It’s mid-August in our world, but in the fictionalized London of Ted Lasso, halls are decked, trees are trimmed, and the meaning of Secret Santa has completely escaped Jamie Tartt. The latest installment of the Apple TV+ sitcom, “Carol Of The Bells,” is a Christmas episode, one that temporarily pauses storylines like the big Dubai Air protest and Dr. Fieldstone’s work with AFC Richmond in order to—among other episodic plots—send Jason Sudeikis and Hannah Waddingham on a spirit-restoring, gift-giving trek.
This has proven bizarrely controversial. As Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall notes on Twitter, there’s a section of the Ted Lasso audience who feel “Carol Of The Bells”—with its heartfelt toast to families present and absent, sing-along coda, and brief cameo by Santa’s sleigh—tests the limits of the show’s warm-and-fuzzy nature. That’s certainly the line of argument in the Paste recap of the episode, in which Shane Ryan writes, “It is all about sentiment, but it’s more transparent and shallow than a Hallmark movie, and frankly far less enjoyable. At least Hallmark movies qualify as a guilty pleasure; this is just muddled beyond recognition.” I have to wonder what show these people thought they were watching.
It’s here I admit that from the moment “Carol Of The Bells” dropped the needle on Run-DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis,” I thought, “This feels right.” I am nothing if not a sucker for a sitcom Christmas. But it’s more than personal preference: A show this hopeful, about a professional sport for which December 26 is one of the biggest days on the calendar, shouldn’t waste an opportunity like this. Not to mention that Ted Lasso is set in the same city as A Christmas Carol and Love Actually, the capital of a country whose own TV exports, like Doctor Who, often mark the holiday season with special episodes. Who cares if it’s premiering during the dog days of summer: Ted Lasso was a Christmas show before it ever did a Christmas episode.
Let’s back up for a second. From a practical standpoint, “Carol Of The Bells” exists because, after the Ted Lasso writers’ room finished plotting 10 episodes for season two, Apple extended its order to 12. In a quintessential example of on-the-fly television shot-calling, a pair of standalone episodes were hatched, including one set during Christmastime that was meant, as writer Joe Kelly told the Los Angeles Times, to fill the space between “when shit goes down and is about to go down.”
“Carol Of The Bells” was born by necessity—but it can also be viewed as a product of inevitability. A lot of sitcoms try their hands at holiday episodes, particularly those based around the American year-end trifecta of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. These holidays are readymade engines for conflict and story, as well as an opportunity to break from a show’s week-to-week norms. Such episodes were more of a rarity when syndication was a larger factor in TV success, the conventional wisdom being that audiences wouldn’t want to see the Cunninghams bail the Fonz out of his lonely Happy Days Christmas 11 months out of the year. Nevertheless, whole canons of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life parodies emerged over the years; the food and booze flowed and flew (or didn’t) on Thanksgiving classics from The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP In Cincinnati, and Cheers.
By the time The Simpsons (the half-hour version of which launched with an all-timer Christmas episode) and Roseanne got around to challenging the makeup of the functional sitcom family, they also developed the habit of channeling that sense of mischief into annual Halloween celebrations. From the “Treehouse Of Horror” and the Conner family prank war sprang a new era that reversed the polarity of the holiday episode: It wasn’t the show bending to fit the trappings of a holiday, but rather the trappings of the holiday being reconfigured to suit the show. On its way out the door, the ever-iconoclastic Seinfeld invented an alternative to Christmas, “a Festivus for the rest of us,” laying the groundwork for Parks And Recreation’s Galentine’s Day; Friends, a show where a chosen family sat down around a table most Thursdays between the fall of 1994 and the spring of 2004, did the same for all but one Thanksgiving during that decade.
The way modern sitcoms both favor certain holidays and express aspects of their personalities through them, a rough system of categorization emerges. At the intersection of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s puckish ensemble scenes and its occasional case-of-the-week stories, there is the Halloween heist. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a Halloween show. Bob’s Burgers has celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day, but as a family comedy that primarily takes place in and above a restaurant, it talks turkey best of all. Bob’s Burgers is a Thanksgiving show. The Dunder Mifflin holiday party starts out as a target for workplace satire before revealing itself as yet another reflection of the personal life Michael Scott longs for, but must improve himself to achieve. The Office is a Christmas show.
And so is Ted Lasso. “Carol Of The Bells” makes it official, but the success of the episode depends on everything that’s come before it.
Another quote from that Times article caught my eye, this one from “Carol Of The Bells” director Declan Lowney: “It’s such a dangerous area, when you’re on the edge of schmaltz the entire time.” Couldn’t the same be said of any given Ted Lasso episode? It’s a generally feel-good show that exists in the Venn diagram overlap of two generally feel-good genres: Sitcom and sports comedy. It’s a portrait of radical kindness in a hostile world whose central figure lives by the credo “Be curious, not judgmental.” They got Marcus Mumford to do the music, for crying out loud.
Ted Lasso knows the edge of schmaltz like Ted and Beard know Kansas City barbecue joints. And “Carol Of The Bells” is extremely comfortable on that edge, nimbly balancing the heartwarming (Roy and Keeley’s sincere efforts to comfort Phoebe, whose bad breath has been insulted by a classmate) with the humorous (the Buster Keaton-worthy take Brett Goldstein delivers as Roy struggles to contain his disgust with the stink coming from his niece’s mouth). The episode places an added emphasis on sentiment, but emotions were already running high in the past two episodes—and are, in the wake of Ted’s season-one panic attack and Dr. Fieldstone’s arrival, one of the major focuses of the 10 episodes Kelly and company had devised before Apple came ’round asking for more. Perhaps it’s an odd fit given its premiere date, but “Carol Of The Bells” fulfills its obligations to both the season (of Ted Lasso) and the season (of Christmas).
Perhaps what makes “Carol Of The Bells” such a your-mileage-may-vary prospect is that it goes HAM on the holiday. When you’ve riffed on Andrew Lincoln’s creepy cue cards and the Christmas action capers of Shane Black all while finding enough room for old chestnuts like “Guess who’s coming to dinner: Everybody!” and “Is Santa Claus real?,” what material is left for future Christmas episodes? “Create your own traditions” leaps immediately to mind, the makings of which Ted Lasso has in Keeley and Roy’s “Sexy Christmas,” a setup that could be thwarted again and again in future seasons. The return of the “ussie” guy from the season premiere demonstrates that the show isn’t afraid of a long callback: What if it picks up the It’s A Wonderful Life thread years down the line with a vision of Nelson Road in a world without Coach Lasso? Or is the clever touch of Rebecca showing up at Ted’s place just as George Bailey meets Clarence Odbody on Ted’s TV enough Frank Capra cosplay for one series?
Time will tell if Ted Lasso revisits the glad tidings and great joy in future seasons. (Though it absolutely should.) Having seen the first eight episodes of season two, I can at least confirm that it’ll be back to business-as-usual this coming Friday. Ted will trade his Santa hat for his trusty visor, and the storylines that were given a weeklong holiday break will resume. But Ted will, like a more villainous figure once redeemed in the eyes of his fellow Londoners, honor Christmas in his heart, and keep it all the year. In a lot of ways, he already was.