Building a better sitcom is hard when the obvious keys to success are so reliable and comforting. Television is one of those opiates that is easily digestible and relatively harmless. Just a group of likable, semi-handsome individuals cracking jokes and making trouble for one another week after week. To innovate the formula would be to risk endangering the entire operation but in this jeopardy there is genuine excitement due to the rigidity of the medium, threatening to sink the ship occasionally produces something daring and original. It’s why shows like The Good Place presented initial excitement only to devolve into relishing in the “Sam and Diane” or “Ross and Rachel” trope that we’ve all grown weary of. This brings me to Ted Lasso which was the Animal Crossing: New Horizons of television in 2020. This was a property that arrived at exactly the perfect moment. During lockdown the welcome dose of positivity that the titular character offered was exactly what many needed to cleanse the palette of relentless misery and despair. In 2021, however, all that misery and despair seems to have caught up with Ted Lasso as all the saccharine sentimentality of the first season has been replaced by what is perhaps the most morose and emotionally contrived sitcom ever conceived.
The first season of Ted Lasso was delightful fun if not a bit toothless but any flaws were combated by the overbearing earnestness and the intense care the characters had for each other’s emotions. It was preposterous and unrealistic, but it felt good. This latest season, however, has been a mess devoid of compassion for both audience and character. The season began unceremoniously, it was slow and unfocused, a more meandering version of its former self but the inclusion of perhaps it’s darkest humor yet with Dani Rojas tragically killing the mascot was hilarious and heart-wrenching all at once. Inexplicably there was a Christmas episode in the middle of the season and after that, the show began a downward spiral into contrived, borderline offensive melodrama, pushing both the characters and the audience to places that neither were prepared or even asked for. Now the inevitable breakdown was clear from the beginning of the season with Ted’s hostility towards therapy and the obvious emphasis on mental health but the violent nosedive into dramatic territory was a foreseeable but completely unwelcome development.
Now I want to bring one of my favorite comedy’s into the discussion here because as I develop my own television pilots I’ve spent unhealthy amounts of time studying its successes and failures. This show is Dan Harmon’s Community. The most notable parallel between Lasso and Community is the ensemble cast. The respective leading men of each show, Ted and Jeff Winger are complete opposites in composition and posture. The former is a witty ray of sunshine who infects everyone with positivity and affection while the latter is a conniving, narcissistic man-child who in spite of himself helps those around him love each other and themselves just a little bit more. Community ran for six years on NBC lasting six turbulent seasons as cast members were lost and its head writer struggled with alcoholism and a cantankerous attitude which ultimately ousted him from the show for a single season. Now the show is not perfect, however, there are several crucial qualities that allowed Community to endure such a whirlwind lifespan while Ted Lasso struggles to remain compelling past its second season.
So let’s start with something obvious that Ted Lasso has so clearly failed at this season: consistency of tone and character. Community has dark edges, but they always remain on the periphery of the show, even at its bleakest, jokes and meaningful character chemistry are always at the center of its appeal. Season five’s G.I. Joe episode comes to mind where Jeff takes sketchy de-aging pills and nearly drinks himself to death trapping himself in a liminal space between life and the beyond where he hallucinates he and his friends as members of G.I. Joe. This is a heavy plotline for a show about a group of misfits attending community college. Ted Lasso desperately wants to thrust it’s characters into similar territory but keep in mind, this was season five of Community, this is over eighty episodes into it’s run, years of developing characters and allowing us, the audience, to forge powerful connections with these people. Ted Lasso wants to accelerate this process but in the act of doing so has sacrificed the aspects that made it attractive in the first place. The showrunners are deeply presumptuous, in order to take a character somewhere, the audience has to be willing to follow. Even in hardcore crime dramas like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos where antiheros regularly commit heinous evil deeds against their fellow man, the writers must achieve an established sense of tone that the audience can trace to where their going next. When Walter poisoned Jesse’s girlfriend’s son, we didn’t want him to do it, but we went with him. When Tony Soprano has to kill Pussy Bonpensiero we know he has to do it because the logic of the show is consistent. To bring a sitcom into this It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pushes it’s characters towards cataclysmic psychological eruptions every week for the sake of comedy, and we gladly trail behind them because that’s established not only within the parameters of the show but as the fundamental gravitational center that holds its characters together. The second season of Ted Lasso is almost a complete failure in this regard, the tone is shaky and often fragile. The first season was consistently funny and charming until it surprised with these earned moments of heartwarming revelations. The second season is not content to remain this way, instead plunging into the ugliest inclinations of each character without any respect for what was beloved about the characters in the first place.
