When “Ted Lasso” premiered in July, the hype machine was in full swing, but few could’ve predicted how Season 2 would play out. Early reviews were strong, then the backlash began, then there was the backlash to the backlash, then the Emmys happened, and finally, the Season 2 finale dropped, completing a roller-coaster run that left quite a few questions lingering for Season 3. Does the series work as well when consumed weekly as it did in Season 1, when many viewers marathoned episodes after the full season was out? Do complaints about a lack of conflict and bloated run times stem from real problems within the show, or how people have been trained to watch TV in 2021? And what the heck was “Beard After Dark”?
For insight, IndieWire turned to two of its most devout “Ted Lasso” teammates, each of whom saw Season 2 a bit differently. IndieWire’s TV Awards Editor Libby Hill and Deputy Editor & Critic Ben Travers break it all down in this edition of Double Take, offering postgame analysis on what went wrong, what went right, and what’s next for everyone’s favorite mustachioed coach.
LIBBY HILL: By the time the credits rolled on the Season 1 finale of “Ted Lasso,” I was hooked. Initially reluctant, the Apple TV+ comedy with a heart (and eventual trophy case) of gold had worn down my Roy Kent-like defenses, proving that radical kindness can deliver a powerful punch. The series was a word-of-mouth hit and, as week after week slipped away amidst the pandemic, more and more viewers were being drawn in by the show’s charms, catching up with the first season long after it had concluded, entirely missing the window of episodic releases and ingesting the series as a whole. If weekly releases are the beer flight of the streaming world, then binge watching is the keg stand. They’re both going to get you drunk, but you’re going to have a very different experience along the way.
That’s where many of the show’s fans — and I include myself among them — found themselves with the premiere of Season 2. And I think it might have broken the series for me.
In the beginning, I was unfazed. Likely because entertainment journalists were given access to eight of Season 2’s 12 episodes before “Ted Lasso” returned on July 23. Watching the first two-thirds of the second season felt good. It was easy to track a character’s emotional arc and their state of mind from episode to episode and watching in chunks kept me on the show’s wavelength, which can be a challenge for the more dour members of the viewing public.
But watching the final four episodes week-to-week felt bad, man. Which isn’t to be read as a plea for even more screener access from platforms, but rather, as a concerning realization that streaming TV is altering the ways we consume entertainment to such an extent that our narrative construction might need to change as a result.
I don’t know how I feel about Season 2 of “Ted Lasso” and I don’t know how I felt about last week’s finale. But I do know that I really enjoyed what the show was doing in the first two-thirds of the season, to the extent that I was a vocal defender against the inevitable midseason backlash the show received. What is it about those last four episodes, one of which was my favorite of the season, that’s left me feeling so ambiguous? Is it as simple as binge-watching vs. weekly release, or something else?
That’s the question I bring to you, Ben, particularly in light of your glowing review of the finale. Where did I go wrong?
BEN TRAVERS: Far be it from me to tell you how to watch television, Libby, but you raise a great point. How we watch a show can often shape our reactions to that show, if not television overall, and having the manner in which we consume a series altered from season to season is bound to affect perceptions.
Colin Hutton / Apple TV+
One potential hurdle is the gameification of television. Ever since J.J. Abrams unveiled his mystery box and “Game of Thrones” turned fan theories into a profession, weekly TV can be treated like a puzzle — or, to stick with Abrams’ references, a maze. If you watch every week and pick up the clues, you can predict what happens next. This concept is somewhat alien to me, but what I’ve come to accept is that fans feel some form of satisfaction from being “right” and “beating” the game, rather than letting the storytellers unveil the story on their own terms. Although this kind of interaction is typically reserved for mysteries and Marvel shows, “Ted Lasso” does love leaving little biscuits (rather than easter eggs) to expand its talking points or tie scenes together. Perhaps that encouraged people to look ahead? Maybe with more time between episodes, fans were guessing what Season 2 was trying to say before it said it, got too far ahead, and missed the forest for the trees?
But I’d argue there are key differences between each season’s focus and structure that contributed to the variable reactions (maybe yours! maybe not!). For instance, Season 1 plays out via a familiar, “Major League”-style format: Ted arrives in town, slowly wins people over, and sets up a brighter future for the people of AFC Richmond. No matter how they watched or how closely they paid attention, the debut season was easy to love. Season 2’s focus is more elusive. The team’s success is sidelined in favor of internal character development, and those developments are less predictable and more nuanced.
Take Rebecca: In Season 1, Hannah Waddingham’s slighted boss was set up to be the villain before being rounded out and established as a co-protagonist. In Season 2, she’s basically learning how to love again by slowly and steadily exposing her most vulnerable self. She doesn’t regress and turn into the bad guy; she progresses, which is a more difficult and complicated experience to track.
