Given that the previous episode ended with a massive controversy that felt like it would have significant reverberations in AFC Richmond’s operations, it’s a bit jarring to find the team weeks in the future with seemingly no consequences: on the eve of their Boxing Day match, Richmond sits at 4 wins and 4 losses, hopeful that they’ll finally pull ahead in the wins column and get their season—which is roughly at the halfway point, from what I gather—back on track. I understood why Ted Lasso would focus on the positivity of Sam Obisanya’s moment of activism in the moment, but I also thought the show was clearly signaling that such an optimistic worldview might be unrealistic under the circumstances.
However, I can’t really say for certain whether the absence of fallout from the team’s protest is part of the show’s long term storytelling, or whether it just speaks to the show’s philosophical approach to its Christmas episode. I was thrilled at the prospect of “Carol Of The Bells” when co-creator Bill Lawrence posted a photo featuring Sudeikis in a Santa hat, as it sounds absolutely perfect on paper. Ted Lasso is already a warm hug of a television show, and Christmas episodes are often designed to be a warm hug even in shows that aren’t historically that warm, and so it was easy to imagine how the joys of the show’s first season would translate into a rare case of a Christmas episode for a streaming show (which lacks the September-May schedule that often lead to Christmas episodes being seasonally appropriate).
That said, there isn’t just one way to do a Christmas episode. Any holiday—Halloween is the other major one that U.S. sitcoms typically do—can be used in two basic ways. One is to take a break from the ongoing conflicts among the show’s characters to focus on how a day of celebration directs our attention to core truths about the cast and their dynamic with one another. The other is to use the holiday as a catalyst for those conflicts, with the break from the day-to-day bringing things to the surface. And while there are elements of the show—like Nate’s mean streak, for example—that theoretically could have been used on the latter front, “Carol Of The Bells” very much chooses the path of the former, mostly putting the drama of the previous episodes on pause to celebrate the season and the “family” dynamic developing among the staff and players of AFC Richmond.
And so, the key sources of conflict in the first three episodes—Dr. Fieldstone, Jamie, and Sam’s protest—are mostly sidestepped here. Dr. Fieldstone is entirely absent, while Jamie misunderstood the assignment for Secret Santa but is saved by the front office and spends Christmas away from the rest of the team. And although Higgins’ second-eldest son brings up Sam’s protest positively when the latter is the first guest to arrive at the Christmas party, the show doesn’t unpack the moment, or give us any clear indication of what (if any) fallout has occurred in the month(s?) since it happened. You could have easily integrated these conflicts into a Christmas episode if you wanted to: Jamie, for example, presumably spent the holiday with his father, but Joe Kelly’s script is consciously steering clear of those daddy issues and any other characters’ insecurities. Christmas is a time for celebrating, or for conflicts that can be comfortably resolved with a surfboard-turned-dining table, a Love Actually riff, or Hannah Waddingham slaying “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the street amidst much revelry.
In doing so, the episode becomes more self-contained, a “Christmas Special” in the British tradition that could be watched independent of the season it’s in without much difficulty following the plot. If you were to put this on an internet list of “Christmas Episodes” this upcoming holiday season, and someone who had never seen Ted Lasso were to watch it, they’d basically be able to follow along. This is particularly true in the dismantling of Roy and Keeley’s “Sexy Christmas,” which introduces a new problem (Phoebe’s bad breath), presents a whimsical solution (Roy knocking on every door in his neighborhood in search of a dentist), and concludes in a seasonally appropriate fashion (the aforementioned riff on the odious cue card scene in Love, Actually). With Roy now settling into his broadcasting role, and Kelley’s comfortably part of the AFC Richmond team, this Christmas story isn’t unearthing any conflict in their relationship, and there’s no reason to think anything from the story will be carrying forward. It’s just a story of how football legend Roy Kent spent Christmas going door-to-door to cure his niece’s bad breath, which the dentist and her family—which includes the obnoxious dude from the plane in the show’s pilot—will tell for years to come as they drag out the photo they take in front of the tree.
This is not a criticism: part of the joy of a Christmas special is stories that feel like they wouldn’t happen at any other time, infused with the spirit of the season. That same sensibility is present in Higgins’ family party, which is just an earnest gathering from top to bottom if you bypass Higgins’ second-youngest son spending the affair ogling Richard’s date. It’s a collection of vignettes—Sam convincing the youngest that Santa is real, the youngest bringing extra firepower to a Nerf war, Jan bringing up the Helter Skelter murders—that is mostly there to remind us how charming this world and its characters are. But when Higgins gets up to give his speech at the end, we’re reminded that this family dynamic is a byproduct of the work Ted has done since arriving, and Higgins’ work in facilitating it. This isn’t the show “forcing” a warm Christmas gathering onto the team, but rather a natural extension of how much they’ve come together, as we see when Higgins lists off all the players’ hometowns without hesitation. Even if their good cheer is hiding some potential consequences to Sam’s protest, that’s the very nature of the Christmas season, and as one of the millions who spent the holidays away from family this past year I can’t begrudge them some conflict-free holiday cheer.
