Issue #190: Jason Sudeikis is my mortal enemy

This week, I wrote about Ted Lasso (2020). It’s a TV show on Apple’s proprietary streaming service that people like a lot. I also like it a lot. I think it’s an entertaining, engaging, very funny show. I also think that many of the widely-circulating interpretations of the show are absurd. Even worse are claims that this show has some redeeming social value. I do not believe it does. But, you know, you’ll rarely find me telling you that something popular is a net benefit for society. And I feel committed to being critical of the things I like, especially the ones I like a lot. After all, I spend a lot of time thinking about them.

In this case, it just so happened that this week’s episode felt so egregiously ideological, and like such a blatant recapitulation of the show’s overarching logic, I had to engage.

Jason Sudeikis isn’t quite the evangelical for American ideology that John Krasinski is, but he’s close.

Ted Lasso and Rick Astley

Ted Lasso (2020) is a work of ideological propaganda. It only barely tries to disguise this fact. But in this week’s episode, “No Weddings and a Funeral,” the show went ‘mask off’ and ‘microscope on’ to expose the very formula that accounts for the show’s success. The paradigmatic exemplar of the symbolic method by which Lasso conveys genuine down-homey self-critical feel-good TV to its many viewers? Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the Rickroll.

Before I explain how Ted Lasso explains Jason Sudeikis’s evil plan to turn us all into friendly, midwestern zombies, there are a few terms that need defining — irony and postmodernism. Claire Colebrook lays out a fairly provocative formulation touching on both in her text aptly titled Irony (2004):

Despite its unwieldy complexity, irony has a frequent and common definition: saying what is contrary to what is meant (Quintilian 1995–98 [9.2.44], 401), a definition that is usually attributed to the first-century Roman orator Quintilian who was already looking back to Socrates and Ancient Greek literature. But this definition is so simple that it covers everything from simple figures of speech to entire historical epochs. Irony can mean as little as saying, ‘Another day in paradise’, when the weather is appalling. It can also refer to the huge problems of postmodernity; our very historical context is ironic because today nothing really means what it says. We live in a world of quotation, pastiche, simulation and cynicism: a general and all-encompassing irony. Irony, then, by the very simplicity of its definition becomes curiously indefinable. (1)

Irony, then, at the most basic and relatively useless level, means “saying what is contrary to what is meant,” and the wallpaper quality of such a definition is by virtue of a postmodern world that Colebrook describes as one “of quotation, pastiche, simulation and cynicism.” For her, irony occasions a tremendous signifying problem. She writes:

How can there be an other or ironical meaning if all we have are texts? Does not the very notion of ‘meaning’ demand that there is a sense or depth to a text, that there is more to a text than its surface? (20)

Of course, we know, and Colebrook agrees (for different reasons), that despite the conventional wisdom of New Criticism, while there is nothing but the text, the vast majority of the signifier’s function occurs at the level that is not at the level of the ‘surface,’ phonetic, what have you — the level of what Jacques Lacan would call lalangue. Instead, the signifier activates a context-dependent chain of meanings that entail the subject’s unconscious.

In Colebrook’s gloss of irony, she takes language to be immensely complex in a way that makes irony, in a postmodern context, generative of endless possible speech acts even entailing the same signifiers or signs. She writes:

If the text is contradictory, absurd, clichéd or self-refuting, then we must assume that what is said is not meant. However, one cannot remain in a position of pure not-saying; for the not-saying is itself an act of speech. Postmodern texts have shown all the ways in which not-saying or ironic detachment generates a specific said. Saying is always saying that. (165)

For Rick Astley, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and the Rickroll, the situation is a little different than, perhaps, what Colebrook could have anticipated just two years in advance of the first “duckroll.” Astley’s song becomes divested of its meaning by way of repetition, the way one might repeat a word until it sounds senseless to the ear. The song’s status as a particular kind of discursive function is complicit with this senselessness that repetition brings. The song is utilized to interrupt or replace some other text, one believes they’re viewing something and are instead treated to the Astley’s luscious baritone.

The “Rickroll” engages every possible element of humor discernible in the song and its video at once. The disjunction between Astley’s look and voice, his status as a forgotten one-hit wonder, the saccharine lyrics, and so forth all serve to buoy this sense of absurdity when the video is deployed unexpectedly. Colebrook critiques the privileged position one adopts when engaging in the basic, colloquial form of ironic discourse. She posits, “postmodern irony affirms the equal validity and ultimately groundless nature of all discourse” (120) rather than being the mode through which one might position oneself in an extra-discursive zone to pass authoritative judgment on meaning — or to have some particular kind of insight that gives one access to ironic meaning. Nonetheless, one assumes this position relative to the “Rickroll” to draw conclusions about the meaning of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Even though none of the text may be earnest, the assumption that it is, and that one knows something better or sees something more clearly than Astley himself, serves as the engine of the “Rickroll’s” seemingly ceaseless advance.