So I suspect the favorite episode you alluded to is Episode 10, “No Weddings and a Funeral” — not because it’s a Rebecca episode, but because it pays off on the season’s earlier promises while offering breakthroughs all its own. After eight episodes, so much of the rest of the season is waiting to see how the follow-through lands. Episode 9, the infamous “Beard After Hours,” lifts right out and simply doesn’t work, while Episode 11 is mostly set up for a finale which you’re admittedly undecided on. That leaves Episode 10, but even if I’m wrong (always more likely than not), I think digging into which of the final four episodes spoke to you will tell us a bit more about our little predicament.
LIBBY: There were a lot of ways I expected this conversation to go, but I’ll admit I didn’t expect we’d go so deep into the psychology of my viewing habits. And I love it!
But let’s dig into the gameification of TV a little more. A few days ago we were chatting online as I was watching Mike Flanagan’s newest Netflix limited series “Midnight Mass.” Knowing that you’d already seen the series and enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but pitch theories to you as I watched. It didn’t feel as though I was trying to outguess the show, but the last 20 years of TV have trained many of us to do just that, particularly when a series is wending its way around a story like a hedge maze.
Colin Hutton / Apple TV+
Actually, I take that back. This isn’t something that just started popping up in the 21st century, it grew out of TV’s gradual transformation into a medium that embraced serialized storytelling. “Twin Peaks,” “The X-Files,” there have long been shows that viewers have tried to outguess or, in the case of the former, tried to comprehend with a lot of theorization taking place from week to week. I’d also argue that puzzling out narratives before having all of the information is an innate part of humanity’s curious nature. It’s the entire reason we read books and watch films and TV. We want to know how it ends. We want to know how close we came to understanding the full scope of the story before everything is spelled out for us. We want confirmation that we understood the laws of that particular universe and successfully put together the puzzle without ever seeing the image on the box.
So what does all that mean for “Ted Lasso”?
For all that I just wrote about gameification, that wasn’t really my problem with this season (or its finale). It was never about trying to figure out where the show was going because it felt as though I knew exactly where it was going all along. Being able to watch that unfold at my own pace — quickly — at the beginning of the season felt good, the pacing felt right. Once the viewing process meant a week-to-week pace, I started to see where some of the fan complaints came in around midseason. Watching the early episodes in bulk made it feel like there was a decent amount of balls in the air, but taken one at a time, progress felt infinitesimal and to my chagrin, part of me wished they would just hurry up and get to the place where they were clearly headed all along.
As for the final episodes, you’re not wrong. “No Weddings and a Funeral” was my favorite episode of the season for all of the reasons you listed and more. It was both catalyst and catharsis, yes, paying off challenges set up earlier in the season as well as setting the course for the rest of the season. But at some point in the plot exchanges, things got fumbled. It took a little while, but I came to find I wasn’t particularly invested in the story threads that were laid out for the end game.
But I do think I would have appreciated that episode even more if not for “Beard After Hours.” (As an aside, everything I dislike about this standalone can be found in that title. The episode itself is an open homage to Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film “After Hours,” which depicts someone’s eventful attempted journey across a cityscape at night, so they just call the episode “Beard After Hours”? Just the name of the character and the name of the film mashed together? That just feels like a failure of imagination.) The point being, Episode 8, “Man City” ended on several magnificent moments of pure emotion; so moving, in fact, that it gives Episode 10 a run for its money with regard to my favorite of the season. And the series just tosses all of that narrative momentum out the window so we can see Beard farting around trying to save his deeply toxic relationship. By the time the episode was over, most of my investment in what came before had vanished. And no matter how good Episode 10 was, it just wasn’t enough to recover what was lost.
That’s a little (a lot) of where my mind was at, but let me traverse down a different pathway just a bit and ask you how much you think the show was effected by Apple asking for an additional two episodes for the season, after production (at least in the writers’ room) had already started? Plus, what is with the running time on those episodes? Is “Ted Lasso” another show that would benefit from the more rigid restrictions of network TV?
Colin Hutton / Apple TV+
BEN: Libby, I think you’ve done it: You may have ID’d the split in perception that creates our (relatively minor) difference of opinion when it comes to “Ted Lasso” Season 2 — and it may be the same thing that contributed to the larger fissure in public opinion.
Short answer: The end isn’t the point. Longer answer: OK, so, I certainly agree that this season’s episodes got a little too shaggy. The finale was nearly two episodes in one, and even if you give the season ender a pass (plenty of finales run long so they can wrap up this season and set up what’s next), why are the previous four entries all 42 minutes or more? Run times slowly crept up as Season 2 rolled out, and I suspect it has to do with the tight production turnaround between Seasons 1 and 2, fitting those extra episodes into the seasonal arc, and Apple’s general preference for more content. (Most streamers are happy to let hit shows, or any show, run long, since it keeps subscribers on the platform.) “Beard After Dark” lasts an egregious 43 minutes, which is a wild choice given what episode it came after (“Man City”) why it exists (Apple picked up two bonus episodes), and how it functions primarily as an homage. (The title’s reference is indeed obvious, but it’s been a bit since I’ve seen Scorsese’s 1985 crime-comedy, so the rest of the easter eggs were wasted on me.)
