In the first teaser for the second season of Ted Lasso, a caption immediately flashes across the screen, proclaiming, “This year, kindness makes a comeback.” It’s a correct prediction: The Apple TV+ comedy was the critically acclaimed surprise hit of 2020, setting the record for most Emmy nominations for a debut series.
The show’s greatest strength is its titular character, a folksy Kansas college football coach with a preternaturally sunny disposition who ends up getting hired as the manager of a middling English Premier League soccer club—despite not knowing anything about the sport or the culture of his new home. Like the show’s hero, the first season of Ted Lasso won everyone over. But with season two, some critics are less convinced. Is televised goodness always comforting, or at a certain point does it just become annoying? What’s the point?
On paper, Ted Lasso sounds like potentially saccharine schmaltz, but it’s actually expertly cast, the writing is clever, and Jason Sudeikis’s performance as Lasso brings a warmth to the breezy watch: Think Mr. Rogers meets Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights. The show is convinced of Lasso’s goodness and wants you to be too. Though Lasso doesn’t exactly bring the team on-field success, he does galvanize the organization with inspirational quotes like “Believe,” “Be curious, not judgemental,” and, “You know what the happiest animal on earth is? It’s a goldfish. Know why? It’s got a 10-second memory. Be a goldfish.” There are some grounded details, like his anxiety and his divorce, but he’s consistently gracious, he always listens, and he’s quick to forgive in a way that’s almost saintly and aspirational to fans and viewers alike.
As critic James Poniewozik expertly illuminated in The New York Times, sincerity is back, and it’s taking over television. Ted Lasso is indicative of a larger tonal shift in critically acclaimed TV shows over the past few decades, from irony to sincerity. “If the patron imp of early-aughts comedy was Gervais’s David Brent [in the original U.K. The Office]—self-centered, desperate to be liked, casually vulgar and insulting to his staff,” he wrote, “the essential face of comedy today might be Ted Lasso, the earnest American-transplant soccer coach in England who quotes Anne Lamott, encourages his players to be psychologically healthy and bakes cookies for his boss.”
But the oafish boss on The Office isn’t really the precedent for a character like Ted Lasso. He’s more Leslie Knope, the optimistic and industrious hero of Parks and Recreation, or Joe Pera, the soft-spoken and kindhearted choir teacher on Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks With You. Though Parks is decidedly much more mainstream than Joe Pera, both shows helped to construct the Lasso template of a protagonist driven primarily by goodness and decency. Where the U.S. and U.K. iterations of The Office softened their boss characters over time, Lasso, Knope, and Pera were likable from the jump. Unlike similar series like Superstore and Lodge 49, where their kindhearted protagonists are constantly tested by the realities of capitalism, on these TV shows, nothing really bad happens.
At least the first season of Ted Lasso had obvious stakes: What would happen if Ted lost his job and his marriage? What if the team got relegated to a lower league? Instead, the new season begins with a whimper, becoming an exploration about the problems a good attitude and a hopeful spirit can’t fix. He bumps up against a sports psychologist whose serious disposition is at odds with his Midwestern attitudes; the Nigerian players he coaches begin a protest against the club’s sponsor, for its destruction of the environment. How these storylines resolve will reveal what kind of show Ted Lasso wants to be: Will it be the happy-go-lucky galvanizing force it was in season one, or will it become something darker and more complicated? If it’s the latter, can the show pull it off? If the show proves its own hypothesis wrong—that optimism and kindness are enough to withstand all the knocks life throws at you, will people still like it?
It turns out, Lasso’s appeal isn’t universal. In fact, the reviews for Season 2 have been decidedly mixed. Doreen St. Félix at The New Yorker compared the character to Ned Flanders and wrote that “Charm, though, can be deadening.” A review in The Washington Post called it “a fantasy of decency” and "kindness porn," while The New Statesman was even more brutal: “passable television that relies on hackneyed tropes to fool audiences into thinking their hearts are warmed, when really they have only been numbed.” Ironically, one of the biggest changes of season two is that it has a darker energy than its predecessor. At one point, Lasso adopts a much crueler persona called “Led Tasso” to rally his players, who rants and yells and is exactly the opposite of the likable coach. In a lot of ways, it’s like the show is assuming its own jarring alter-ego: The winning formula is off, and it’s hard to predict where it’ll go.
That said, kind characters like Lasso resonate for a reason: It’s comforting seeing genuine kindness on TV, and it’s also aspirational. In VICE, writer Jelisa Castrodale points out that the radiating positivity in Ted Lasso has sparked an effusive online community, one where people start podcasts, conduct Lasso-themed mindfulness meditations, and host real-life meetups. “The show gets in your head,” Castrodale wrote. “It makes you wonder, How can I pull a little bit of this positivity into my own life?”
That Ted Lasso debuted in August 2020—in the middle of a pandemic, when people were stuck at home aching for genuine human connection, as well as the George Floyd protests and a tumultuous election—couldn’t have hurt either. In stressful times, people turn to low-stakes, feel-good entertainment. “The most obvious balm for troubled souls is television where nothing bad really happens and everything will almost certainly be okay,” wrote Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic. But now, in 2021, things are still stressful, and this iteration of Ted Lasso is not as cheerfully fine-tuned for a lighthearted binge.
Sincere TV has always been popular with mainstream audiences: The feel-good show has consistently gotten more viewers than the gritty prestige drama. Despite its record-breaking Emmy nominations, Ted Lasso still pales in comparison to the viewership of arguably equally earnest shows like the reality competition The Masked Singer and the drama This Is Us, where NBC puts sympathetic characters in impossibly sad situations. One look at Nielsen ratings proves that audiences prefer to be comforted rather than challenged. Where Ted Lasso is unique, is how critics and Emmy voters rallied around its first season and how it’s trying to subvert expectations in its follow-up.
At their core, so many acclaimed TV shows are about what it means to be a good person. All three of the most prominent examples from television’s recent “Golden Age”—The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad—were psychological portraits of extremely flawed men as they did bad things and grappled with the fallout. Comedies Bojack Horseman, The Good Place, and Russian Doll boast protagonists trapped in a literal or metaphorical purgatory striving to be good. The best shows tell stories that showcase resilience and humanity. But when series hone in on characters who are already undeniably good, unfailingly nice, and easy to root for, it can get cloying and polarizing. As the success of the show undoubtedly ushers in a new era of good-natured protagonists, hopefully, showrunners remember that kindness, while inspirational, isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.