The closest “Carol of the Bells” gets to real conflict is the internal struggle of Ted, whose attempt to put a positive spin on Facetime Christmas is sniffed out by Rebecca straight away. As I noted earlier in the season, Rebecca is really the only one who has seen Ted break down, and in this case she’s also the only one who specifically understands the first Christmas after you’re divorced. Ted and Rebecca’s friendship is probably the first season’s greatest accomplishment, and so it was nice to be able to let the two characters riff a bit as she pulls him from his whiskey and It’s A Wonderful Life to help deliver Christmas presents to the less fortunate. And while Waddingham’s aforementioned take on the Darlene Love classic is the story’s highlight, its most telling moment is when Rebecca gives Ted the greatest gift of all: a setup to make up an elaborate story of what happened to kids’ presents such that they weren’t under the tree on Christmas morning, which he relishes. Rebecca’s plan doesn’t solve Ted’s depression, or make his separation from his son any less painful, but it keeps him occupied on a day that could have spiralled, which is both the spirit of the season and the spirit of Ted Lasso.
Bolstered by a Christmas remix of the show’s theme song that made me cheer aloud, a Rankin Bass claymation version of the title sequence that wasn’t on the initial screener I watched but delighted me anew upon its release, the show’s “Apple Money” music licensing budget, and the joyous image of Higgins racing out of his house with an upright bass as Christmas dinner turns into a street party, “Carol Of The Bells” is undoubtedly crowd-pleasing, if not necessarily an instant Christmas classic. I certainly will never turn down an opportunity to spend quality time with these characters just hanging out, but I left this welcome respite for the holidays a bit anxious to see how the second half of the team’s season—and the remaining eight episodes of the show’s season—will take the building blocks from the first few episodes and expand on them.
- This was an “A-” initially (I wrote a thread about my resistance to giving As last week), but that was before they added the Rankin Bass title sequence, and I can’t pretend that isn’t worth a half-letter grade.
- For the record, the only streaming shows that I could find that have had Christmas episodes were Netflix sitcoms Fuller House and The Big Show Show, and—as a technicality—The Mindy Project’s fifth season that was released on Hulu on a regular broadcast schedule so it doesn’t really count. If anyone knows of any others, let me know—our Managing Editor Erik Adams pointed out that MST3K did “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t” in its first Netflix season, for example.
- The chalkboard puts AFC Richmond with a record of 4-4-14, which means the Boxing Day game will be the halfway point of the 46-game EFL Championship league season.
- The somewhat muddled passage of time between episodes can be a bit frustrating—as it is here with the lack of clarity on what fallout there was from the Dubai Air protest—but I do enjoy how the show uses Coach Beard’s on-again off-again romance with Jane as a way of signifying that time has passed. They’re broken up right now, but they still went to Stonehenge for a pagan ritual since they had bought the tickets before the breakup.
- Can we all agree to celebrate Sexy December 28th from now on?
- I don’t know if Rebecca hobnobbing with Elton John and raving about Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz’s puppet show totally tracks with her inability to get someone on the phone to replace Robbie Williams during last season’s charity auction episode, but her horniness about the idea of watching the latter two have sex was worth the inconsistency.
- Director Declan Lowney—who also directed at least one U.K. Christmas Special on Father Ted in the ‘90s, and who I actually randomly met once—gets to have some fun with the doorbell montage that gives the episode its title, as well as that great tracking shot down the dinner table at Higgins’.
- Speaking of that scene, the glimpse of the Higgins family opening gifts is mostly there to set up the surfboard being part of the extended table, but I liked getting a brief glimpse of their wholesome Christmas before the chaos set in.
- “God bless me, everyone”—still think it’s a missed opportunity not to show a bit of Jamie’s Christmas with his father, but that kicker into the credits was perfect.
- Isaac’s velvet Santa suit was a look.
- “Did one of the Paw Patrol dogs die?”—Roy, trying to imagine what Phoebe could possibly be this upset about.
- The discussion about the different Christmas rituals in the players’ countries made me wonder how it works for an American TV show to be imagining a British Christmas. For example, while “Fairytale of New York”—which we hear briefly as score—is a much bigger deal in the U.K. than in America, part of me wonders whether “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” has the same cultural footprint as Darlene Love’s Letterman performances have given it in the U.S.? This isn’t a criticism, but just something I was thinking about.
- I was a bit surprised that the buskers didn’t include the guy who appeared at the auction in season one, but I suppose with COVID there might have been some limitations on what they could do in terms of bringing back recurring players (which here also included the “Guy Who Calls Ted A Wanker”).
- Presuming that Roy just called a pharmacist to fill Phoebe’s prescription, why didn’t he do call a dentist before knocking on random doors for seemingly long enough for it to start out as daytime and become night? (I know, I know, it would be a shorter, less magical story that way).
- Yes, I listened to Christmas music while writing and editing this, and I’m sure my Spotify is very concerned about me.