The most pertinent example of this tonal imbalance occurred in the funeral episode where Rebecca’s father passes away unexpectedly. This is a truly unpleasant forty-eight minutes of television. Each character resembles the worst version of themselves only to work towards an absurdly inappropriate “cathartic” moment where the attendees sing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. No character accomplished anything in this episode or grew as an individual, if anything there was active regression in almost every single person on the show. The only character who remains in constant progress is Roy Kent, who’s emotional growth and expansion has been continually cultivated which remains satisfying, also, he’s the only one still making jokes. Funerals are heavy but also a perfect excuse for morbid humor, zany situational comedy and emotional poignancy wrapped into a single event. The show had already displayed signs of decay since the Christmas episode, but this episode was the nail in the coffin (hehe) of the various dramatic threads the writers were juggling so awkwardly. Ted’s confessional about never forgiving his father’s suicide because he was a “quitter” (even though Ted did the same thing and ran off the England when the going got tough for he and his family) juxtaposed with Rebecca telling her mom she’s weak and that she hates her for allowing her father to knowingly cheat all those years (even though Rebecca was being cheated on as well while everyone around her disrespected and lied to her, also hard to believe she didn’t know considering the picture of Rupert on the wall at Richmond is him popping champagne around a group of models) is the most egregious example. Not only is this a ludicrous comparison as finding your parent dead by suicide and seeing them cheat on their spouse is not even remotely equatable in terms of trauma but these developments also warp the characters into neurotic, broken humans for no other reason than that, frankly, it’s trendy, mental health is one of the hottest topics in contemporary society so why not saddle these characters with weighty issues when this is what will provide clickbait and think-pieces galore about the “emotional depth” supposedly contained within the show, made all the more invasive by Ted’s final press conference in which the writers want us to know this entire season’s intentions were to engender a discussion about mental health in sports. This would all be fine if the show was not so devoid of genuine empathy and so obliviously righteous. The characters on Community are not perfect but they never touted themselves to be. Ted Lasso’s first season has a holier than thou attitude, everyone is so good it’s almost impossible, the characters on Community are monsters but they make each other better, always there to remind one another that they love each other more than they hate themselves, the characters on Ted Lasso’s are saints that have made each other monsters, and if this were some profound exercise in establishing the toxicity and corrosive quality of unrealistic sustained positivity than this just might work, but the show refuses to drop this holier than thou stance, so self-assured in it’s delusion that it comes across as smug and dishonest.
The conflicts of season one, while miniature and small, were tender and lovely, resolvable within thirty minutes, always offering self-contained stories and serialized narratives in equal measure. The most obvious continued conflict would’ve been to introduce a rival soccer club as this is a show about a futbol club after all but as we now know, with season two all wrapped up, this was the cliffhanger for the second season. This ending was only possible because the showrunners demolished one of the most joyously unique aspects of the show: accountability. This was something Community failed at sometimes, the characters would occasionally behave in unexpectedly bizarre fashion without ever really being called out for it. Some of my least favorite moments stem from Jeff, for example, he texts Britta’s young nephew thinking it’s a boyfriend or Abed’s descent from goofy, magical media-obsessed elf into someone who places tracking devices on his friends. While some characters pointed out to each other the error of their ways and there was a of myriad screaming matches that occur about the subject, the character’s rarely exhibited growth like they had learned their lesson instead often finding some caveat or loophole, or worse yet, letting the flaws of their peers mute the central issue.
Season two of Ted Lasso follows this trend rather than remaining in the sweet spot that it had established. Each character has an escape route from their problems in this season. Beard’s relationship with Jane is absolutely insane. Nate looks like he’s moments away from shooting up a school, having him become a rival coach feels like a complete softening of the actual dilemma. Nate is an asshole. And he wasn’t always this way, season one he was an adorable, lonely man, and now he’s rendered as an insecure, petty, jealous incel who appears moments away from executing any of his former coworkers. In his final rant to Ted before leaving the squad, it’s Ted who apologizes, this is ridiculous. Nate basically despises Ted for not giving him more attention in spite of the fact that Ted has not treated him any differently, all the while giving Nate increased freedom and frequent credit for his futbol acumen, it was Ted who deserved to explode, not Nate. The worst thing Ted’s done to Nate is dismiss him from disciplining Isaac and going to Roy instead, which admittedly wasn’t cool of Ted but in the previous season with the free exchange of emotions and feelings this would’ve been remedied within a few scenes rather than an arc where Nate exudes a deeply worrisome explosive energy. In that same episode Ted compliments Nate’s suit and they have a perfectly pleasant exchange which is at odds with where they would end up. When he is disrespected trying to reserve a table at his parents favorite restaurant and achieves some self-confidence thanks to Keeley and Rebecca, when he finally asserts himself, he also asks the hostess out, and it’s cringe inducing and uncomfortable, hardly a moment of character growth made all the worse that he kisses Keeley at a completely inappropriate moment and with zero chemistry or vibes between them. Perhaps it was indicative of the way power would eventually go to his head and turn him into a more frightening version of his previous self but it’s a nonetheless rough moment that could’ve been supplemented by the already competent scene of him drawing the waitresses attention to the disrespect she has displayed to he and his family.
