitch,” etc. She is powerful, she is assertive, she is complicated. In season two, she is just a ditz. She still uses the idea that she is a boss, but not once in the entire season do we see her do anything even remotely boss-like. Her entire character is consumed by flights of romantic fancy. She never has to make any hard managerial decisions, except whether to have sex with the 23-year-old midfielder on her team (and she chooses the decidedly un-boss-like decision on that one). If one of the good points of season one of the show is that strong, female characters like Rebecca can be serious characters without merely serving as the love interest of the main character, season two just throws that all in the garbage can (rubbish bin, I mean). She gushes about boys; then she sleeps with some boys; then she gets embarrassed by boys; she gushes about some more boys; etc. Her entire personality is derivative of her relationship; the fact that she owns the soccer team and should be making difficult managerial decisions—her team just got relegated, for chrissakes!—is not even addressed. She is apparently so “busy” as a “boss,” yet she spends the entirety of her time on a weird dating app. When she does have to do boss things, she is portrayed to be incompetent; she has to be coached by her pre-teen goddaughter. 

Don’t get me started on the lack of a fallout from Sam’s environmental heroism. Where is the boss-like behavior when your sponsor pulls out? (Case in point: FIFA during the Qatar World Cup.) Where is the financial crisis that results from losing your team’s major sources of income (getting relegated is among the most costly results a team can have, because you lose all the television money, let alone pissing off your sponsor). And for what? Because Sam reads one article from The Guardian, he is suddenly going to cost Rebecca and her team millions of dollars, and that is just…acceptable? The first rule of writing is that your stories have to be believable, and Sam’s story is so incredibly unbelievable and far-fetched that it ruins the entire episode, if not his entire storyline for the season. 

The other issue with season two is that now everyone seems to want to be a major character, and there simply isn’t room for all of those storylines. As I tell my students: if the essay prompt is too large, narrow it down and at least answer part of it well. Nate’s character arc is moderately interesting, but he becomes so detestable, and with such little provocation, that it is mostly just annoying. Coach Beard should never, ever, be a main character. Higgins is flat, because all he can be is the walking epitome of that nudge followed by, “Man, isn’t this a nice guy?” 

The only two characters that really work well in season two are Ted and Roy. The first half of season two should be called Roy Kent, not Ted Lasso, because Roy is by far the most entertaining character. He single handedly keeps the show afloat for much of season two. Roy as a surrogate parent and Roy as a broadcaster are both hilarious premises that he executes to absolute perfection. In addition, the premise that Ted’s unique brand of unrelenting optimism has run its course and can no longer solve all of the problems he and the team face is a good premise, and I like that Ted has to come to terms with all of the limits of his own attitudes. I even grew to quite like Dr Sharon and her strange relationship with Ted. But the space that Ted’s withdrawal makes for the other characters is not rewarded, because most of those other characters and their storylines are flat, trite, or off-putting. 

I should note that, despite all of the vitriol I have just dispensed at the expense of Ted Lasso Season Two, I still enjoyed the show, and I still watched the whole thing—which is impressive, since I don’t really watch television otherwise (with the obvious exception of The Great British Bakeoff. Have I mentioned that I like Bakeoff?). One fact, though, is telling: at the beginning, I made a point to watch each episode as soon as it came out, and I wouldn’t miss one for the world. By the end of the season, I didn’t even notice I was missing episodes, and I waited weeks after it went off the air to actually finish watching the season. Much of that is because I got progressively busier (and the episodes stopped being a half hour and instead started nearing the hour mark). But it is also a sign of the waning inspiration of the show. I really wanted it to outdo the first season and offer up something even greater. Instead, it was perfectly fine. It was like a Chipotle burrito. I enjoy it, but it is just a burrito. Instead of being a source of passionate support, it was just a generic burrito. A good burrito, sure. But not worth writing home about.

I hope season three is more than a decent burrito.