But while I didn’t care for Coach Beard’s solo outing (and I’ll probably skip it on future rewatches), I’ll defend its existence. For one, it’s an experiment, and ambitious television should experiment whenever it has the opportunity. Was this one worth it? No. Was any standalone episode going to work at that pivotal juncture in the season? Maybe not, but we’ve seen other shows pull it off. (Everything in my brain goes back to “The Leftovers,” but “The Garveys at Their Best” coming right after “Cairo” is still a great example of subverting narrative momentum for the right reasons.)
More importantly, and bringing us back to our deviation in viewing habits, I would argue that what I appreciate about “Ted Lasso” isn’t primarily its serialized story. It’s definitely telling a serialized story, and there are many rewarding aspects to tracking each sequential development. But “Ted Lasso” is, first and foremost, a sitcom. The point of each episode is not to progress the plot; the point is to provide the audience valuable time with these characters, fill each half-hour with good jokes, and find ways to elevate key issues. Telling a cohesive, engrossing, ongoing story is a great way to enhance all those aspects, but it’s not the driving ambition, and I think anyone who watches “Ted Lasso” focused on what’s next or how it will end is going to be disappointed. After all, the flipside of the Coach Beard episode is the Christmas episode — that extra entry also lifts right out, but I will never, ever skip “Carol of the Bells.” It’s too damn good, all by itself.
So let’s turn this back to your intriguing final query: What if “Ted Lasso” was on network TV? Runtimes would be tighter, which we both agree is for the best, and commercials would be a considerable burden, but in all likelihood, there would also be more episodes each season. Which is fine by me! Heck, it could even help. Those dramas you mentioned? The bonkers dream logic of “Twin Peaks” and monster-of-the-week storytelling in “The X-Files” act as clear and necessary disincentives to fans dwelling too heavily on puzzle-solving, and I think more episodes with “Ted Lasso” could help remind audiences that it’s not always about moving the ball forward. Give me a bottle episode! Or a Halloween episode! Hell, give me a flashback episode (just not a sad one, like “The Garveys at Their Best”)! But what do you think, Libby? Is the real answer simply that less is more? Tighter episodes and focused writing wins the day, no matter what genre they’re working in?
LIBBY: Ben, you got me. Intellectually, I know I should embrace “Beard After Dark” for being a big swing, albeit one that didn’t connect, but I can’t help but resent the episode for what it did to the flow of the season. And yes, there are absolutely examples of the hard cut away from a season’s main action to do a standalone episode that succeed (apparently “The Leftovers” had one?) it just didn’t happen this time. Unfortunately, the big swing in “Ted Lasso” had deleterious effects.
As for network TV, I won’t lie: There’s definitely a piece bouncing around my brain named “Ted Lasso: The Best Network Comedy That Streaming Has to Offer,” but there are more downsides than upsides to that trade. Commercials would be annoying. Roy fucking Kent would be unrecognizable. (Sure, the show could opt for the “Arrested Development” bleep model, but that’s not the same.) Ultimately, the show would suffer by not having the leeway and flexibility that streaming offers. I want to see “Ted Lasso” do 45-minute episodes to great effect, but again, I only want to see that when necessary.
Colin Hutton / Apple TV+
Reading your response actually reminded me of “Community,” a show wholly unafraid of standalone episodes and playing with the form. I want those big swings, even if they miss. I want to indulge in comedies and not constantly be wondering when we’re going to get to the fireworks factory. But I do wonder if that’s something we’re moving away from with the loss of the 22-episode season. Maybe this is just another facet of TV storytelling changed by the growth and change of streaming.
And Ben, you’ve known me long enough to know that you and I are always on the same page when it comes to series properly calibrating episode length. So we’re agreed. “Ted Lasso” stays on Apple TV+, experiments like “Beard After Hours” are a necessary evil if we want TV comedies to keep pushing their own boundaries, and TV in general should always try to be good.
All that said, I’m still really excited for Season 3. I believe in this creative team and I still believe they’ve made a very special show. What about you? How do we get through these final months before we (likely) say goodbye for AFC Richmond for good?
BEN: As usual, I’m with you Libby. Like the Gospel of Ted taught us, we just have to believe — which I’m also applying to the creators’ original three-seasons-and-out plan: Apple won’t let it happen, and I believe Bill Lawrence, Jason Sudeikis & Co. will find a way to make it work for at least a few more years. Things break, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed.
“Ted Lasso” Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream on Apple TV+. The series has already been renewed for Season 3.