Can I Get a Hero?
I know the internet needs another article about the changes in the television industry like I need another recipe for slow-cooker chicken chili, but hear me out. Like many cord-cutting millennials, my husband and I have spent the last three years making our way through the critically acclaimed “prestige TV” of the last decade. This loosely defined (and somewhat pretentious) term refers to the serious, cinematic, dark, and novelistic television. Many claim that The Sopranos was the pioneer of the genre, though opinions vary. We have watched and enjoyed (for the most part) Homeland, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Westworld, and Game of Thrones (though obviously only seasons 1-6 of GoT should count as “TV”, much less “prestige” anything).
There is a reason we like these shows. They tend to be better written, smarter, and more serious than your regular weeknight broadcast drama. And there is something about this genre that speaks to the American ethos. There is a darkness, a grittiness, that better reflects the world around us than the sweetness and light of Donna Reed or Leave it to Beaver. We want TV that, even if it involves superheroes or dragons, seems like it could happen today.
This has led to the triumph of the antihero. The protagonists of these shows are not only flawed, they are often downright bad. Walter White, Carrie Mathieson, Delores Abernathy, Jaime Lannister, and Don Draper are violent and self-obsessed, leaving trails of broken relationships in their wakes. It seems strange to call them heroes. And yet, even as we decry their behavior, we also cheer for them. We don’t want them to get caught; we don’t want them to get what they deserve.
I like dark TV and dark literature. In college I had drop my literature major because I wasn’t reading anything that wasn’t 20th Century American realism, and thus had about a C average in my major classes. Sitcoms and comedies still don’t hold my attention. I have a theological justification for this. We need to see the world as it is in order to recognize the depths of our fallenness and our need for salvation. What good does it do us to have heroes who are so super-human that they have no need of grace?
I recently met an unlikely challenger to this assumption, and his name is Ted Lasso. Played by Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso is the star of a show on Apple+ which has a truly absurd premise: an American college football coach is hired to coach AFC Richmond, an English Premier League football (soccer) team. On the surface,nothing about this show should appeal to me. It is about sports, an area in which I maintain only enough interest to be able to converse with my husband and with parishioners at Coffee Hour at my Texas parish. It is about soccer, a sport which Americans pretend doesn’t exist. It is a sitcom, a genre too colorful, too slapstick, and too cheesy for me. Worst of all, it is a TV show based on a commercial that Sudeikis did for NBC sports, which just sounds like a recipe for disaster (never forget the GEICO Cavemen show).
And yet I can’t stop watching it. And not even in the “I’m watching this but I also hate myself for watching this” way that I watched six seasons of America’s Next Top Model while on the treadmill at the gym. Ted Lasso has dialogue that is clever, witty, and subtle. The acting is not over the top. The clash of American and British culture leaves my Anglican heart strangely warmed.
I don’t just enjoy the show, I also root for the characters. Ted Lasso is folksy and cartoonish, but he is also good. He cares more about people than wins and losses. He loves his friends, family, and colleagues. He is relentlessly optimistic. His one-liners range from heartwarmingly absurd to the downright pastoral. When asked if he believes in ghosts, he replies: “I do. But more importantly, I believe they need to believe in themselves.” When dealing with conflict between members of his team he advises them, “Be curious, not judgmental.” But all this positivity doesn’t mean that he floats free as a lone optimist dolphin in a sea of sharks. All the other characters, even the cripplingly arrogant football star Jamie Tartt and the bitter and conniving owner of AFC Richmond Rebecca Welton have obviously redeeming characteristics. You want them to succeed by recognizing their flaws and becoming better people.
Ted Lasso, with all his struggles, failings, and silliness, reminded me how refreshing pure and simple happiness and humor can be. In the middle of a global pandemic, civil unrest, contentious politics, and economic uncertainty, I needed a little reminder that goodness is real. Until I met Ted Lasso, I had started subconsciously to believe that “realistic” meant dark, sad, and violent. I subconsciously assumed that if my fiction didn’t match the narrative on the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter, it must not be real.
But Christians believe that anything that tells us that darkness is more real than light is lying. To be a Christian is to affirm unflinchingly that Goodness is not only real, it is more real than Evil. High among Christian metaphysical and theological claims is that sin, darkness, and evil have no substance of their own—they are meaningless. They have real effects, of course. We see and feel them in our world and in our bodies. But if God is, as all major theistic religions claim, not a mere being among beings, but the infinite source of Being Itself, then evil cannot be really real, for it can have no share in God’s being. “God is light,” St. John tells us, “and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
Humans are, of course, not naturally good, because we have a wounded nature. The Fall is real, and the consequences of it are real. We are, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 8, enslaved to the powers of sin and death. Prestige TV is right when it portrays humans as selfish, unkind, ambitious and careless. But it is wrong to make us think that this fallen nature is all there is, for we have a true hero: one in whom there is no darkness. Martin Luther puts it this way:
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same; and he must win the battle.
Jesus Christ is not an anti-hero we root for despite knowing we shouldn’t. We don’t need him to be flawed to make Him seem more real. Rather, His goodness, love, and obedience even unto death show us how our own flaws make us less like Him, and thus less real.
In possibly the strangest conversion experience ever, Coach Lasso reminded me that the Gospel is literally Good News. It does not exist to remind us how terrible the world is, but to show us that Christ has conquered a world that can be terrible, but that He loves anyway. The beauty of Ted Lasso is that it is not Pollyanna positivity or a fantasy utopia divorced from the experiences of real human beings. The characters face real struggles and challenges. And yet, there is joy and hope and sunshine in spite of those challenges. His positive outlook and kind heart are not a weakness, but a strength even when things don’t turn out the way we want.
And this, I think, is an odd sort of metaphor for Christian hope. Because God is Light, and because His Son has already defeated death, we can view even the darkest parts of the world with sadness but without despair. No matter how dark and gritty the world gets, it can never undo the profound truth that the light shines in darkness, and the darkness can not overcome it.