When Hollywood was deep in the first wave of antiheroes, along came the sunny and affable “Parks & Recreation” TV show as a counterpoint. In the darkness of prime-time hits like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “House of Cards,” the optimistic and hardworking Leslie Knope pointed to a brighter way.
And although the Hollywood Reporter suggests that the “Age of Anti-Heroes” was over four years ago, I feel obligated to report the second wave has arrived.
Where’s the new antidote to the monotony?
“Ted Lasso” stars Jason Sudeikis as the clueless manager of an English football team who improves everyone’s lives around them simply by being so kind. He’s not so much the bumbling fool as he is a genuinely hopeful person who sees the best in everyone.
Until a few weeks ago the show was hiding on Apple TV Plus. But the show is no longer a secret, with it’s record-breaking 20 Emmy nominations for its first season, and widely acclaimed second season premier.
And for anyone who prefers their heroes good and their entertainment optimistic, “Ted Lasso” offers reason to celebrate.
The show’s pilot ends hinting at a difficult backstory for our main character, an affable American football coach who has been hired to coach an English football team. The first season progresses with Ted processing his own backstory while helping most of the other main characters deal with theirs. Although hiring him to coach soccer — a sport he knows nothing about — is initially a ploy to embarrass him, he emerges successful by flipping the narrative and changing hearts.
And the season doesn’t end with the team accomplishing its task of staying in the Premier League; instead, the players lose the final game and end up relegated to a lower league. The unconventional and refreshing conclusion serves to highlight the characters’ triumphs primarily by addressing their own personal issues rather than measuring success by worldly accomplishments.
And in all this, Ted Lasso acts as a pseudo-therapist, taking on the unconditional positive regard and acceptance taught in the Rogerian school of therapy. And if there was any question to this, when an actual therapist joins the team during the second season’s pilot, Ted becomes jealous.
By contrast, what makes an antihero story compelling is allowing the viewer to be sympathetic to a character’s troubled past. We may not condone who the character has become, but we can rationalize their behavior knowing their backstory, and even hope for their victory despite the dangerous or manipulative tactics used to achieve it. Whatever the outcome, we’re told the past is what defines and motivates the hero.
It can be a burden for the audience to carry, especially as the antihero arc seeps into so much of today’s media. So having unambiguously good TV characters model constructive mental health practices should be a net positive for those who are impacted by our culture.
Yet, having the therapeutic mindset migrate into the good world of Ted Lasso also provides us an opportunity to reflect on our society’s full throated embrace of therapeutic culture.
In 2015, professors and cultural critics Timothy Aubry and Trysh Travis observed, “This therapeutic orientation is so prevalent that we rarely question or examine it. … Why? Because we have made the individual psyche the primary object of our attention. We treat its improper functioning as the principal source of society’s ills and see its balance and well-being as the ultimate goal of our strivings on this earth.”
This therapeutic orientation is not inevitable or eternal, but a specific vision of human life and society that still doesn’t exist in much of the world. Perhaps it’s not wrong to embrace this therapy-oriented worldview, but when we see such a rapid elevation of it in our pop culture, it does suggest we might be wise to take a moment of reflection.
According to Frank Furedi, a University of Kent sociologist, this reflection has never happened. He suggests that the adoption of this therapeutic ethos has received a “relative absence of any serious intellectual, cultural, or theoretical debate.”
So is the elevation of a therapeutic orientation to human well-being truly a good thing? Maybe it has unintended side effects; no one knows, because we’ve never stopped to think about it. So as we enjoy the undeniable warmth, kindness and countercultural positivity of Ted Lasso, remember that he’s a very different hero than those who have come before, and that itself may be therapeutic.
Christopher D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square Magazine.