‘Ted Lasso’ And The Curse Of “Nice” TV
Entertainment often comes from conflict, which makes wholesome TV shows almost impossible to sustain.
In the opening episode of Ted Lasso Season 2, a character accidentally kills a dog with an errant and deadly kick of a football.
By this point, we’re well aware of what Ted Lasso is about. The first season deservedly won multiple Emmys, and was an unexpected hit, a soothing and wholesome and gentle show that beamed into our houses at precisely the right time during the pandemic.
A player accidentally killing an innocent dog almost seems to be a deliberate statement about the show’s much-lauded wholesome nature, a deliberate inversion of the “save the cat” writing technique, where the show’s hero is signposted for the audience by random acts of kindness towards animals. When Ted fronts a press conference after the murderous match, he is asked about the dog, and launches into one of his signature motivational speeches.
These speeches were used with good purpose in the first season, and often met with confusion and sometimes derision by the recipients — but, somehow, despite all odds, swaying both the intended audience and the viewing public to his odd yet wise perspective.
Ted’s speech in S2 episode 1 almost seems a parody of that, a rambling and barely connected anecdote about being scared of dogs in his youth, that should have been delivered almost comically, met with a puzzled blink by the sports reporters listening — but for some reason the reporters are all smiling and nodding, applauding him like he’s saved the day. It’s a baffling moment.
I’m not alone in this thought — Ted Lasso Season 2 has spawned a storm of discourse and criticism, much of it centred around a much-maligned Christmas episode, which moved from merely wholesome into tooth-achingly saccharine.
And it made me wonder — does TV that tries to be “nice” have some kind of curse of diminishing returns on it? Because I hate to say I’m sensing a pattern.
From Heartwarming To Afterschool Special
Unfortunately, I need to disclaim something so that Ted Lasso stans don’t lynch me on the altar of kind TV: I thoroughly loved the first season of Ted Lasso, and despite its comparative flaws, still absolutely ate up Season 2, and believe it even rescued itself for a fairly good closer (much like some sort of game of football?).
I’m also a compulsive consumer of TV that we could classify as “wholesome” — it’s something that I use as a refuge, as a comfort, as a gentle joy. I’m a special baby who loves to feel good, and if that’s a crime then lock me up officer.
I’m a special baby who loves to feel good, and if that’s a crime then lock me up officer.
But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t noticed a trend in TV shows that I adore absolutely shitting the bed at some point in their run, usually after a strong first season. Think of The Good Place — a show that scores high on the wholesome factor, a very funny comedy that examines the nature of what makes a person “good”, which had a stellar and hilarious first season, and which ebbed into diminishing returns in later seasons.
Or perhaps Brooklyn Nine-Nine, an ensemble workplace comedy about police friends trying their best, which started out as a high-energy gag factory with characters well-written enough to be cared about, who mostly all ended up as 2D versions of themselves (we understand that Terry has a relationship with yoghurt). Or don’t even get me started on what they did to the Parks and Recreation characters in the final episode. Ted Lasso is not alone in the show suffering through the agonies of transformation from season to season.
Sweetness on TV is easy to be mocked, and a lot of the criticism can be summarised into people thinking that shows which strive for and deliver wholesomeness are doing so at the expense of something else — comedy, or realism, or even just “coolness”. In doing so, they’re apparently making shows that are inherently worse.
I don’t think this is true. I think that “niceness” as a narrative device, wholesomeness as a storytelling method, is something difficult to get right, and once reached, extremely difficult to keep writing about with the same rewards.
A Wanker Redeemed
Wholesomeness on TV is only effective when it’s earned. It’s a journey, and the audience must be treated like a timid rescue dog coaxed into trusting the kindness of its new owner.
In Ted Lasso for example, our protagonist is not accepted and loved for his curious ethos of openness and kindness — in fact, it’s the opposite. His kindness is treated as both a curiosity and a point of comedy, to both the audience and the other characters in the world. His cute and often cringe-worthy traits are not presented to us un-examined, uncritically, by the show. We are meant to laugh at him, and find his views strange.
