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How Did ‘Ted Lasso’ Become Such a Lightning Rod?

For a show that’s all but synonymous with positivity, the Apple TV+ hit has bizarrely become the subject of intense criticism in its second season

At the start of Ted Lasso’s latest episode, the title character lays out a worldview he dubs “rom-communism.” This phrase first prompts a classic sitcom scene in which characters display an unlikely knowledge of pop culture in general and Renée Zellweger in particular. (Unlikely, at least, until you remember they’re scripted by TV writers.) Then Ted explains what he means. “The point is, fellas: If all those attractive people, with their amazing apartments and interesting jobs—usually in some creative field—can go through some lighthearted struggles and still end up happy, then so can we,” he says. Ted may have a fancy name for it, but at the end of the day, rom-communism sounds a lot like plain old optimism, taken to its Panglossian extreme: “Believing in rom-communism is all about believing that everything’s gonna work out in the end.”

Does Ted Lasso, the show, feel the same as Ted Lasso, the character? That, it seems, is the £10,000 question. As of this Friday, the Apple TV+ series is exactly halfway through its second season, a release cycle that’s seen the show go from word-of-mouth sleeper hit to ubiquitous juggernaut. The premiere was heralded by rapturous cover stories from Variety and GQ; last month, the first season earned 20 Emmy nominations, the most ever for a freshman comedy and more than half of Apple’s total. Realizing it has a winner on its hands, Apple put the full force of its fearsome marketing budget behind the rollout. At this very moment, I could walk down to my local coffee shop in Los Angeles and pick up a box of the biscuits Ted bakes for team owner Rebecca. They’re free with a $1 specialty drink, so long as I use Apple Pay.

When a show becomes big enough to earn so much of our divided attention, it inevitably becomes a target for takedowns. The faint rumbles of a backlash began with an ambivalent review from The Washington Post’s Inkoo Kang, and continued with a skeptical read by The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix. This week, however, the takes crested into the most dreaded of tidal waves: a capital-d Discourse, complete with NC-17 tweets—the most surefire sign of an internet firestorm blazed out of control. Bizarrely for a show that’s all but synonymous with positivity, the vitriol is hardly limited to naysayers; take a look at the Post’s comment section, for example, and you’ll find a host of ad hominem attacks Ted would surely find troubling. It’s a strange state of affairs. For all its nuanced character work and rapturous acclaim, Ted Lasso is basically a Major League redux starring a pathologically Midwestern guy with a mustache. How did it become such a lightning rod?

Broadly, the knocks of Ted Lasso are divided into two camps. There are those who liked or admired the first season, but feel that Season 2 fails to live up to its promise, a critique exemplified by a long, insightful Twitter thread by Daily Show writer Daniel Radosh. And then there are those who have been skeptical of Ted Lasso’s success from the jump, a group that’s seized the opportunity to declare it’s been right all along. “Ted Lasso Is a Perfect Show If You Hate Laughing,” scoffed Jack Hamilton in a piece for the newly resurrected Gawker. These ideas exist on the same spectrum, but are nonetheless distinct. One dismisses Ted Lasso out of hand, either because it’s objectively lacking or just isn’t suited to one’s specific tastes. The other holds that the show is falling short on its own terms, an accusation that’s at once more affectionate and more damning.

As a critic, I’m more compelled by the idea of disappointment than outright dismissal. It’s an iron law of artistic analysis that you have to take a work on its own terms; even if you’re no fan of sports stories or feel-good sitcoms, Ted Lasso at its best is an effective example of both. (Though one of the justified complaints about Season 2 is that it’s substantially toned down the “sports” side of the story after AFC Richmond’s relegation.) The question is not whether you have to be a monster to not be charmed by the adaptation of an NBC Sports promo bankrolled by a trillion-dollar tech company. It’s why even some who have been charmed could conceivably see the spell broken by a set of strategic blunders.

In its first season, Ted Lasso had a clear arc: Ted, a college football coach from Kansas, moves to London to head a football team in the English sense of the term. Both employer and employee have ulterior motives—Richmond’s owner, Rebecca, wants to tank the team as an act of revenge on her ex-husband, while Ted wants to give his wife space in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. Ted’s chilly reception is both predictable and effective, creating space for even cynics to locate themselves in the world of the show; if we weren’t Teds, we could at least be Trent Crimms. But over the course of 10 episodes, Ted gets Richmond’s players, staff, and fans on board with his approach of putting well-being first and winning games a distant second. This shift coalesces the characters into a proper ensemble and sets the stage for … well, that’s precisely the problem.

