I didn’t cover the Emmys this week for the same reason I stopped watching “Ted Lasso.” The entertainment value is low, but so is the cultural influence.
We’re pretty starved for comedies that harken back to the era of mass media, and we haven’t quite accepted the era of mass media is mostly over. Awards shows now penetrate the American consciousness largely because of media coverage, not viewers. The same is true of shows that appeal disproportionately to journalists and critics.
“Ted Lasso” probably does fine for Apple. Its appeal is much wider than a niche Emmy-winning comedy like “Hacks” or even “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” But the splintered landscape means it’s easier for networks to green-light niche shows that cost less than big-budget shows with some ability to appeal across our increasingly wide cultural divides. Even attempting mass appeal is a big risk in 2021.
That’s just one of many reasons the Emmys are less interesting — the star power is dispersed, like the viewership. It’s also why “Ted Lasso” and “Schitt’s Creek,” for all the fanfare, are good but not great. (Despite cleaning up at the last two Emmy broadcasts.)
Norman Lear benefitted from a culture that shared more touchstones and more values, partially because there were fewer options but also because we were less sorted along cultural lines and those gaps were less significant. That’s why major comedies are less potent in 2021 and the edges are blunted. Political correctness is a huge part of the dynamic as well.
After “Ted Lasso” shot to pandemic popularity, for instance, it returned to a second season with very blunted edges and a very confused tone. It’s formulaic, clumsily cribbing its rhythmic deployment of pop culture references from “Psych,” smoothing its characters into uncomplicated, one-dimensional objects.
It’s the natural output of a risk-averse entertainment industry where writer’s rooms and conference rooms are trying to capture mass appeal without provoking some mild measure of offense. Mission impossible. Most comedies now are really dramedies, which decreases the pressure on joke writers and enables them to use vaguely woke messaging as cover.
“Ted Lasso” is a great concept, which is why it was picked up into a television series from a commercial series. It’s also why the first season was excellent. Having found commercial and critical success, however, the show slipped further into dramedy territory this season, leaning far more on drama than comedy to drive the plot on a minute-by-minute basis.
It’s still critically acclaimed, but it’s much more boring. I don’t think I’ll even finish the season. That’s not because “Ted Lasso” is bad television, it’s because the show’s original appeal was its sharp but light-hearted comedy. I’m just less interested if the jokes are going to take a backseat.
The lesson is that it’s nearly impossible to produce comedy for the monoculture anymore. The monoculture itself is, of course, fading fast thanks in part to the streaming explosion. But we’re also divided so much along so many lines that making a significant portion of us laugh at the same time is very hard, and it’s even harder if you play by the rules of political correctness.
“Ted Lasso’s” second season is about as funny as most big movies marketed as comedies now. That is to say it’ll make you laugh quietly every few minutes, but its real goal is to tug on your heartstrings. If you watch comedies for emotional fulfillment, eat your heart out. “Ted Lasso” does that well. I’ll be watching “What We Do In The Shadows.”