the discourse

Why a Christmas Episode Supercharged the Ted Lasso Debate

The frustration with “Carol of the Bells” and Ted Lasso’s early second-season bagginess is essentially a frustration with serialization — one that the show has invited a little too readily. Photo: Colin Hutton/Apple TV+

Ted Lasso, the Apple TV+ comedy about Americanness and soccer and friends and therapy and cunnilingus, has lately become the topic of weirdly intense internet outrage. Despite the irony of furious takedowns and defensiveness inspired by a show about treating people with respect, Ted Lasso has become a shibboleth of TV discourse. Mild critiques become backlash; responses become defenses; the whole thing is frankly a little bonkers.

In accordance with the laws of TV physics, some version of this was always going to happen. The first season of Ted Lasso was so beloved, the universe simply could not sustain that same level of unanimity for the second season. With the acknowledgment that it’s terrible to overgeneralize, that debate around season two has gone mostly like this: Ted Lasso is not now and has never been a good show; it is overly sentimental and blind to its hero’s flaws; this season in particular lacks conflict and drive, criticisms countered by the response that all of those points are taking something perfectly lovely and dunking on it just for the perverted pleasure of yucking someone’s yum.

If the fervor over Ted Lasso this season seems curiously intense (and, yes, totally exhausting), it may be because several elements of the show and the way it exists in the world have hypercharged the conversation about it. These are just my guesses, but if the whole season had been released all at once, I suspect there would not be this level of furor. If it were not a show about the nature of being good, I likewise have a feeling there’d be less outrage over it. And really, I think no small part of the Ted Lasso Discourse, sigh, is the fault of the out-of-season, mega-sentimental, momentum-halting Christmas episode.

“Carol of the Bells,” the second season’s fourth episode, is a largely stand-alone Christmas story, and it’s full to the brim with schmaltz and sweetness and all the other words we use for fiction that are also descriptions of food we think tastes good but have decided is unhealthy. From the perspective of “what is season two of this show going to be about?” the episode is also a little galling. Ted Lasso’s first season came with silly but obvious stakes, framed by the tension of Rebecca wanting the football club she now owns to fail and the hapless but unexpectedly effective Ted slowly winning everyone over. But there’s no similarly tight arc immediately obvious in season two, and plunking this weird, empty Christmas story right at the point when the season was already starting to look aimless only exacerbates the impression that the whole show lacks friction. “Carol of the Bells” makes it seem as though there are no real problems in Ted Lasso-land; there is only fuzziness and warmth and good holiday cheer. Rebecca saves Ted from a lonely holiday; Higgins and his family host all the team members who can’t be with their families; Roy Kent has an unspeakably weird plot about dental hygiene that is nonetheless festive and nice. Where is the larger story? Where is the direction?

Now, looking at the season that way willfully ignores the several flash points the show is clearly teeing up for later, for instance: Dr. Sharon, Nate’s bubbling rage, Jamie Tartt’s father issues, Ted’s panic attacks. (It also ignores that the Christmas episode was not intended to be there in the first place.) But it’s a telling critique nevertheless. In a season released all at once, where that Christmas episode is one short jaunt into the holidays and the other episodes are immediately available, “Carol of the Bells” looks like one blip in a larger design. When there are no counterbalancing new episodes to wash away the astringent peppermint flavor, though, of course it’s easy to wonder if the Christmas episode is a one-off or if it represents the dominant new direction of the show. Maybe it’ll all be this wash of sentimental squishiness now. Ugh!

In essence, the frustration with “Carol of the Bells” and Ted Lasso’s early second-season bagginess is a frustration with serialization, and it’s one that the show has invited a little too readily. Ted Lasso is operating in a strange, transitional moment in the history of television as a form, one where audiences have adjusted to the flattened, long-distance vantage point that comes from binge-watching full seasons of comedies. Although season one was also released weekly, it took a while for the fandom to build, and most Ted Lasso fans first encountered the show as a complete season. And while there are lots of other attention-grabbing weekly release series — most recently WandaVision, Mare of Easttown, and The White Lotus — they’re more likely to be short-season projects, dramas or comedies shaped like dramas, series that are uninterested in baggy, old-school TV comedy forms like one-off holiday episodes and nonlinear character development.

