Everyone Wants To Be Right About 'Ted Lasso'
Winning an argument feels good, but it doesn't necessarily get us anywhere.
This is the free edition of Rich Text, a newsletter about cultural obsessions from your Internet BFFs Emma and Claire. If you like what you see and hear, consider becoming a paid subscriber. Rich Text is a reader-supported project — no ads or sponsors!
A few weeks ago, new episodes of “Ted Lasso” started to drop weekly on Apple+. We both really liked season 1 (one of us wrote a glowing endorsement of it for HuffPost Culture, calling it a “joyful surprise”), which was a bit of a sleeper hit. Season 2 came loaded with expectation, perhaps unfairly for a show that was always a bit slight to begin with. I (Claire) began to watch it weekly, amid a frenzy of social media enthusiasm for the new season.
And… well, I was underwhelmed. Neither my husband nor I wanted to admit it at first. I politely tried to laugh, or at least seem engaged, as episodes passed that didn’t compel a real chuckle or even a moment that felt particularly entertaining. The folksy humor didn’t land anymore. After the Christmas special, which I found maddeningly saccharine, plotless, and free of logic (where in her car does Rebecca store her giant bags of gifts? Why do all the players suddenly decide to go to the Higginses’ party this year, when usually they don’t? Is knocking on rich people’s doors to find a dentist really a good enough joke to drive a whole B plot?), I finally admitted to it: I was disappointed with the lack of conflict, the flaccidity of the humor, the way in which plot threads were dropped as if nothing that happened actually had stakes. No big deal. I’d keep watching for now. Maybe some of those threads would get picked back up, though I’d still take serious issue with the pacing.
Then the Twitter discourse exploded like a dying star. Some of the reviews were (mildly) critical, like Doreen St. Felix’s thoughtful review in the New Yorker, “Ted Lasso Can’t Save Us” (which was, if anything, even more critical of the first season). Others were harsher, like Jack Hamilton’s Gawker piece, “‘Ted Lasso’ Is The Perfect Show If You Hate Laughing.” By the time Daily Show producer Daniel Radosh tweeted a (mostly quite reasonable and measured!) thread breaking down the ways in which season two simply wasn’t gelling for him, “Ted Lasso” stans and detractors were primed to lose their minds.
Having watched the discourse balloon detachedly, I (Emma) sat down to watch season 2. I loved the first season, but like many fans, came to the Apple TV series late, missing the rapturous conversation that had followed its initial release. This time, I was prepared to have a strong reaction one way or another. The two camps had been set up, and it felt like I should be definitively swayed to join one of them. But after binge-watching the first five episodes of Ted Lasso’s second season, I found myself unable to meet the fervor of the reaction. Several hours of content later, my main takeaway was: “That was perfectly pleasant and also not the best?” I had none of the fire in my belly, no urge to quote-tweet a critic or the critic of a critic and snarkily tell them that they simply Just Didn’t Get It one way or the other.
For the last few days, we’ve been trying to sort out exactly why a show about some perfectly nice people who play soccer has elicited such a firestorm on the internet. The “Ted Lasso” discourse goes beyond just witnessing fans and critics be passionate about their positions on the value of a new season of television. The dialogue — if we can even accurately describe it as such — feels almost vindictive and personal.
The intense fandom that has sprung up around the show has, perhaps, invited some rude condescension from people who dislike the show or think it has fallen off recently. Meanwhile, good-faith and thoughtful criticisms of the current season have been unhelpfully attributed by fans of the show to ignorance or, worse, “backlash.” (Any time someone doesn’t like something popular, that’s backlash.) Critics are committing the sin of “not letting people enjoy things.” Everyone engaged in this version of the discourse is busily staking out a position and proving that it’s the best one, and that those who disagree are, frankly, behaving pretty badly, and perhaps are not only stupid but morally depraved.
