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The Ted Lasso backlash was inevitable

The soccer comedy is its folksy, charming self in season two. That might be why some people are so mad at it.

Ted in a Santa hat prepares to celebrate the holidays.
A Christmas episode drove much of the Ted Lasso season two backlash.
Apple TV+
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Ted Lasso discourse has hit, and it is a torrential downpour of hot takes, over-the-top tweets, and impassioned arguments for and against the AppleTV+ comedy. The discussions aren’t just happening online, either — even my personal trainer recently filled me in on why he thinks season two has been a disappointment.

It is frankly baffling that Ted Lasso, of all shows, is prompting such heated discourse. Ted Lasso is a solid television program, but it is also an unassuming one. Its most salient qualities are its big heart and its sneaky charm, perhaps best reflected by Ted himself (Jason Sudeikis), a US football coach who is hired to run a UK soccer team ... into the ground.

Somewhere in the middle of a very, very difficult 2020, a lot of people discovered that Ted Lasso was a great comfort-food watch. The series became an unlikely sensation, and just last month it raked in 20 Emmy Award nominations. So as it returned for its second season in the middle of a very, very difficult 2021, a lot of fans were hoping that Ted would light the way forward, with kindness and a twinkle in his eye.

Instead, at least some of those fans have found themselves irritated by a season that feels like low-conflict froth, where nothing much happens and, as the Christmas episode suggests, Santa Claus literally exists. Six episodes in, season two has yet to really establish an overarching story, where season one had a strong sports movie core. There are also ongoing conversations — largely driven by women of color and trans people — about the limits of Ted Lasso’s good-guy nature, when his societal privilege as a nice-guy white guy means he isn’t really risking all that much being good. He’s an interesting TV character, sure. But a role model?

These complaints all have counterarguments. Many fans are furious that anyone could be furious with such a cute, unassuming TV show. Others (including myself) would argue that Ted Lasso’s second season isn’t actually very different, and that all of its current qualities — positive and negative — were already present in season one. The discourse around the show just didn’t make as much of them at the time. Also, this happened.

As Kathryn VanArendonk astutely notes at Vulture, the reason this fight has grown so heated is that a lot of fans are essentially debating the value of goodness in art. VanArendonk also suggests, however, that what some fans are truly mad about is serialization and the way season two’s Christmas episode seemed to stop the season in its tracks.

I think VanArendonk is mostly right. The vast majority of people who watched Ted Lasso’s first season binge-watched it, and a binge-watch is necessarily a very different experience from a week-to-week watch. In a binge, episodic flaws recede to the background. Studies have even found that when you binge-watch a show, you’re less likely to remember details about the story than you would if you watched one episode per week.

Again, the flaws people are now finding in Ted Lasso were already present in season one. The show has always been defined by low levels of conflict and an overall veneer of happy-go-lucky optimism, to the degree that when I wrote about its rise earlier this year and thought I was being mildly critical of it, many readers quoted my story as though I had written glowingly about how Ted Lasso serves as a bastion of kindness in a dark and weary world. That’s not how I would describe the show, but its fans and marketing campaign certainly won’t mind if you do.

Ted Lasso’s “aw shucks, we’re all good friends here” tone has definitely started to rub some people the wrong way, but it’s also not new. There’s a structural reason it suddenly feels more apparent, one that transcends sweet, folksy Ted Lasso: We’ve built a TV-viewing culture that is almost incapable of discussing a season two.

Season two, explained

Logan attends a benefit in his honor.
Succession hit a new level in its second season.

Throughout TV history, season two was traditionally the point at which a TV show became a TV show — especially in cases where season one was popular right out of the gate. A successful second season usually meant a successful run of several seasons. If season two ran out of steam, it would often spell a show’s doom.

Two of HBO’s biggest recent hits, Westworld and Succession, reflect these make-or-break stakes. Westworld’s first season, which aired in 2016, garnered raves from all over the place, to say nothing of a ravenous fan base that decoded each and every Easter egg the sci-fi series could hide for them. Once the secrets of that first season were decoded, season two, which aired in 2018, largely fell short of expectations. It had some good episodes, but it became too obsessed with trying to recapture the puzzle box magic of season one.

In contrast, Succession’s first season, which aired in 2018, was met mostly with acclaim — but it also had just enough high-profile detractors to provoke debate over whether the central family of rich jerks was too loathsome to want to spend time with. Then Succession’s second season, which aired in 2019, deepened every single character, enriched every single conflict, and underscored the series’ core ideas of how wealth and abusive power dynamics are closely intertwined. It was one of the most critically acclaimed seasons of television in recent memory, and it won several Emmys.

The obvious explanation for the disparity in responses to these two TV seasons is, “Well, Westworld season two was a mess, and Succession season two was just about perfect.” But it’s worthwhile to think about why those two statements seem to be true. Westworld tried to repeat the trick of season one in season two, to diminishing returns. More mysteries begat more mysteries begat more mysteries, and the show couldn’t settle down and just tell a story. Westworld stretched itself too thin and ultimately snapped.

Succession introduced new characters and conflicts in season two, and every one of them served to more deeply explore elements of the show that already existed. Larger plots existed not just to drive the story but also to place core characters in new and interesting situations where viewers could learn more about how they’d respond to conflict; fans were pulled in deeper and deeper.