Continuing on, Rebecca attempts to date a man half her age, then falls in love with him, failing again to see the real problem. She needed a man compatible with her, then why did she date a child. Not to mention watching no one call her out on her bullshit for that particular relationship and also her mom acting like Rebecca has any right to treat her the way she did in that confrontation scene is just painful. It was not her mom who needed to be called out in that scene but Rebecca. The relationship with Sam is creepy, to bring Community in on this point, there are a number of uncomfortable relationships in that show, between Britta and Troy who are supposed to have at least ten years between them and then Jeff and Annie who have almost twenty. It was weird then, and it’s weird now, but at least the Community writers consistently made a joke of it, until they didn’t and it was strange again but they had the comedic chops to poke fun at both themselves and sitcoms at large. In Ted Lasso the relationship is played completely straight, had Sam and Rebecca ended up closer friends after a night of bonding and realizing what they needed out of their respective relationships this would’ve been leaning into what was already within Ted Lasso’s established formula for success but instead they diverged into disturbing and agonizingly peculiar territory. At least Jeff and Annie had their fans hoping they would get together (do not count me among them) but there was no call for a similar situation with Rebecca and Sam, if there were, it would’ve been more fun to play the classic sitcom game of “will they won’t they?” for a few seasons. Now Troy and Britta have less of a following but their relationship was cobbled together in the mediocrity that is Community season four so it’s stilted but it ends quickly and is largely the subject of mockery and minimization, they are not touted as some grand romance like Rebecca and Sam. Implying that they are the classic, elusive sitcom the “one” for each other is a stretch and unjustified. At least for Community’s relationships the writers spent multiple season arcs dragging out the romance so that fans wanted it based on chemistry they themselves detected. Before this season there’s hardly a single interaction with Sam and Rebecca (she hands him a jacket during karaoke and then sits next to him during Ted’s final speech but that’s it in season one), then suddenly, they’re post-coital cuddling, it’s jarring and made all the more odd by it’s intensity and fervor.
Sassy, Rebecca’s best friend tells Rupert, who is admittedly a devilish playboy that she wishes he would die, effectively rendering his newborn child fatherless, while Rupert does deserve to be held accountable, so too does this side of Sassy. Ted is borderline hostile with the therapist in a frightening manner, there are times when he seems like he’s going to hurt her, and at the very least she calls him out for the horrible things he accuses her of, but some of the scenes of Ted showing up at her apartment aren’t cute, they’re scary. Very few characters are held accountable for the pain they are begetting each other but when they are the show sings. Jamie’s apology to Roy was fantastic, the fact that Roy Kent can forgive is incredible, this is a much more evolved man than the one presented to us in the first season. Keeley is also a success on this front, she spends a whole episode feeling suffocated by Roy only to realize she just needed to talk to him, even though their relationship will likely deteriorate in the next season they’ve aided each other in blossoming in maturity and emotionality. Higgins is a character who is thoroughly underutilized, his comedic material is always satisfying and watching him enmesh himself in the fabric of the team and the coaching staff has been great, even if the shoving him into a closet plotline with no office was a bit forced, which again for a show that prided itself on characters keeping each other accountable, this was a bizarrely dismissive plotline. He was the easy highlight of the Christmas tale though, the amount of love that radiated from his home and the players together sharing a holiday was simply touching. Jamie Tart who has been sidelined this season, at first was intended to be one of the most important characters in this arc as he went from douchey playboy first season to failed reality star at the beginning of the second, then the writers shoved him headfirst into a quarrel with his domineering father. While this could’ve been an emotional highlight of the season it felt haphazard and shorthanded for what should’ve been a wallop of poignancy. Lastly, and perhaps most complicated is the case of Sam Obisanaya. As a character who was relegated to a minor role in the first season having him take on a more central position was welcome with his winning smile and nice guy persona, especially when faced with political and personal strife when a team sponsor is responsible for an oil spill in his home country. The team rallying behind him for this and his outspoken beliefs on the subject were overwhelmingly touching, again displaying what the show does best: so few people act like this but damn we wish we could. Then he was thrust into the aforementioned romantic fling with Rebecca and his character became cumbersome, when he says “I’m only going to get better” in the closet to Rebecca it feels like an undercooked line, for what is an emotionally dubious and complex situation, it isn’t in line with the thoughtfulness previously established with his character, it’s pompous and annoying. He’s still a kid, which in this respect, is exactly what an optimistic early twenty-something believes about themselves but there’s friction with what we loved about Sam that is rendered meaningless rather than progressive. This is Ted Lasso’s problem, every forward movement the characters make is an unwanted advance, furthermore when paired with the first season they are blurred and distorted versions of their previous selves. The new character they introduce is Doctor Fieldstone who is simultaneously brooding and inviting, a welcome addition to the group though she is shortchanged as a foil for Ted Lasso’s emotions and deserved better than what she was given.