A combination of digital media imperatives and the capitalistic desires of the people (almost always young white men) behind Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have turned us all into constant take machines, in a contest with ourselves and other users to see who can distill the cleverest thought into the tightest package. This is a mindset that incentivizes both cutthroat pseudo-intellectual competition and the use of thought-stopping language. What is there to say if someone responds to your measured criticism of the pacing and central conflict of Ted Lasso’s second season by accusing you of simply hating strong women who receive sexual pleasure from their partners? (Yes this is an exchange that actually occurred on a little website called Twitter.com.)
The answer is that there is nothing to say, which is, at least subconsciously, the goal of these online exchanges. It is the online equivalent of dropping the mic after a sick burn and walking away before your target can respond. It is ego dressed up as dialogue.
Critics generally want to be right — or, maybe, they’re sure that they are right, and they want their reading to carry the day. Criticism is about shaping the culture that we live in, making a case that there should be space for the kind of movies and books we want while pressing audiences to give less oxygen to mediocre work. The role of the critic is not to say, “well, if that’s to your taste, good for you!”
And that is a healthy thing for culture to have. We love criticism that is full-throated, unapologetic, and clarifying in its certainty. Critics have every right to be uncompromising, not to hedge or be pacifying to other points of view. Each piece should exist in an ecosystem of overlapping and conflicting readings that speak to each other. We often read diametrically opposed reviews of the same work and somehow find ways to agree with both, and to find both illuminating.
But we do think criticism should also be curious, not close-minded. We don’t think it’s enough to want to be right. And what exhausts us about the Twitter discourse about “Ted Lasso,” on some level, is that so many participants just want to be right. People don’t just want to say, “I love ‘Ted Lasso,’ a show that makes me feel warm inside.” They want to say, “I’m right to love ‘Ted Lasso’ because it’s a well-made show with good values and is making the world a better place, and those who disagree are cynical assholes.” People don’t just want to say, “‘Ted Lasso’ is not as good this season,” they want to say, “No one but me is brave enough to admit that ‘Ted Lasso’ is not as good this season, or they’re simply too soft in the head to question the pablum they’re being fed by corporate media.”
These statements are not, in themselves, insightful articulations of what the show does, or doesn’t, bring to the table. They are attempts to elicit a feeling of shame in their opponents — “Oh no, I have the wrong opinion; I’m a bad/stupid person” — while skipping all the argumentation that would actually illuminate something about the show. This is how we wind up with people trying to use “women getting oral sex” as a cudgel in a debate about a TV show where that act is really only hinted at a couple of times: If the show is about women being sexually empowered, well, what kind of monster would dare to dislike that?
For a while now, we have had writer’s block. Maybe it’s fear of having a wrong opinion; maybe it’s a lack of appetite for wading into public conversations that seem so devoid of measured thought, proportion, and reciprocity. We can always talk to each other; we hope the podcasts we release of some of these conversations are even half as interesting to you all as they are to us. Conversation feels good, helpful, like we might actually make some headway in understanding things. It feels like a fundamentally intimate medium; a way of connecting and modeling empathy in real time.
We, along with many of our generation of digital media critics, were baptized in the hot-take firestorms of the 2010s. Writing a take seems to call for a kicker, a flaming sword of a conclusion that decimates the opposition. Sometimes we have that, but when we don’t, we worry we have nothing worth writing at all. If we’re not right, what are we?
This anxiety is compounded by our ability to anticipate all of the ways our writing might fail us, and fail readers. We worry our arguments won’t stack up or won’t be respected by the people whom we respect, or even worse, cause real harm. (Anxiously anticipating the amorphous idea of potential harm is far easier than identifying exactly how and why that harm might occur.) It feels safer to just say nothing at all. Maybe that instinct is a sign of self-aware wisdom, or maybe it’s just a self-serving and lofty excuse to avoid doing the hard work of accurately expressing a complex set of thoughts in a coherent way.
We don’t have a kicker for this, and we’re not going to say who’s right about “Ted Lasso.” Just that we’re going to try to write more, especially here, even if we don’t have a right answer to give. We’re grateful to everyone who reads anyway.