Confession: the word "cozy" makes me cringe a little.
Now, before you run off, saying "Yeesh, you must be a fun person to be around," let me set some things straight. I am not some dour, black-garbed Protestant out of Babette's Feast here to tell you to forego joy for the good of your soul and the world.
I'm all for joy, and I'm extremely conscious of the moral language that underpins the way we talk about stories, especially stories which end happily. "Did they earn that ending?" we ask, conjuring up centuries of in-grained judgments about who deserves to be happy and who not.
I like joy. I like unearned joy best of all. The other day, my eight-year-old daughter had her karate test, and during one of the brief water breaks, she walked over to where I was sitting and plopped herself in my lap until it was time to return. I can't imagine what I did to earn that instinctive trust and affection, any more than I can imagine what I've done to earn a sunset, or my dog's goofy belly flops, or strains of music as I walk through the park, but I'm not going to turn any of it down.
Cozy, as well, is a nice feeling. I love living in a place with a cooler climate primarily for one simple reason: sweaters.
My problem with the word "cozy" is that lately it has had its significance hollowed out of it.
Why is a sweater cozy? Because it's fucking cold outside.
I enjoyed season three of Ted Lasso in exactly the way the show wanted me to: by shutting off my brain and just not thinking too hard about it. And then I walked away from the finale, and I realized how unsatisfied I felt.
Not because it didn't earn its ending, but because in the end, the show revealed just how little it had to say or contribute to the current moment. Its coziness was not an antidote to anything; it was not a sweater keeping me warm in winter because by the end its key thesis was that the cold would go away by itself. This may be true, but if you stand outside in Berlin in January waiting for it to happen, you'd better at least bring a coat.
There's a very easily supportable reading of the season's ending that Ted returns home not only to be a father for his son, but also to reunite with his ex-wife. His ex-wife realizes that he's an awesome guy, and certainly better than the couples counseler she was dating (who is revealed to be an asshole not because he is dating someone who was once a client of his, but because he ... doesn't like soccer.)
Most of the show consists of people telling Ted to move on, and then at the end, all of Ted's problems magically resolve because ... he worked on himself for a bit.
This is how pretty much every major plotline or conflict resolves. Bad things simply fizzle out in the face of goodness.
Nate was never really an asshole or overlooked and mismanaged by Ted, he simply never realized how wonderful he had it as Richmond's kit man. A whole story about the frustrations of overlooked ambition dissolves into nothing because he gets a girlfriend and his dad apologizes to him.
Keeley clearly didn't know the first thing about running a business, but the real problem was her investor was a jerk, and once the investor's out of the picture, Keeley learns to lean on her rich friend instead. Also, skeptical financial officer Barbara is inexplicably won over by Keeley's pluck.
In one episode this season, a room full of team owners vote down a proposed money-printing "super league" all because Rebecca makes an impassioned speech about her ex-husband Rupert's experiences as a penniless young boy sneaking into AFC Richmond games. Just like that, the better nature of a cartel of billionaire professional sports team owners emerged, and they turned down a pile of easy money.
***END OF SPOILERS***
I love stories about grace. I'm a sucker for stories where people get their second chance before they deserve it. I don't think anyone should be required to forgive, but I think that's precisely what makes forgiveness, when it happens, so wonderful. It's a free-will gift of the opportunity not to be defined by your worst mistakes and impulses. You can't demand it; you can't earn it, but you can do your best to live up to it.
But Ted Lasso season three had very little to say about grace. It was more about pretending all the past conflicts weren't really real to begin with. In the end, the bad guys are the bad guys, and the good guys are the good guys, and as long as the good buys keep trying to be better, the bad guys will eventually reveal who they are and receive their comeuppance.
What does that leave us with when we return, inevitably, to the world we live in? Shall we wait for the moment when the good people in all the boardrooms of all the big climate-impacting companies are swayed by a powerful speech about the impact of their activities on the little guy and suddenly achieve consensus to start lobbying governments to hit their climate targets, instead of the opposite?
In many ways, Ted Lasso's world feels like Trump-era liberal twitter--the era in which every day there was some new scandal attached to Trump that everyone was sure would bring him down. The bad guy will reveal what a bad guy he is, and his supporters will all turn against him, and we don't have to do a thing.