Many critiques of Season 2 have coalesced around what naysayers view as a lack of conflict. That’s the gist of Radosh’s tweets: that the show’s writers, which include star Jason Sudeikis and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, haven’t come up with a cohesive concept to match Ted’s assimilation, nor the attendant obstacles. The resulting lack of friction comes far too close to manifesting Ted’s so-called rom-communism. After all, the Ted Lasso cast are attractive people with interesting jobs. (We don’t see much of their apartments, but the house where staffer Higgins hosts Christmas looks pretty cozy.) Does Ted Lasso want to show an endless cycle of things working out for them? And if so, how is that supposed to hold our attention through Season 2, let alone an already guaranteed Season 3?

I’d argue that the season thus far isn’t missing conflict so much as failing to capitalize on the thus-far-minor ones it’s already introduced. The distinction may seem trivial, but it also partly explains how passions have risen so high. It’s one thing to wish for some hypothetical version of a show that doesn’t exist. It’s another, and far more frustrating, one for a show to introduce tantalizing threads like the withdrawal of an already cash-strapped team’s primary sponsor over an act of moral protest, then simply ignore them for weeks on end. Ted Lasso may be averse to conflicts within its cluster of protagonists, a group that now includes onetime villains like Rebecca and striker Jamie Tartt. But wouldn’t pitting that group against an outside force—one that calls into question whether Ted’s idealism really helps more than it hurts—be a perfect alternative?

The sponsorship issue isn’t the only vein Ted Lasso has left unmined. Jamie’s reentrance into the Richmond fold, for instance, is a hiccup smoothed over in the space of an episode. But the questions it raises are good ones for the show to address. Ted may value the emotional needs of his charges over their professional ones, but what happens when the emotional needs of two players conflict? Ted chooses to prioritize Jamie, who’s emotionally neglected and in need of a father figure, over Sam, a young player who’s gotten a chance to shine in the absence of the team’s resident ball hog. The rift mends itself when Jamie backs Sam’s stand against sponsor Dubai Air, letting Ted off the hook—yet the show could’ve kept him in the hot seat for another week or two at least.

Defenders of Ted Lasso argue the show does interrogate Ted’s relentless insistence that the glass of Gatorade is always half full. The season’s most significant serialized plot, for instance, follows Ted’s start-and-stop journey into therapy, a reluctance that shows his sunny outlook for the defense mechanism it obviously is. (You don’t have to talk about your childhood when you’re busy making dad jokes.) But Ted Lasso’s flirtation with Ted’s darker side comes off as just that: a flirtation. In an early episode, the emergence of Ted’s rageaholic alter ego “Led Tasso” gets treated as a throwaway gag. Still, shouldn’t it be a source of intrigue, if not concern, that Ted Lasso’s central sage has such a deep store of anger he can access at will?

Ted Lasso has half a season left to answer questions like these, which it very well might in satisfactory fashion. (I’ve also seen the next three episodes, which I won’t spoil apart from noting they didn’t negate my own skepticism.) But the knocks against the latest episodes are fair, and call attention to the delicate balance between the upbeat and the saccharine. It’s a balance Apple threatens to disrupt with aggressive taglines like “kindness makes a comeback” or Sudeikis speculating extensively in GQ on what he shares with his character. In a perfect world, shows wouldn’t be judged by the decisions of publicists and marketers, a separate category from creators. Still, when a series like Ted Lasso teeters so precariously on the line that separates the good-natured from the gooey, secondary sources have an undeniable effect on its perception.

Some—the real-life rom-communists—would deny that line even exists. What’s so wrong, they ask, with a show that chooses not to challenge viewers, but instead make them feel good? Can’t we just relax and enjoy a piece of entertainment? Considering what I do for a living, I’ll likely never agree that anything is “just” a TV show, let alone a massively successful beachhead for a relatively new streaming service. But I’d also point out that the ferocity of Ted Lasso’s fandom itself belies the point. People are protective of their comforts, especially in times as harrowing as the past year and change. And they don’t take kindly to the suggestion that their comfort may be cheaply bought, even when the explicit message of the source is to be kind. For now, Ted Lasso is reluctant to let sparks fly. That hasn’t stopped the rest of us from picking up the slack.

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