Remember Space Force? Netflix hopes you do. The series, which tells the story of America’s no-longer-fictional intergalactic branch of the Armed Forces, was released during the deep darkness of last year’s pandemic-induced lockdown and drew enough viewers to warrant a second season renewal – Netflix says 40 million households watched the show within its first month of being available. Continuing the series won’t be cheap: the show was co-created by Steve Carrell and Greg Daniels (both formerly of The Office US) and stars Carrell alongside John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Tawny Newsome, and Jimmy O. Yang. Also, Paddington director Paul King helmed the premiere.
It should have been the perfect antidote to those difficult months. Yet, despite the cast and the huge amounts of publicity, Space Force was met with disappointing reviews, holding a 38 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s not necessarily the best way of looking at the show’s success, yet there have been notably few headlines raving about the series being a must-watch. As a result, Space Force failed to make much of an impact on the general pop-culture zeitgeist, and a second season will have to work hard to prove itself.
Surprisingly, the show that actually captured our collective imaginations was a small Apple TV Plus-released comedy about an upbeat American football coach who comes to the UK to manage AFC Richmond, a fictional English football team (it’s not soccer – if you think that then you can, as Richmond’s captain Roy Kent would say, fuck right off).
Things are stacked against the team, but the show exudes positivity and the need to believe in yourself, with Jason Sudeikis’ eponymous, loveable character embodying that message. There are still moments of hardship for Ted Lasso, thanks mainly to both Lasso and AFC Richmond’s owner – played by the brilliant Hannah Waddingham – going through messy divorces, but there’s no leaving an episode without feeling better about the world.
Like its main character, Ted Lasso has unassumingly become a cultural megahit: “How on earth is Ted Lasso actually good?” asked The Ringer in one of many, many think pieces about the show. That’s something Netflix has tried so hard to accomplish but has never achieved with a comedy (the same cannot be said about its drama series, including The Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton, and Lupin, all released in the last few months). The streamer has tried assembling literally the same team behind one of the greatest sitcoms of all time to create a new series – yes, I’m talking about Space Force again – and that didn’t work.
It’s worth noting that Space Force is not a rarity. Netflix has long struggled in the feel-good comedy department. Schitt’s Creek may have found fame on the streamer, but the series is not a Netflix original. Likewise The Office US, Parks and Recreation, Friends, The Good Place, and New Girl may have all been massive hits during their various stints on Netflix, but none of them are Netflix shows – and, therefore, they all have a limited life on Netflix, instead bound to one day head to a rival such as Peacock or HBO Max or Disney Plus.
Success has come in the form of Atypical, though reviews were initially mixed and the show’s fourth season has already been earmarked to be its last. There was Fuller House, which relied on people’s nostalgia for Full House and managed to impress a fleeting number of subscribers as the seasons continued. One Day at a Time prematurely got the axe, the same with American Vandal. Derry Girls and The Great British Bake Off may both be released on Netflix in certain territories, yet are both produced by British broadcasters for Channel 4, and therefore not originals worldwide. The Kominsky Method and Bojack Horseman are both comedies, though more life-affirming and borderline depressing than feel-good.
The biggest shows have been Grace and Frankie, graciously not cancelled by Netflix, and Sex Education. The latter is fun, but a different kind of comedy compared to American sitcoms – you can thank the show’s British wit – while Grace and Frankie is perfectly pleasant, and perhaps the closest thing Netflix has to a break-out feel-good comedy. Yet, Grace and Frankie, like Space Force, has struggled to break through to the mainstream.
Now look at Apple TV Plus. Despite being an infant compared to Netflix, the streaming service – which, let’s be real, people only have because all new iPhones came with a year’s free subscription – already has two feel-good shows that have impressed. Ted Lasso put Apple TV Plus on the map. Then there’s Mythic Quest, an office-based sitcom about a team of game designers that celebrates the games industry and, more importantly, friendship.
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It’s a testament to Apple TV Plus that it has managed to launch these two shows so early on. Mythic Quest also had two special pandemic episodes that bridged the first and second seasons, showing the streamer’s playfulness with release schedules – something Netflix has only toyed with. In fact, it’s perhaps worth noting that Apple releases episodes weekly, similar with new Disney Plus shows, and the word-of-mouth that the classic structure creates is working in both those streamers’ favors (how long until we see Netflix release episodes weekly for certain shows?).
Ted Lasso is a rare wonder – a feel-good show that came along without a massive song and dance, but won our hearts. Netflix needs that. Its greatest hits have all been feel-good shows from other networks. Now it’s time for the streamer to take a page from Lasso’s handbook and believe that something small and unassuming can be a champion in its own right.
Ted Lasso season 2 begins July 23 on Apple TV Plus.