Can Ted Lasso Recover from That Unspeakably Bad Christmas Episode?

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Can <i>Ted Lasso</i> Recover from That Unspeakably Bad Christmas Episode?

Watch enough TV, and you will run across plenty of shows you once enjoyed that stuck around too long, fell into various narrative potholes or simply got lazy, and turned bad. It’s the name of the game, and if you’re lucky, with perspective, the descent into mediocrity and worse won’t diminish the parts you loved. It’s a common experience; it’s to be expected. And yet here I sit, in 2021, absolutely astounded at the sheer speed with which Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso managed to transform itself from a remarkable comedy that walked the line of sincerity and wholesomeness with acrobatic dexterity, somehow reeling in and capturing even cynics like me, into something so insanely treacly and insipid that, if one were being harsh, one would say had slipped into the bowels of a dark realm called cornball schlock.

This is strong stuff, I understand that, so I want to make it clear that I was on the Lasso Train from the start. Here’s the review I wrote of Season 1, and here’s something I wrote praising that soccer-as-football scene that, it turns out, many people did not like. I was hooked, and these are my bona fides; I’m not some Lasso-hater who has been waiting in the dark to ambush the poor show at the right moment. I wanted it to succeed. I would still, in theory, like it to succeed.

But, my God, my God in heaven, Season 2. It doesn’t matter how much good faith you took in, because it got so bad, so fast, that once this week’s Christmas episode hit, pretending things were still okay was like polishing a ferrari that had just been wrecked on the highway by an 18-wheeler. Scrub as you will, but it’s never going to run again. The root of the problem, as far as I can tell, is that the writers/directors/creators heard the heaps of praise on the specific elements—to repeat a few adjectives—of sincerity, positivity, and wholesomeness, took it to heart, decided to lean into that side of the show, and came out with something heinously sentimental and trite. (Maybe, too, the fun in the first season was watching Lasso work his magic as an outsider, met with suspicion and even anger, and now that he’s been embraced, the tension evaporated.) Maybe you can’t blame them; maybe the difficulty in endowing your show with those optimistic perspectives while still remaining committed to emotional honesty and packing an emotional punch is so high, so seemingly impossible to achieve, that you can’t keep the act afloat for very long. Maybe you’re finally forced to choose cynicism or schmaltz, and maybe a second season was always doomed to fail.

If that’s the case, fate hit hard. The slow rhythms underlying AFC Richmond’s acceptance of Ted Lasso as a legitimate coach have been obliterated in favor of a sort of tonal ping-pong match where the action flies between one-liners that feel more forced than ever (weirdly, the comedy was never this show’s strong suit), and the Grey’s Anatomy-style moments of would-be pathos that now lack any foundation and thus fall short. After Season 1, I found myself going back to YouTube now and again to watch that fantastic darts scene, just because it was so well done and gave so freely of second-hand goosebumps that it felt good to revisit. In Season 2, from Lasso’s reminiscence about a neighborhood dog that changed his life, which occurs minutes into the season and just seconds after the slapstick… comedy?.. of a player killing a dog with a penalty kick, it’s like every moment is trying to be the darts scene, but without any of the hard work that makes such a set piece work.

Bear with me: There’s an old story in the New Yorker about neanderthals, and at one point the writer mentions certain artifacts that show how before the neanderthals went extinct as a species, they tried to copy the jewelry that early humans were making, but because they lacked the same brain function, their efforts came across as rudimentary and sloppy. The best metaphor I can use for the second season of Ted Lasso is that it’s like looking at neanderthal jewelry compared to the human jewelry of Season 1. They kinda get what’s so great about it, but are completely incapable of executing that vision on the same aesthetic level.

The lowlight comes in Episode 4, the Christmas episode. Here, it’s like the writers abandoned any pretense of a coherent plot and barely even put forth any effort into being funny. It is all about sentiment, but it’s more transparent and shallow than a Hallmark movie, and frankly far less enjoyable. At least Hallmark movies qualify as a guilty pleasure; this is just muddled beyond recognition.

The plot, in short: Christmas is here, so Keeley and Roy are going to have something called “sexy Christmas”—a concept that makes the men of the team hoot with horny delight—which is spoiled when he has to take care of his niece. Meanwhile, Higgins is hosting a Christmas party with his weirdly Stepfordian-but-still-English-looking family, Lasso has an aborted Facetime present-opening session with his son (the only good and affecting part of the episode), and Rebecca is supposed to go hang out with Elton John but somehow knows Lasso is sad so she strings up some tinsel on his sidewalk that says “Hi Ted,” and they go do charity together. (A feature of Season 2 is that for whatever reason, the show is terrified to let the viewer sit with sadness for longer than two seconds.) More and more players show up at Higgins’ house, for reasons that aren’t explained, and there’s also a hot girlfriend. Roy’s niece has bad breath, so the solution he and Keeley hit on is to randomly visit rich-looking houses hoping to find a dentist on Christmas day. At the end, the niece confronts a bully with (I wish I were joking) those stupid meme-y placards that deliver a message one card a time. Finally, after some bad speeches at Higgins’ house that include phrases like “to the family we’re born with, and to the family we make along the way,” Ted and Rebecca show up outside with a band, and, as if this weren’t inexplicable enough, Higgins immediately walks out of house with a f—-ing CELLO, with one of the players is behind him carrying a brass instrument, and they all sing and dance on the street.

Look.

I know you could describe any plot of any episode of television in some dismissive way and make it sound bad, but I swear I have never been more embarrassed watching an episode of television than I was, by myself, watching this episode alone on a couch in Vermont. It’s hard to fathom how it was made, or how the creative team behind that first season could possibly have fallen this low. For weeks, after intending to binge the screeners, I couldn’t even bring myself to start the next episode.

What were they going for here? A warm fuzzy Christmas feeling, I guess, and in pursuit of that nobody thought it was necessary to tell a legible story. This was the worst of Season 2, but not an isolated example. When you give up on storytelling in pursuit of an emotion—when you forget that you arrive at emotions by way of storytelling—this is what you get. It’s sad, and it’s a shame, but the road to TV hell is paved with lazy shortcuts, and Ted Lasso has pulled off the unique feat of falling straight from the pinnacle of comedy into the nearest swamp. It’s instant relegation, television-style, and I can’t see how they ever get out.


Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

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