The New Comedy of American DeclineBreaking News
tags: American exceptionalism, television
Last month, the institute for advanced studies in Culture at the University of Virginia published its most recent survey of American political life. One of its findings: 66 percent of Americans view their country to be in a state of decline. The survey arrived just after the publication of the latest Social Progress Index, which found that the United States is one of only three countries where citizens are worse off than they were in 2011, when the index started tracking quality of life. The deterioration is all the more perverse because the failures, in a country as rich as the U.S., are not material, but cultural. They are abdications of moral imagination. As one of the index’s advisers put it, in an observation both evergreen and newly acute: “We are no longer the country we like to think we are.”
Loss hovers in the American air, the sense of ambient tragedy weaving its way even into works of escapism. In recent months—as a pandemic that was handled with relative efficiency by many other countries has ravaged the United States, and as the American president has waged war on American democracy—two new TV shows have considered the question of what it means to be American. Both have done so in the guise of comedy. Emily in Paris, a 10-episode lark about a bubbly American who moves to France for work, premiered on Netflix earlier this fall. It arrived soon after Ted Lasso—a 10-episode lark about a bubbly American who moves to England for work—began streaming on Apple TV+.
The shows’ fish-across-the-pond stories are uncannily similar. In the one, Emily Cooper (played by Lily Collins), a young marketing executive, arrives in Paris after her company buys a boutique advertising firm. In the other, Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) is a coach of (American) football who moves to London to coach football, as the rest of the world understands the sport. Both protagonists are optimistic and friendly and absolutely clueless about their new homes. Emily speaks no French; Ted, mystified by boots and lorries, embodies the old joke about two nations divided by a common language. Both Americans are resented, at first, for their ignorance. And yet both are redeemed. The stories are so deeply aligned that both end with scenes soundtracked to that classic work of retrospective vindication: Édith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”
The American abroad is a well-worn trope; that accounts, certainly, for some of the coincidences. But there’s a unified message in the shows’ synchronized spin. Both tales read as new versions of an old argument: that one of the most valuable exports America produces is America itself. Emily and Ted, these notably unquiet Americans, win over their doubters through the brute force of their charm. These shows, though, are engaged in a reckoning. They are grappling with cultural exchange during a time when American exceptionalism, always a myth, looks ever more like a lie.
Ted Lasso is an American show about a team fighting to keep its place in the Premier League. The metaphor in all that is unmistakable. The fact that the show’s language is comedy makes the message all the more poignant. Ted Lasso is breezy and fun and full of heart, but its easy escapisms are also uneasy ones. They are mordant, but they are mournful too: We are no longer the country we like to think we are.