Ted Lasso And The Triumph of Earnestness
I’ve fallen in love with Ted Lasso. But there’s a lot to this show beyond the jokes. In many ways, Ted Lasso marks a turning point in popular culture.
Season 2 of Ted Lasso is now on AppleTV+. The show was the surprise hit of 2020. The concept of an out-of-his-depth American football coach working for an English football club has developed from a funny TV ad a few years ago into a marvellously entertaining comedy series.
That Apple had a hit with their first major comedy wasn’t that much of a surprise. AppleTV+ is new in the world of streaming and doesn’t have the brand recognition or breadth of catalogue of Netflix. But Apple’s pockets are deep, and their ability to draw stars to their productions is impressive.
What makes Ted Lasso surprising is its tone. This is a relentlessly earnest show. It wears sincerity and vulnerability like a medal of honour. And this vibe is far away from the cynicism and irony that has dominated TV comedy since the ʼ90s.
Shows like The Office and Seinfeld were deeply sarcastic. Friends and more recent offerings like The Big Bang Theory are drenched in a slightly less stifling flavour of cynical irony. The humour lies in the pathetic attempts of the cast to become adults.
Ted Lasso is different.
The Setup – The Punchline
The premise of Ted Lasso – an underperforming sports star, a coach in the midst of a mid-life crisis who doesn’t understand the game he’s been hired to coach, and a club management set up to fail – all lend themselves to comedy. It feels very much like a ʼ90s sitcom setup, with lots of opportunities to mock each character’s inadequacies.
Except, in Ted Lasso, the characters are trying to grow and become adults. They actively confront their fears and limitations. And we love them for it.
In the Season 2 opener, one of the characters experiences a trauma. The answer isn’t self-indulgence, but therapy. And overcoming the fear of therapy has become a recurring theme – in a TV show about football! The therapist is awesome – a total boundary-setting badass.
As the season progresses, we see characters confronting their fears – fear of showing emotion, fear of failure, fear of not living up to their values. And we see them dismantle the socially accepted ways of avoiding authenticity and vulnerability – like indulgence, machismo, and self-deprecating humour.
Ted Lasso does all this and manages to be funny. It’s a triumph!
When we look back on an earlier generation of comedy, irony operates on two levels. First, it’s cynicism and snarkiness, a vicious kind of humour that relies on a victim. Second, it’s a kind of insider humour, where we as the audience are laughing at the character’s lack of self-awareness. They think they’re cool, but we know they’re dorks, or losers, or in some other way just uncool. Ted Lasso has neither.
Living In David Foster Wallace’s Nightmare
Writing in 1993, David Foster Wallace highlighted the pervasive and corrosive effect of irony on popular culture. Wallace’s thesis was that each generation has a pervasive fear. For pre-war generations, this was madness, best exemplified in the hit song, “They’re coming to take me away”. This fear was partly an aversion to internal chaos but also being found out as unable to conform.
For the post-war boomer generation, the fear was different. They rejected conformity and questioned cultural norms. Their fear was being seen as naïve and sentimental. And the best defence against that was cynicism, scepticism, and irony. If you could see through the false promises of adulthood, through the lies of politicians and all other experts in power, then you were safe.
But what are you left with when you feel superior to everything? Mockery, and little else. That’s the trap Richard Yates explored in the novel Revolutionary Road.
Wallace felt we needed to overcome this addiction to irony. If not, we would continue to create art and literature that increasingly made it hard to be sincere. The fear of seeming naïve feeds a fear of being vulnerable, but without vulnerability, there are no real conversations, no deep human connection, and no one ever feels safe in their uncertainty to change their mind about anything.
From Questioning To Growing
Irony keeps uncertainty at arm’s length. You can’t feel naïve if you never seriously engage with things you don’t understand. It’s easier to say “today’s music sucks” than to admit today’s music is interesting and you feel a little overwhelmed trying to explore and understand it all. It’s safer to sardonically dismiss personal growth than to take seriously the myriad complex decisions we need to make in order to build a meaningful life.
At the extreme, our inability to face uncertainly with an open mind is undermining our ability to listen to expertise. We’ve seen painful examples of this throughout the pandemic. It’s a theme Tom Nichols explores in depth in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.
How we handle uncertainty – whether we retreat into safety or embrace the opportunity to grow – expresses itself in everyday life and in every conversation. Do we hold space for other people’s experience? Do we let suspicion keep them at a distance, or do we draw them in with hospitably and sincerely?
Ted Lasso And The New Sincerity
Friends has had a recent resurgence thanks in part to the show’s appeal to younger teenagers. This makes sense. Retro is always fashionable, and the show presents a version of adulthood that would appeal to teenagers.
But would you want to have that cast in your social circle? Or worse, the characters from Seinfeld or The Office? No, of course not.
Perhaps a better marker of the zeitgeist is Abode’s gallery full of “positive energy” inspiration. And, of course, Ted Lasso, a show full of people you’d be happy to share a meal with.
This “new sincerity” has been evolving slowly. Wallace wrote that seminal essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, nearly 30 years ago. It’s a theme I’ve touched on a few times (here and here for example).
Maybe popular culture was once too naïve and sentimental. Perhaps irony was an appropriate correction. But since the turn of the millennium, it feels like we’ve had 20 years of overcorrection. We got stuck. It’s no longer enough to just point at the problems and limitations in our society. We need to fix them. Like the characters in Ted Lasso who find themselves drifting into the therapist’s office, we’ve got work to do.