Dirt: Ted Lasso's fantasy
A brief history of moral TV.
Allegra Hobbs traces Ted Lasso back to his sanitized American sitcom roots.
Time critic Judy Berman recently described Ted Lasso as an attempt to craft the perfect man, claiming that she had “never seen another fictional character who seemed so deliberately constructed to teach other adult men how to behave in the world.” She notes flickers of the prototype in unproblematic patriarchal figures like Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson. But I would argue there is a more obvious precursor to Lasso.
From 1960 to 1968, a sitcom about a nice guy policing an idyllic Southern town with a light touch consistently dominated the ratings. Sheriff Andy Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show (played by Andy Griffith) was a paragon of kindness and righteousness, refusing to carry a gun or police the citizens of Mayberry through shows of force, instead opting for nonviolent conflict resolution and genial peacekeeping; he dealt with criminals, the town drunk, and his more trigger-happy colleagues in law enforcement with a rarely shaken pleasantness. (Lasso’s thick Southern accent, which viewers have noted is not native to the character’s hometown of Kansas City, is even similar in cadence to Taylor’s, which Griffith exaggerated in earlier seasons — a Southern accent used to indicate virtue is quite the throwback!)
The Andy Griffith Show came to American television screens against a backdrop of civil unrest, police brutality, war, a presidential assassination and a rash of serial killers. That backdrop is also entirely undetectable in the show (I had, until recently, believed it aired in the 1950s). There is no mention of Vietnam, no mention of the Civil Rights movement (there are precisely zero Black people in Mayberry); the sexual revolution never happened; there are no drugs and no hippies. There are the occasional property crimes so our heroes have bad guys to foil, but certainly no assaults or murders. There isn’t even rock music (loathed and feared by the elders of the time), just the iconic whistled theme tune and bluegrass sing-alongs.
This is, in large part, simply because the cultural understanding of television’s role was different at the time — prior to the 70s, there was a hard line between current events, which were covered on the news, and TV shows, which existed for entertainment purposes. For a sitcom to grapple with politics or social upheaval was simply unheard of; that understanding of TV shifted with All in the Family, which used comedy to explore cultural issues relevant to its audience (All in the Family also coincided with wartime sitcom M*A*S*H — more on that later).
But it’s also true, by Griffith’s admission, that the show was intentionally crafted to invoke a simpler time (for white people), specifically the 1930s, when Griffith himself was a child in a small North Carolina town. He also went out of his way to drive home the fact that Mayberry was fictional, and was unsettled by attempts to make it real. He fiercely, exasperatedly objected to renaming a real town after Mayberry — the real town is saddled with real problems that cannot be solved in a half-hour, he quipped. But Mayberry was real for a certain kind of disillusioned American viewer. Griffith’s postmortem legacy has been that of what New York Magazine critic Frank Rich called a “nostalgia for what never was,” fueled by a “declinist panic” over the loss of the mythical “good old days.” Rich noted that following Griffith’s 2012 death, “you’d have thought we’d lost a Founding Father,” so maudlin were the tributes that followed, so desperate was the nostalgia for a fictional person in a fictional place.
I consider The Andy Griffith Show and Ted Lasso both part of a broad category I’d call “moral television”: that is, television that is intended to be morally instructive. The defining sitcom of the following decade, M*A*S*H, was moral television of a different kind– morality through pessimism. Set in a mobile army hospital in the Korean War, M*A*S*H was a dark sitcom with teeth, preaching about the horrors of war and the amorality of the American military machine with caustic wit. It was moralistic but anti-escapist; young soldiers died on the table, beloved characters were killed off, and army doctors held trauma-induced nervous breakdowns at bay with heavy drinking, sex, and comedic hijinks.
The show’s good-guy protagonist, Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce, is in many ways a moral television hero in the tradition of Griffith. He is unerringly decent and kind, with an infallible sense of right and wrong, righteously striking down racism and jingoism at every turn. He delivers sermons on the evils of war that drive home the moral lesson for viewers. But Hawkeye was also an angry character— either suppressing his rage by manically slinging out a joke a minute or letting it explode at a deserving target — plus a binge-drinking womanizer, giving him just a shade of antihero. If Ted Lasso is a relentless optimist driven to good acts by a belief in other people, Hawkeye was a relentless pessimist, driven to good acts by the sickening knowledge that the people in charge are either callous or incompetent.
We’re in an uncertain period in the American TV landscape. The Obama era was defined by sitcoms rooted in a delusional certainty that everything was fine. Parks & Recreation only confronted current events in that it hero-worshipped politicians (Joe Biden and John McCain both made cameos); the roommates of New Girl were, aside from some obligatory declarations of girlboss feminism, staunchly apolitical. The defining sitcom of the Trump era, The Good Place, was characterized by a frantic moralism — the certainty that everything was not fine and something had to be done. The imperative to be a good, moral person took on a new urgency. People became obsessed with their own moral purity, and that of others.
Now, we find contemporary viewers idolizing the equally fictional Ted Lasso, but instead of a desperate nostalgia for a false past, the character has induced a desperate longing for a false present. Rather than temper these projections, Sudeikis has encouraged the conflation of himself with his character (here’s a GQ profile in which he plays up their similarities, which I dare you to read without rolling your eyes), just as Apple encourages us to view Ted Lasso as a real person (the character, not the show, has a verified Twitter account with 409,000 followers as of this writing).
Jack Hamilton, in a scathing takedown for Gawker, noted that Lasso is benefiting from “a tendency for viewers to imagine themselves into the shows they’re watching,” which in part explains fans’ completely unhinged reactions to criticism.
A viral tweet claimed recently that “Ted Lasso is massively successful bc the premise of ‘What If A Man Was Nice’ is basically like science fiction” (a man tweeted this). But that isn’t true; all the takes diagnosing the show as a counter to toxic masculinity are missing what actually makes it appealing. The show is successful because the premise is twofold: “what if all people were good at the core,” and “what if you could bring that goodness out of them just by being nice.” That is, fundamentally, the fantasy Ted Lasso is selling. — By Allegra Hobbs