A recurring motif in the season is people chanting “wanker” at him. As each episode of Season 1 unrolls, we see him gradually endear himself to the people around him. With his main antagonist, the icy Rebecca Welton, he literally bribes her with delicious biscuits every day. One of the most effective episodes is when he manages to grudgingly earn the respect of hard-bitten sports reporter Trent Crimm (The Independent) through curry-based feats of kindness.
In Ted Lasso, wholesomeness is an end goal of beautiful storytelling and accomplished character growth. That serotonin burst and comforting vibes that we rely on aren’t a static feature in these shows — in order to be effective, they have to be sought after, fought for, couched in a moving narrative that makes the characters earn it, and the audience yearn for it.
In Ted Lasso, this is mostly done through the crucible of character growth. It is ultimately a show about redemption arcs — by the end of Season 1, Rebecca has shifted from the villain into a nuanced, pitied, and beloved figure, while Ted himself is not universally loved, but he is respected.
Ted Lasso Season 1 is a beautifully written character drama, the wholesomeness we crave the reward at the end of the arc. But once a character is “nice” what do you do with them?
Smiling And Laughing With My Good Friends, Not A Care In The World
When you consider that wholesomeness, niceness, and goodness in a show is something to be earned, it starts to make sense why long-running shows struggle once that reward has been achieved.
Season 2 of Ted Lasso starts with the majority of hurdles that Season 1 placed in front of Ted completely removed, and it means that therefore the narrative is less tight, less recognisable. From a tight redemption drama about a football team struggling to survive and the coach who believes in them, we go to a broader ensemble comedy that diverges into multiple smaller stories.
In Season 1, the villain has been overcome, in Season 2 they’re having a pleasant brunch together.
In Season 1, the villain has been overcome, in Season 2 they’re having a pleasant brunch together. In Season 1, Ted is a fish out of water, in Season 2 he’s a fish feeling pretty comfortable in his new pond. It becomes imperative for the writers to quickly create a new narrative, without devaluing all the gains from the previous season.
If wholesome TV does have a curse, it’s from the fact that most drama comes from conflict, and the show is hamstrung by just how much everyone… loves each other. Yuck. In The Good Place, we’re given four flawed characters, who drive the narrative and the humour from their own diverse and significant neuroses. But the wholesome nature of the show comes from watching them work together to become better people, which is lovely to watch. But it also means that the more successful they become at being good people, it becomes subsequently harder to use them for any narrative that’s not about how much they love each other. Some of the worst episodes of the later seasons are when characters randomly revert to old behaviour, ignoring the growth they’ve made.
Discontent, trouble, antagonism, and conflict are all motivators for movement, the path the story flows down. We must solve the issue, overcome the adversity, fix the imbalance. Happiness, love, friendship and peace are static moments in narrative, still and stagnant — satisfying if they’ve been earned, stultifying if not. So much of the joy of wholesome TV is watching a character become happy. It’s hard, both narratively and for the audience, to watch them subjected to the rack of narrative and become discontent again.
The Diminishing Returns Of Being Happy
As Kathryn VanArendonk notes at Vulture, what some Ted Lasso fans are actually concerned about is serialisation, suffering the dislocation of binge streaming the first season, and then moving into an episode by episode basis for Season 2.
Because of the change of formats, Season 1 and Season 2 are dramatically changing the way they are telling stories, shifting the pacing and timing. Having the Christmas episode and is schmaltzy unearned wholesomeness so early on, without a clearly defined new narrative yet to give the season much momentum, felt slightly aimless, felt un-earned.
Ted Lasso Season 2 was a good season, just not as airtight as Season 1, with episodes that sometimes struggle to stand on their own — but it’s also telling a more difficult story, starting from a far more difficult foundation of characters who already love each other. Introducing new problems has to be done in a more delicate way, without diminishing our love for the characters, or disrespecting their love for each other.
But as the S2 finale shows, the show isn’t afraid of making some interesting narrative choices to keep the characters dynamic, interesting, which might just make it one of the few wholesome shows to avoid the diminishing returns of the curse of wholesomeness.