The other glaring issue in Ted Lasso is the show’s inconsistent and vague sense of genre. While it may be a comedy it’s also a sports series. Or at least the show purports itself to be. In this respect, the series is a complete failure, outside of a single comical moment where Ted has the players take on an American football position to confuse the opposite team, there is a noticeable lack of instances such as this in both seasons; seldom tension drawn from the spectacle of sport. In season one, it was fine, almost avoidable because of how strong the dynamics were between characters for futbol to exist on the periphery but the missed opportunity was not establishing a rivalry with a team. There was some subdued notion that it was the team that Jamie Tart joins towards the end of season one as they were the team that knocked Ted and his crew out of the premier league but this futbol club was so thinly drawn that it lacked any distinct personality. Now it’s Nate and Rebecca’s ex-husband Rupert looking comically villainous and nefarious which should’ve been a maneuver pulled much earlier, perhaps not with Nate but certainly with Rupert, the idea that such a blatantly disrespectful dude would take this long to step into the role of the villain is ridiculous from a writing standpoint, he should’ve bought a team at the end of season one, it would’ve made this reveal with Nate even punchier rather than feeling like they had to rush both characters to a single location in the closing moments of season two. The showrunners had two whole seasons to arrive at this conclusion but they wasted their time meandering for the first half only to blindside the viewers with these heavily manufactured dramatic sequences in the back half.
On the subject of genre, there is also a curious pairing in the mid season with the episodes “Carol of the Bells” and “Rainbow”. The former is perfectly successful in achieving a schmaltzy Christmas episode, even the dramatic beat of Ted drinking the day away as he watches It’s a Wonderful Life (a movie about a man about to kill himself when an angel intervenes and shows him life’s worth) totally works, it’s subtle and it’s sad, Rebecca rescuing Ted from his pit of wallowing to whisk him away to give out Christmas gifts to those who cannot afford them is mushy but it’s what has always worked about Ted Lasso which is why the show-runners foray into this genre could justify its release in the middle of August. Now “Rainbow” on the other hand, while arguably the final sufferable episode of the series, is totally haywire. This is an episode that attempts to replicate the “rom-com” formula but only goes half way, there is love in the air with Keeley’s encouragement of the Bantr app and Higgins’ beautiful story of the first time he met his wife but there is this uncomfortable moment where two stadium members break the fourth wall and address that audience directly, it’s weird and the momentum of the episode cracks under its inclusion. Ted’s plotline trying to convince Roy to come back to Richmond as a coach is perhaps the most central example of the emulation of the “rom-com” formula (cried buckets when the audience was chanting Roy’s signature cheer) but the show doesn’t nearly go far enough, if this is what they really wanted to do, they should’ve committed fully, parodying the genre to the maximum extent, this would’ve given the show a much needed burst of vitality and energy that was sorely lacking in its return.
Genre is something Community excels at. Of the show’s specialities this is undeniably one of them. While the show begins as a fairly traditional sitcom this all changes with “Contemporary American Poultry” a homage to mobster films, this is where the show shifts to something entirely it’s own, the plotlines become more animated and referential, the community college serves as an excuse for Harmon and his team of writers to explore whatever high concept that they treasure. If Ted Lasso even had a quarter of this awareness about the genre confines it already exists in: comedy and sports then I might not be writing this lengthy analysis. Not to say the show needs to weekly engage in the genre exploits that Community reveled in but the best episodes of Community are the ones where the sitcom formula was merely an excuse to engage with these fun genre exercises, “Rainbow” wants to do this but the writers aren’t quite willing to push their characters far enough in this direction. The flexibility would’ve been welcome but the writers just couldn’t commit. This reaches a crushing low point with the solo Beard episode “Beard After Hours” which is a fairly explicit riff on Martin Scorsese’s cult hit After Hours. The writers don’t have a deep enough understanding of what makes these genres operate to properly make their show about sports, so why would they succeed in attempting to deviate from their already limited color palette to properly and thoroughly sketch out these ideas? And this isn’t necessarily a problem with the show so much as a missed opportunity that likely wouldn’t even come up if the writers hadn’t devoted three whole episodes this season to delivering ambiguous and soft homages rather than a fully cultivated genre playpen.
