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Get lost, Ted Lasso – the thrill of nasty, cynical TV is still unbeaten

Jason Sudeikis’s affable football sitcom has been heralded as a welcome antidote to the dark, unhappy tone of many modern comedies. But being nice has its limits, writes Louis Chilton, and this month’s TV offers plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t give up the spite just yet...

Friday 08 October 2021 15:43
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<p>The pride of Richmond: Jason Sudiekis won an Emmy for his lead role in the genial sports sitcom ‘Ted Lasso'</p>

The pride of Richmond: Jason Sudiekis won an Emmy for his lead role in the genial sports sitcom ‘Ted Lasso'

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Ted Lasso seemed like a bad idea from the beginning. It was a sitcom adapted from an advert – imagine the horror of a comedy about the inner life of the Go Compare singer, or a 10-part miniseries about the talking M&Ms. It was to be released on Apple TV+, a streaming platform that had failed to grab pretty much anyone’s attention since its launch in 2019. And it was about football, a subject which has long proved impossible to dramatise competently in either film or television. Despite this, Ted Lasso flew straight into viewers’ hearts, like a shot off the boot of the Jack Grealish-esque Jamie Tartt. By the time its second season was released, over the past 12 weeks, it had become a minor sensation. In September, its first season landed seven Emmys from 20 nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series. What was its secret elixir? You could describe it many ways – charm; schmaltz; #positivevibes – but it essentially boiled down to being “nice”. With an uplifting central message, gently low stakes, and, in Jason Sudeikis’s NFL-coach-turned-Premier-League-manager Ted Lasso, a modern-day saint of a main character, this was a series that seemed to evoke a bygone age of wholesome, good-natured TV.

It was more than this, though. Ted Lasso was not simply a “nice” programme. If some critics were to be believed, the series represented the start of an imminent TV sea-change, a clarion call for a wider resurgence of kind and heart-warming programming – the perfect counterbalance to our troubled reality. But this ignored the fact that people had been saying similar things about Schitt’s Creek for the past few years, or Parks and Recreation before that. It ignored that Ted Lasso itself complicated the narrative with a second season that was darker and more psychologically complex (although often still extremely saccharine). And it ignored another plain fact: niceness will only get you so far. In the world of TV, spite still wins out in the end.

This month sees three compelling antidotes to Ted Lasso’s virulent optimism arrive on UK screens. The most high-profile of these, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated shows, is Succession, which returns for its third season on Sky Atlantic on 18 October. Focusing on the poisonous infighting of a family of media moguls, Succession emerged in 2018 as one of the immediate classics of modern TV. Some viewers complained that there was no one to root for – and they weren’t wrong. Every character is a conniving egotist, pretty much every interaction poisoned by ambition and avarice. And yet, Succession is essential viewing. There is profound humanity in its moments of rank cowardice or betrayal, artistry in its razor-wire insults.

Meanwhile, Curb Your Enthusiasm grumbles its way back onto screens at the end of the month, and will, presumably, see Larry David bump up against the new social mores of the Covid pandemic. David has spent his career in vigorous opposition to the kind of good-natured sensitivity Ted Lasso epitomises – first with Seinfeld, then with Curb. The first six or seven seasons of Curb were masterpieces of subversive, provocative comedy, and last year’s season 10 was a sparkling return to form. There’s no emotional through-line, no pathos to Larry’s many arguments and mishaps, but that doesn’t matter. All it has to be is funny. And in a strange way, the petty, politically incorrect feuds of a wealthy curmudgeon are as insightful about the human experience as anything Ted Lasso has to offer.

Also arriving on BBC2 this Sunday is the second season of Dave, the sitcom created by and starring David “Lil Dicky” Burd, set in the world of hip-hop. Though this flew under the radar for many in the UK and its native US, Dave is one of the superior comedies of recent years, nailing the delicate balance sitcoms are now seemingly obligated to strike, between real belly laughs and moments of genuine pathos. Burd’s on-screen alter-ego, loosely inspired by himself, is a complicated beast – a distinctly 21st-century spin on the classic nebbish archetype. He’s a talented but narcissistic artist, a slippery, neurotic provocateur who repels the audience’s sympathies with every ill-judged joke or selfish outburst. And yet, he’s all the more relatable for it.

These series are not the only recent examples, and the idea of unlikable or complicated protagonists is not a new one. Anyone could tell you that comedy – much like drama – relies on conflict, and conflict requires a clash of personalities. The comedies that have endured through the years are almost always those with a cynical streak – Fawlty Towers, The Simpsons, Seinfeld – whereas those without an edge tend to age badly, living on only as soppy clichés. Once-beloved series like The West Wing and Parks and Recreation have rapidly become passé, the limitations of their sunny worldviews being laid bare within a short number of years.

‘Uncle Fun’: Brian Cox as the cold-blooded Logan Roy in ‘Succession'

For their part, the creators of Ted Lasso seem to have realised these limitations. The series spent its second season muddying the waters, insisting that it’s not just some dewy-eyed naïf that nastier shows could beat up for lunch money. The character of Ted has been deconstructed, sent to therapy to confront his own traumatic past. The character of Nate (Nick Mohammed) has been flipped, transformed from a meek savant to a pernicious egomaniac. But still, the show tempers its sharpness with a few dozen spoonfuls of sugar. The Christmas episode, and a recent funeral-set episode, are just about as mawkish as anything that’s been on TV in the last year. Thank God there are still plenty of other options for us misanthropes. TV’s not ready to play nice just yet.

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