Though it’s certainly not easy to make a great first season of television — indeed, it’s very, very difficult — if season one finds an audience, it’s easier for that audience to overlook a show’s blind spots, largely because of novelty. Whether the story is about a robot theme park or a family of media tycoons vaguely reminiscent of the Murdochs or a Premier League soccer team, season one has enough new and shiny attributes to smooth over any rough patches.

In season two, that novelty tends to wear off, and the audience starts to realize that a show is just a show. Some of the best shows of all time — including The Sopranos, Mad Men, Lost, and The Wire — boasted second seasons that are warmly regarded now but were often written about as significant steps down from season one when they first aired. Comedy is less susceptible to this particular flavor of disappointment because it’s often less tied to plot twists and serialized stories, but it’s not like cautionary tales of second seasons gone wrong within the genre don’t exist. (See also: Glee.)

A relationship is always most exciting when it’s new, and the work of building something lasting is often annoying and stressful. The built-in tension of an audience folding its arms and saying, “Well, what have you done for me lately?” is inherent to every new season of a beloved TV show, and that tension will always be strongest at the start of season two. A lot of shows fail to navigate it, trying too hard to please viewers rather than buckling down and doing the work of deepening the world, the story, and the characters.

Which brings us back to Ted Lasso.

Our current TV-viewing culture has soured on shows that sprawl. But Ted Lasso increasingly loves to sprawl.

Ted Lasso stands holding his backpack straps on his shoulders in front of a sign that reads in part “Welcome Richmond.”
But how could you backlash that mustache??
Apple TV+

I want to lay my TV critic cards out on the table and say that I’ve seen eight episodes of Ted Lasso season two, two more than have aired for viewers as of this writing. Yet even setting aside the episodes I’ve seen that you likely haven’t, I would say the show is doing everything a good second season must do to ensure a healthy run for a series.

The endlessly divisive Christmas episode was a bit too saccharine for my tastes (and I usually love Christmas episodes!), but I’m all-in on the push and pull between Ted’s aw-shucks demeanor and the growing sense that he doesn’t actually know how to coach a soccer team. (AFC Richmond’s record is awful.) The second season features five or six conflicts that are at a simmer, just waiting to boil over. It’s very well-crafted and, in general, I have found it to be a marked improvement on season one, which I liked but didn’t adore the way so many people did.

Essentially all of the things that are bugging people about Ted Lasso season two are choices the show has made to deepen its characters, further its conflicts, and explore its world. That’s definitely a departure from what a lot of people loved about season one — namely, the way it united its feel-good narrative with a compelling examination of a sports culture that hadn’t really been explored on American television. (My one complaint about season two so far is that soccer itself has mostly been pushed to the background.) It was an underdog story about a team of misfits and about the goofy guy who led them to ... well, not actual victory, but a moral victory, more or less.

The thing about an underdog story is that you can kind of only do it once. Rocky Balboa loses at the end of Rocky, but a lot of people remember him winning (which doesn’t happen until Rocky II), simply because that’s how we understand underdog stories. AFC Richmond continues to be a pretty mediocre soccer team, and Ted Lasso’s seeming disinterest in that status has created a disconnect between season one’s sports movie core and season two’s more traditional sitcom center.

In season one, Ted Lasso was about its main character’s core philosophy and an overarching vibe of gentle whimsy and kindness. None of those traits won soccer games; AFC Richmond still lost the big match in the season finale. As such, season two is doubling down on the idea that just being a good guy doesn’t mean you’re automatically without problems, and the longer the season goes on, the more it seems as though the show is really going to put the screws to Ted and the other characters to see what makes them tick.

Those choices make sense as great ways to move Ted Lasso’s story forward. But the show has lost its novelty, and there is so much television now (I don’t know if you’ve heard) that novelty is the best way to stand out from the crowd. Ted Lasso is mostly doing the same stuff it did in season one; it’s just that now that stuff isn’t new, and it’s easier to notice and get frustrated with what you don’t like. The excitement of the new relationship no longer blinds you to its faults.

I love TV shows that build themselves to run forever and ever and ever. I adore Succession because I feel like it might run for six or seven seasons, with most of them excellent and all of them at least good. I think TV can and should sprawl, and Ted Lasso, with its large ensemble cast, is using its second season to deepen many of its supporting characters to better support sprawling in the future.

Ironically, the main hurdle standing in the way of fans embracing Ted Lasso season two might just be how much everybody loved season one. A universally beloved first season so often leads to a more heavily criticized second season, whereas a more divisive season one (see also: Succession or The Leftovers) gives a series more room to evolve in season two and thus fulfill the “It’s gotten good” narrative we increasingly apply to TV shows. Meanwhile, if a show isn’t strong and doesn’t capture a passionate audience right out of the gate, it might never get to season two. It’s a weird Catch-22 built into our current TV discussion culture.

I am also willing to admit, however, that I’m somewhat out of step with the ways in which TV is currently evolving. The more TV there is, the more we want tight, compact, novel experiences. In my view, if a show’s first season is great, then it’s great, and I’m very happy to drop a show that’s no longer working for me and catch up with the finale on Wikipedia someday. A lot of people don’t want to risk that.

Shorter-run shows are easier to maintain quality throughout, and they’re easier to keep feeling fresh. They also frequently lack the depth found in shows that truly go the distance. So as our attention spans and TV discussion culture shift ever more toward short-run shows that feel novel and wrap up after six to eight episodes, I’m going to sit here in the corner, quietly admiring Ted Lasso for investing in its own future, amused at how the things I love about season two are also what turned so many people against it.