So lastly, speeches. Both Community and Ted Lasso all live and die by the speeches delivered by it’s leading men. These are often brief monologues addressing the core lesson of an episode or the season, in between teary eyed, inspirational slow circling tracking shots and cuts to close-ups of the audience members ingesting the message. This is the fabric that holds these shows together, if not each loss would feel like such, but instead they are turned into learning moments. This is something both shows do exceptionally well, both Ted and Jeff can bring a room together with their rhetoric, insight and reduction of the critical problem. In season two of Ted Lasso this is dampened (the speeches are not as frequent as Community but they are equally as essential), now this is because the titular character was cruising for a breakdown, however, it removes something that the show needs: clarity. Outside of mental health and the motif of fathers, I couldn’t tell you what Ted Lasso was about. Even after the final match where they are no longer regulated, there’s no winning speech, just Ted dispersing some empty thoughts about mental health in sports, the best we get is the moment where he admitted he should’ve mentioned it to the players sooner, if this were season one, he would have, however, the writers, perhaps in fear of stagnation decided to make him a ball of secrecy and paranoia which just doesn’t check with the information we’ve received about the character. Change is great for characters but it has to be earned, warranted, otherwise it comes across as desperate at best and at worst a betrayal of what audiences found appealing in the first place.
In Ted Lasso’s attempt to be “woke” it has not only created a document incredibly insensitive but also decidedly not “woke”, even if it’s trying to evoke discussions of contemporary conversations around mental health it fails by blaming suicide victims and applying too much pressure to it’s characters who based on our previous impressions of them hardly had a reason to suffer in the first place. Outside of Ted’s first panic attack (which was understandable given the weight of his title and his impending divorce) none of this was foreshadowed in the first season. To aid my analysis I call upon the help of Community’s Abed Nadir as he reprimands Jeff for being a dick “TV makes sense, it has structure, logic, rules and likable leading men. In life we have this. We have you.” Community makes use of their you, Jeff is a likable protagonist but he’s also a man completely aware of his own flaws and his paralyzing dread of aging and loneliness, every aspect of this is apparent in the first episode and when the show ended revealing that Jeff always needed the group more than they needed him, it’s devastating and beautiful because six seasons of character development led to this inescapable trajectory. There were no cracks in Ted Lasso’s visage in the first season or even at the beginning of the second season. We were lead to believe Ted didn’t want to seek therapy because he and his wife Michelle had a bad experience and it felt like he was being “ganged up on”, then we find out his dad killed himself with the only hint for that plot thread being a conversation between Jamie Tart and him where he says “my dad was a lot harder on himself than he ever was one me”, which should be clever foreshadowing in retrospect but instead it feels manipulative and cruel. This show was wonderful as near conflict-less, each struggle was easily resolved, forgiveness and absolution were never far away or out of the characters grasp, however, with the reveal at the end the season, all these characters are hurling towards a precipice that they can never return from in a way that Harmon and his showrunners pushed their characters towards each episode only to save them before the twenty one minutes was up, whereas Ted Lasso has failed to promise them salvation in a single season. Furthermore, they’ve written themselves into a corner so that if the characters suddenly revert back to their previous selves and all is forgiven, this will feel completely disingenuous after putting the audience through the emotional ringer for absolutely nothing. This is a trajectory impossible to ignore both as writers and as an audience, it’s frankly exhausting, if we wanted to watch a drama we’d throw on The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, watching established genre filmmakers (in this case crime) crafting stories not only of elegance but also of astoundingly dark humor. The pillowy and comforting laughs of Ted Lasso feel completely dissonant with it’s dramatic strokes, this is a tale of two shows, and I’m not talking about Community and Ted Lasso, I’m just talking about the latter, this is an almost grotesquely harsh work at this point, the weight of the reactions, responses and consequences are ridiculous and disproportionate to the established conventions of this world. Instead of a world that makes sense, with structure, logic, rules and likable leading men. We have Ted Lasso.
P.S. Brendan Hunt (Coach Beard and writer for Ted Lasso!) is briefly in Community as a hitchhiker picked up by Shirley and Britta who sings an iconic jam about Jesus loving marajuana and drinking human blood, worth seeking out for the giggles. Season 3 Episode 7 “Studies in Modern Movement” for all those interested.