Ted Lasso is in a “half-one-thing, half-another” place, and there’s just not much else in the TV landscape like it right now. Many Ted Lasso viewers who came to the show only after season one had been fully released have never had to watch week-to-week before. The conversation about Ted Lasso this season is heightened because it comes from the simple, frustrating experience of lacking the rest of it, the vague panic of not having more and worrying about what the more will look like.

I know you know this, and you know I know this, but let’s just say it anyhow: This is what serialization has always been about! That’s the whole deal! It’s what TV always was! But once we get used to the have-it-all model, the absence becomes distinctly uncomfortable, especially when the show itself is toying with occasionally uneasy mixes of TV structures. Sometimes character development on Ted Lasso works like network sitcoms do, by slowly filling in pieces of a character mosaic; sometimes it shifts more toward linearity, toward the scope and the spring-loaded tension and release of drama plotting. It’s no wonder some viewers have been frustrated with the first several episodes; the show’s own structural instability has made it difficult to feel confident about what sort of show it even wants to be.

From an emotional place, though, the Christmas episode has supercharged the Ted Lasso conversation because it presses on a much touchier subject: Ted Lasso’s relationship to human goodness. Like Schitt’s Creek, Ted Lasso is a show about feeling good, but it’s also a show about being good. Although the show has hinted, pointedly, that Ted has absolutely no insight into his own emotions and a mental health collapse is on the horizon, the show has been taken up as a guide to being a good person, a road map to the perils and promises of niceness. It is heavy with the burden of didacticism. So when a piece like Doreen St. Felix’s excellent New Yorker review points out the empty sloganeering of Ted’s rhetoric, the response is outsized because it’s not just taken as a critique of a television show — it becomes a critique of the show’s comforting, moralizing assurances. Suggesting that Ted Lasso is imperfect (surely the most mild criticism imaginable; who even wants airless perfection?) becomes ideologically laden, in two directions. On one side, exasperated, sneering disdain for simple exhortations about confidence and belief; on the other, dismayed defensiveness that the icon of niceness, a statue to positive masculinity, is being tarnished.

Put together, the combination of serial incompleteness and the burden of being held up as virtuous has turned Ted Lasso into a bad discourse superspreader, and it’s all magnified by “Carol of the Bells.” It’s an episode laden with sentiment and good will, where nothing much happens and where the primary takeaway is a cross-stitch-pillow-primed insistence that Goodness Is Its Own Reward, or Christmas Feels Good But Not As Good As Niceness Feels, or Friends Can Be Family Too, or something. It doesn’t matter all that much that there have been signals that Ted Lasso will eventually swerve toward sadness and pain this season, or that a one-off schmaltzy Christmas episode would be a shrug-worthy par for the course in an earlier network comedy context. “Carol of the Bells,” taken as a stand-alone TV episode, becomes a stand-alone measure of all that is either good or bad about the show. And if it’s bad, it’s not just that the show is bad; it’s that goodness (sentiment, happiness, morality) is bad. If it’s good, it’s not just that the show is good; it’s that criticism is an attack on that system of goodness and joy.

It’s honestly impressive that a television show as comparatively slight as Ted Lasso has been able to sustain this level of furor for weeks. But — and I mean this with awe and pride in my favorite narrative form — that’s serial TV for you, baby. Combine slow-release storytelling with character models that make the show appear to endorse a moral code, at a time when people are aching for pleasure and comfort? Nothing’s gonna stop that train! Yes, it is exhausting. But maybe if you turn it around, it’s also a life-affirming testament to the power of storytelling when lots of people get to experience it together? Or maybe that’s just my Pollyannaish Ted Lasso side coming out. Uh-oh, here comes the backlash.

Why a Christmas Episode Supercharged the Ted Lasso Debate