The thing is, Ted Lasso knows how to tell a better story. The show did it. The story of Jamie Tartt is every bit as cozy and optimistic as the rest of the show, but because it plays out over multiple seasons, it takes the time to develop the conflicts and the challenges inherent in resolving them. Jamie doesn't change all at once. He receives grace when he's allowed to play at Richmond again after squandering his time at Man City. What he does with that grace is lovely to see. He moves forward, he slides back, he struggles with his sense of self as he realizes he's become a different person, motivated by different things. His teammates don't accept him all at once, either. Even late into the third season, he's still trying to live down his previous reputation as an asshole superstar. Even having received forgiveness, he carries his past actions with him.
There's no doubt we live in difficult times. The news on any given day is overwhelming, and because of social media, many of us receive our news foisted upon us unfiltered and un-sought-out, wrapped in rage, frustration and despair. We need art that can inspire us and comfort us and not just shine a mirror on our problems.
But times have always been difficult. Before Covid, there was the AIDS epidemic. Before Ukraine, there have been countless devastating wars. I'm not saying this in order to diminish these problems. Our problems are no less real just because other people had problems before us. Climate change, war, pandemic, economic hardship, gun violence, vanishing jobs and opportunities, racism, sexism, classism, antisemitism, the mounting wave of anti-trans and anti-LGBT hate in countries like the United States--these are all very real, very terrible problems, and the temptation to give into despair is powerful.
But the opposite of despair is not comfort, but hope. Hope means, simply, that it's still worthwhile to keep trying. Hope does not require that you clip your eyelids open A Clockwork Orange-style and stare into the abyss all day every day. But it is also more than wishful thinking, more than imagining a world in which all our problems simply dissolve as long as we work on being better people. It's more than imagining that one day, finally, Russians will see how bad Putin is and overthrow him or that the right speech by the right hero will fix climate change.
*** MORE SPOILERS AHEAD ***
There's a version of Nate's plotline and eventual return to Richmond that is no less optimistic in its conclusion, but which shows the challenging road that a one-time mentor and mentee have to walk when each one feels betrayed by the other. There's a version in which Nate's grievances about being ignored by Ted are taken seriously alongside his abhorrent behavior in season two. There's a version in which Nate has to struggle with his worse self in order to become someone better, and in which Ted Lasso has to take responsibility for how dreadfully he mismanaged a problem employee.
I don't know if it was pressure from fans who felt uncomfortable with the conflict of season two that caused them to shy away from it, or if the writers were simply in over their heads with the plotline. The thing that made Nate's story shocking and vital was that, unlike Jamie, who is set up the be the asshole superstar type, Nate was lovable. He was an example of a "nice guy," who turns out to be a jerk. What an amazing show Ted Lasso would have been if it could have seen that story through. Instead, it retreated. Nate's agression wasn't his true personality, but an act he put on. It wasn't an ugly side of himself he had to learn to deal with, but a temporary insanity from which he quickly emerges once he realizes he doesn't need it to get the girl or win his dad's approval.
*** END OF SPOILERS ***
I came away from Ted Lasso season three wishing it had made me just a little more uncomfortable, if only so that the optimism it offered could have seemed like more of a way through these difficult times. Instead, I felt it had treated me like a child and shown me a fantasy world. It's easy to inspire a group of people when they all already agree with you. Reality requires something different. Our problems require "belief" but they also require more than that, and Ted Lasso couldn't show us what that was. The show pulls its punches, which leaves it with shockingly little to say.
Listen, there's nothing wrong with wanting to find reasons to feel good. To that end, I can wholeheartedly recommend disconnecting from social media and consuming your news more selectively, following it up by looking into not only the scary things, the problems, etc., but what people are doing to solve it.
Some of these efforts are very small, but they can grow bigger if we all spend more time looking into them and supporting them instead of spiraling in rage and despair. For example, there are farmers in Brandenburg experimenting with growing crops that require less water and can endure more heat in response to the changing climate of Germany--it's an attempt to sustainably use the land and water we have and prepare for the future politicians are unwilling to do anything to forestall.
Climate change is not an individual problem, but as individuals we do contribute to systems; we participate in and create culture around how we use our earth's resources. We can, through our actions and our pressure, demonstrate to governments that we want to safeguard the earth and the climate. We can question the logic of endless war, and look into and support pragmatic paths to sustainable peace. We can be there to have uncomfortable conversations with people who we have wronged or who have wronged us.
We can tell stories that don't shy away from what makes life difficult, but that don't end the sentence there.
There is comfort to be found. There is hope. It takes more work to find because it's not as easy to exploit or to sell as despair or coziness.
Now as much as ever, we need stories that help us imagine a way forward, a future that is not a fantasy, but something we can build.