Along with its intense popularity, “Ted Lasso” has gotten a goody-goody reputation since its premiere in 2020.
It takes a different tonal approach from most of today’s TV comedy, which is largely based in wink-wink cynicism and takedown. Now in its third and likely final season, the Apple TV+ series is proudly rooted in an earnestness that contemporary audiences are wary of, and sometimes rightfully so. The marriage of comedy and sincere feeling can become trite and banal in the wrong hands. You know, when the laugh track delivers a group “Aww” and you cringe and completely resist.
I certainly find pleasure in some of the most subversive comedies, on which anything that seems pious or trusting needs to be exposed, especially when there is excessive sentimentality and/or pie-in-the-sky idealism involved. Give me “Seinfeld,” which ushered the “no hugging, no learning” credo into the mainstream in the 1990s with a cast of petty and judgmental antiheroes who remained unrepentant until the bitter end. Give me “30 Rock,” “Veep,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the last with a terminal irreverence that makes “Seinfeld” look almost prim. While a series like “Barry” takes its nihilism too far for my tastes — there is nothing to believe in on the show, not even the art of humor — I understand and appreciate the valuable place of ridicule and sharp satire in comedy.
But still, “Ted Lasso” has found a way to include both hugging and learning without making me squirm at its quaintness. I don’t even hate the “BELIEVE” sign, which should be the epitome of unbearable schmaltz. The show isn’t pretending there is no darkness, or whistling a happy song to disregard life’s biggest existential challenges. That has been the case since Jason Sudeikis’s Ted had his first devastating panic attack in season one at a karaoke bar, as he tried to act like he did not need to sign his divorce papers. Faking it till you make it doesn’t work on “Ted Lasso.” When Ted recently admitted to his ex-wife that news of her relationship with their therapist bothered him, it was the result of his growing awareness that good cheer isn’t always the way.
It’s the same on “Shrinking,” another Apple TV+ comedy that thrives on redemption and positive — but not blindly positive — feelings. The approach is becoming a trademark of Bill Lawrence, who is a co-creator and writer on both shows, and who was able to insert the same kind of hugging and learning in his groundbreaking comedy “Scrubs.” On “Shrinking,” Jason Segel’s therapist is living an unfunny life trying to hide from his complicated grief over his wife’s death a year earlier. It’s not until he stops fighting the hard truths in his life that he finds peace and, importantly, laughter.
I find that “Ted Lasso” confirms many of the ways I try to — and, occasionally, do — find as much happiness as I can in this life. It’s the antithesis of watching my Twitter feed, with all of its snark, rage, and righteousness, as Ted is celebrated for his vulnerability and his emotional intelligence. I’ve come to love the show’s emphasis on dealing with your demons, lest they deal with you, something I wish for everyone. And I admire the show’s take on kindness and mentoring, on the way being there to help one another is its own reward.
Right now, I am focused on how the show is handling Nate, one of its best-drawn characters. Played by the impressive Nick Mohammed, who has toyed with our sympathies with Emmy-worthy expertise, he is the vehicle for a universal theme involving ego. At first, in season one, Nate was the kit man discovered by Ted and given power, and then, in season two, he felt abandoned and underappreciated by Ted. Now he is somewhere in between, as he despises Ted and Ted’s sensitive ways with his players, and yet he feels anxious about his own power as the manager of West Ham United. He undergoes a minor panic attack talking to the press, and, like the viewers who are turned off by Ted and his upbeat nature, he tears that BELIEVE sign in a fit of pique.
What I like about this story line is that we understand all along that Nate’s hatred is born of insecurity. We can see it so clearly. He’s still waiting for the entire staff at his father’s favorite restaurant — and maybe his father, too — to give him special treatment. He is still blindly trying to fill some inner abyss, and he is angry about it. He has not looked within, only without, with hatred at Ted and at his former friends. Like Rebecca, who is still carrying around her hatred of Rupert, he is only hurting himself. The burden of hatred, on “Ted Lasso” and so often in life, only hurts the hater.