But it should also be clear that irony and postmodernism are not collaborators in allowing viewers of “Never Gonna Give You Up” to assume this position. As Jean-François Lyotard writes in The Postmodern Condition (1979):

I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives … Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. (xxiv-xxv)

This definition from Lyotard paired with Colebrook’s thinking shows how reactionary Ted Lasso’s flight from irony is. For Lasso, the proliferation of meanings that emerge in the postmodern context are not worth the privileged position one might assume relative to “Never Gonna Give You Up” and the “Rickroll.” To turn to the show, take a look at the first evocation of the sacred song by Astley:

In the conversation between Rebecca and her mother, Deborah, Rebecca claims that it’s having heard “Never Gonna Give You Up” “ad nauseam” that has caused people to be “over it.” She is the poster child for the ironic distance toward the song — a postmodern strawman. Her mother rejects this premise, saying “once I love something, I love it forever.” This is the beginning of the reinstitution of a master narrative that would serve to define “Never Gonna Give You Up” in the same way for everybody who hears it. It is earnest, the ironists and reactionaries are in dubious agreement on this point. But the reactionary position that Lasso casts Deborah in suggests that the earnestness of the song is retroactively verified by the affect it can generate in a subject. “It just makes me feel happy,” Deborah says. This is a postmodern gesture in the sense that meaning is derived through a collaboration of the reader and the text. However, it’s a collaboration subjugated by a master narrative that rejects the possibility of the song and video’s disruptive force in the context of the “Rickroll.”

The most avowedly unironic use of the song is in a second example, where Rebecca sings the song in place of delivering a eulogy for her deceased father. Her relationship with her father is too complex to be expressed in simple prose. Music and lyrics are more apt — even if it is the hackneyed lyrics of a song that has been used to bits (Lacan Seminar XX 60).

This is the re-injection of sentimentality into the thoroughly ironic. If Rebecca, who dismissed the song hours ago as something collectively abandoned by society due to its endless repetition and comedic function, can find meaning in the song and use it to convey genuine emotion, what are the limits to this process?

Clearly they are few and far between. Ted Lasso has perpetrated such a scam on the masses with its conventional sitcom tropes that appear acceptable to a modern audience because they entail scenes of therapeutic care and admissions of masculinity’s flaws. Lasso doesn’t deconstruct that masculinity or critique it, however. Instead, it advances the image of a world where Homer Simpson is really a stand up guy.

This repetition of the same is Lasso’s most impressive trick. Ted Lasso as a character is hardly different from any patriarchal sitcom buffoon. But the embracing of a master narrative guaranteed sentimentality is so unexpected that it delivers something to audiences they didn’t even know they were missing. “Authenticity,” such that it is — and a commitment to the notion of ‘the golden rule.’ A farce, of course. Whether farcical or not, it hardly matters. Even the return of the “Rickroll” in the episode’s final scene can’t evacuate the emotive power that has returned to “Never Gonna Give You Up”:

Here, a “Rickroll” interrupts and displaces the actual cite of sentimental reflection, the home video. This conflation, instead of being frustrating, concretizes the bond between Rebecca and Deborah as well as evokes the scene just minutes prior. Here, Lasso delivers another, final, and finally worthwhile, point. However privileged of a position one might assume relative to a text, there will always be those who interpret it in a manner that’s out of sync with the discursive context that can produce such a position. Rebecca can look patronizingly at “Never Gonna Give You Up” and enjoy all the humor of Rick Astley’s image as expressed by the “Rickroll,” but Deborah, who loves the song, doesn’t even know what he looks like. And she’s not alone. The “Rickroll” only circulates so far.

Somehow, though, this point leads to the conclusion that there should be fewer meanings rather than more. Deborah’s naïveté means Rebecca should meet Deborah on her level rather than the other way around. Earnest appreciation is better than trained cynicism, so argues Ted Lasso again and again. Yet, Lasso’s earnestness is simply the product of the invisible hand of the market delivering a product that seems new. A transcendence of irony, but rather than post-ironic, it’s anti-ironic and aggressively so.

The show attempts to reintroduce the sentimentality to the form of the sitcom and the patriarchal ignoramus in the same persistent manner as “No Weddings and a Funeral” does with “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Anything that harkens back to a “better time,” where people were supposedly more friendly, less suspicious, and driven to connect with others should occasion the suspicion it tries to deflect. And a text pleading with audiences not to look beyond the surface begs to be subjected to the most severe scrutiny.

Ted Lasso may be funny, the second season especially. But the ‘heartwarming’ quality it conveys, pleasant though it might be, traffics a reactionary, reductive ideology of signification.

Weekly Reading List

Previously only released in Japan, Kimiko Kasai’s collaboration with Herbie Hancock, Butterfly, was reissued in 2018 and is now widely available on streaming services. One of the most prolific jazz pianists of all time, this “jazz-funk” masterpiece is highly slept on. Other album personnel include Alphonse Mouzon, Webster Lewis, Paul Jackson, Bennie Maupin, and Bill Summers. Also includes a cover of the GOAT Stevie Wonder’s “As.”

Until next time.