Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Ascent of the Anti-Antihero: How ‘Ted Lasso’ and More Emmy Nominees Embrace Likability and Kindness

Ted Lasso’s season one launch on Apple TV+ might have been the result of divine timing. Five months into the pandemic, and with an anxiety-inducing presidential election around the corner, Americans needed a little escape. The August premiere of the Jason Sudeikis-led comedy gave viewers something missing in the comedy landscape: a deliberately paced and sincere series with gentle touches.

Sudeikis’ folksy college football coach — who finds himself a fish out of water when he accepts a job leading an English football club — isn’t representative of the “ugly American” trope (he does display strains of the “ignorant American” with his lack of knowledge of soccer, but without that, there would be no premise). Instead, he embraces the exoticism of England — for the Midwestern Lasso, England is somehow “exotic” — with open arms; in doing so, he also tries to charm his stuffy English colleagues into dropping their brusque exteriors.

With 20 Emmy nominations, the most of any comedy series this year (it’s also the most nominated freshman comedy series ever), it’s clear that Ted Lasso struck a chord with Academy voters. The show feels revolutionary not just because of its brand of kind-hearted comedy — but also in how it eschews the antihero tropes that suggest a successful show must be anchored by an unlikable protagonist.

Sudeikis’ Lasso is the opposite: He’s extremely likable, so much so that everyone in his orbit adopts his goofy humor and can-do attitude. It’s most evident in Brett Goldstein’s Roy Kent, a gruff midfielder who is almost past his prime. A decade ago, you might expect this series to unfold from Roy’s POV: the aging, angry athlete forced to contend with an optimistic American coach who speaks in cheesy slogans. (Imagine Eastbound & Down‘s Danny McBride playing Kenny Powers with a British accent.) Remarkably, we are rooting for the character with the cringey handmade “Believe” poster. Its protagonist makes it his mission to coach his players not just to succeed on the pitch, but also to embrace their vulnerability and softer sides.

In today’s TV landscape, we want our unlikable characters to invest in themselves. A show’s premise might launch with its protagonist’s biggest flaws front and center, but growth toward becoming whole is the lingua franca of this phase of Peak TV. That’s clear in streaming comedies like HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant and Hacks. In the former, Cassie’s (Kaley Cuoco) struggle with addiction carries the narrative just as much as the murder-mystery plot; in the latter, Ava (Hannah Einbinder) is an entitled Gen Z comedy writer trying to dig herself out of cancellation by taking on a job writing jokes for a Vegas stand-up comic. One must hope that even the teenage girls on Hulu’s PEN15 will one day grow out of their awkward shells as they stumble toward adulthood.

These aren’t your Walter White types, who are simply leading themselves (and the viewers) down a path of self-destruction. There’s hope for both of these women as they continue to travel on their respective roads.

The return of the hero (or the ascent of the anti-antihero) has made its way in the drama and limited series races, too. Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett and Aunjanue Ellis battled all sorts of supernatural evil in HBO’s Lovecraft Country without falling to personal demons, while Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez continued to lovingly build a chosen family and community on Pose.

Plenty of this year’s Emmy-nominated shows do feature protagonists facing their own inner devils: HBO’s I May Destroy You, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit and Disney+’s WandaVision all center on strong young women who must reckon with their personal trauma instead of running away from it. But those shows reward their viewers by allowing their protagonists to find some kind of peace by the final moments. They are hardly cynical, somber works that glamorize a descent into mayhem. While they may make questionable choices in their narrative arcs, they still come out on top.

HBO’s Mare of Easttown might be the sole antihero series standing, with Kate Winslet’s small-town cop caught up in a murder investigation bringing the most nihilistic worldview to the Emmy race. The moody limited series offered some of prestige TV’s most reliable tropes (a possible serial killer, regional dialects, Jean Smart), but it also defied expectations throughout its seven episodes; its ending was messy, without clean narrative conclusions, but it remained honest. Winslet’s Mare complicates the lives of others through her determination to do the right thing for those she cares about; it’s by following the law that she betrays her best friend — a complicated decision, but the right one regardless. In the end, she hurts someone she loves by doing something for the greater good.

The most surprising character trajectory may be found in HBO’s Perry Mason, which stars Matthew Rhys as the famed defense attorney. The HBO reboot gives Mason an origin story to explain how he became the hero that was the center of more than 80 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, two previous TV shows and 30 made-for-TV movies. At the onset of the series, Rhys’ Mason is a World War I veteran living in near squalor on his dilapidated family dairy farm; when he does work, it’s as a sleazy private eye with questionable ethics (is there any other kind?). He’s not your grandfather’s Perry Mason — or not yet, at least.

This Perry Mason might be a mess, a possible crook and a lovable tramp, but he still has a moral code. We get to watch as the younger Mason heals himself and finds his purpose, which just might be the most heroic act of all. What begins with nihilism ends with the hope that Perry Mason will become the hero we expect him to be.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.


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