“Feel-good comedy” is a label most shows would balk at. In the era of Peak TV, there seems to be a consensus that genre-fying anything somehow lessens it. Comedies – shows like Atlanta and Barry, BoJack Horseman and You’re The Worst – like to toe the line between dramatic and funny, making us question which category they fit in while harnessing the best qualities of each. And for those who don’t mind being pigeonholed, the pendulum usually swings far left, giving us shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Office, Veep and Modern Family – post-Seinfeld sitcoms that pack multi-camera gags, mockumentary confessionals, satire, and sarcasm into every episode.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that of course. Those series are award-winning pop culture behemoths that have helped shape the current landscape. But their track-record makes the success of shows like Ted Lasso and Schitt’s Creek, good-natured comedy that trades in earnestness and an optimistic hope in humanity, all the more impressive. Especially this year.
What’s even more notable is that 2020 – with its global pandemics and society-shifting presidential elections and government failures – didn’t directly influence either series. Schitt’s Creek, the little Canadian comedy that could, had been quietly building a devoted fanbase over on Pop TV for years. When the show migrated to Netflix, streaming subscribers (and awards shows) started to catch on to the magic creators Dan and Eugene Levy were conjuring with their fish-out-of-water tale. (The “fish” being a family of wealthy elitists sent packing to a small, unfortunately-named town when their bank accounts are emptied, and their prospects dimmed.)
Ted Lasso had an even stranger run. The Apple TV+ comedy got its start as a series of promos for NBC Sports’ coverage of the Premier League. Creator Jason Sudeikis played the titular coach, an American football fanatic who tries his hand at leading a different kind of football team to victory across the pond.
Neither show’s beginnings displayed their true promise. Those early episodes of Schitt’s Creek found the writers trying to pin down the right combination of snobbish-snark and genuine affection. The Roses were an easy-to-loathe group of narcissists whose attitude towards the townies that welcomed them with open arms was, at times, off-putting. But where the show excelled was its character-work and its investment in the familial dynamics of this removed-from-reality brood.
With Ted Lasso, Sudeikis, and co-creator Bill Lawrence had an even steeper hill to climb to make him a likable leading man. In those early NBC commercials, the character was a judgmental dope, a mascot for the kind of eye-rolling American exceptionalism that earns us deserved ire from the rest of the world. Never mind that the original futbol is the most popular sport on the planet, that it earns more ratings and money than the NFL could dream of, Lasso’s approach to the game was to make snide digs at its ability to stomach ties and try to reinvent what a tackle looked like on the pitch.
But both shows underwent a transformation, an alchemical metamorphosis that wouldn’t just alter their own makeup – it would fundamentally impact what comedy looked like in 2020.
For Schitt’s Creek, which celebrated its final season by somehow nailing that elusive “happy ending,” 2020 gave the show a chance to double down on everything that made it so beloved amongst its growing fanbase. The Levys spent seasons crafting characters that felt both comedically bizarre – Catherine O’Hara with her warbled Mid-Atlantic accent, Annie Murphy’s limp-wristed Kardashian caricature – and surprisingly relatable. What’s more, it gave them all room to grow, to evolve while still staying true to their roots. We saw Dan Levy’s David, a quick-witted sardonic introvert riddled with social anxiety not only launch his own successful business and find love in the process but do so while still maintaining the eccentricities that made him a memeable icon. (He made compromises when it came to bachelor party escape rooms and town-hall-set nuptials, but he did so while also bemoaning the lack of Tahitian dolphin cruises and melting down over his haikuist officiant Fabian canceling because his penny-farthing couldn’t withstand the rain.) We saw Moira, a woman who once wished for a “good coma” when presented with living in a run-down motel at the beginning of the series, shape-shift into a mother with genuine maternal instincts (she rescheduled her flight once she realized it conflicted with her son’s wedding day, sacrificing lie-back seats, after all) who managed to retain her singular linguistic verbosity and deeply-selfish-yet-incredibly-charming point of view (as did her daughter).
What Schitt’s Creek did so well in its later seasons by leaning into its unabashed wholesomeness and letting the humor emerge from the capriciousness of its wholly original characters is what Ted Lasso managed to perfect in just the handful of episodes that made up its first season. Sudeikis and Lawrence have both gone on record to emphasize how the sense of hope and empathy the show inspires was intentional from the start, though they did enjoy the benefit of timing.
“The show predated the pandemic, but the inherent cynicism that was out there in social media and in the ethos did exist,” Lawrence told Entertainment Weekly.
With this new version of Lasso, Sudeikis held on to the essential elements that gave the show its comedic bent – it’s still about a football coach who is sorely out of his depth when he accepts a job to coach soccer in the UK – but it tossed out a lot of the cutting cynicism and snark in favor of crafting a character that feels like the human equivalent of a warm hug, an aggressively-positive man who spouts motivational quotes to his players and bakes biscuits for his boss and takes an almost militant approach to making everyone in his immediate vicinity like him, even if they’re determined not to.
And this niceness extends to other characters on the show as well – from the club’s sometimes-devious owner, Rebecca (the underrated Hannah Waddingham), to the team’s aging grump Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), to party-girl-turned-PR-maven Keeley (Juno Temple). Ted Lasso delights in crafting the old bait and switch with its cast, building them up as one thing – a villain, a thorn in Lasso’s side, a potential love interest – only to deftly pull the rug out from under us by showing how kind, how broken, and how earnest these people are about trying to be better.
That’s really what Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso have in common – this idea that people can change and that change can be good.
They don’t torture their characters in order to achieve it either. Sure, we see Lasso reeling from his imminent divorce, we cringe-watch as Alexis rebounds after her break-up with Ted – but these are normal obstacles so many of us have to overcome, they almost seem less world-ending when we watch these sunny, singular, incredibly funny people do the same.
And it’s easy to point to this year, with all of its setbacks and anxieties and tragedies, as the reason why audiences are gravitating to the feel-good comedy these shows have perfected. After all, when the world’s literally on fire, who doesn’t want a good comfort watch? But there’s also something remarkable about how beloved these shows became, and how quickly, even as comedy itself has hit a bit of a roadblock.
From comedians using stand-up sets to attack the notion of cancel-culture to poorly-aging gags resurfacing on long-ended sitcoms, comedy’s been undergoing a transformation in recent years. What is and isn’t funny is changing – it always does – but the pushback to that change from certain comedians and their fans has felt oddly defensive and, admittedly, frustrating, especially because it seems like their resistance isn’t aimed at propelling comedy forward in any meaningful way but actively inhibiting its growth to preserve their own brand of funny. And while some shows try to be everything to everyone – comedy and drama, show and “six-hour-movie” – others like Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso are finding a different kind of niche, one that’s just as prestigious and even more needed right now.
They’re fine with that “feel-good” label, and they’re proving, when it comes to comedy, we need more of it.