Julia Roberts, Rupert Everett, Cameron Diaz: These are terrible, terrible people

My Best Friend’s Wedding seemed fine in 1990s. But is the woke Ted Lasso any better?

My Best Friend’s Wedding: my 12-year-old niece takes exception to almost the entire plot of Rupert Everett and Julia Roberts’s romcom

My Best Friend’s Wedding: my 12-year-old niece takes exception to almost the entire plot of Rupert Everett and Julia Roberts’s romcom

 

Comedy is hard to write, and it doesn’t always age well. Recently, my sister and her daughter were browsing Netflix for something to watch together. They chanced upon My Best Friend’s Wedding, a hit 1997 romcom starring Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett.

It was a film my sister vaguely remembered as a bit of harmless fun: Roberts’s character attempts to win back the affections of her ex-boyfriend while, somewhat awkwardly, attending his wedding (to an “annoyingly perfect” Cameron Diaz); Everett, camp and outrageous, poses as her new fiance.

Throw in a handful of Bacharach and David singalong numbers – and Dermot Mulroney – and what – besides Dermot Mulroney – could anyone possibly take exception to about this film?

Well, from the perspective of my woke 12-year-old niece the answer turned out to be quite a lot. Almost the entire plot, in fact.

The worst part, my sister admitted, was that, seeing My Best Friend’s Wedding unfold through her daughter’s eyes, she realised my niece had a point. All of these characters were terrible, terrible people

Who, she demanded to know, was the audience supposed to root for? Why had Roberts’s character agreed to act as maid of honour for a smitten couple whose relationship she intended to break up? Why was Everett assisting her in this horrible quest?

Why had Mulroney even invited an ex-girlfriend he was clearly still infatuated with to his wedding in the first place? And is the fact that Diaz’s character is blond and wealthy really enough to justify sabotaging the biggest day of her life?

The worst part, my sister admitted, was that, seeing the plot unfold through her daughter’s eyes, she realised my niece had a point. All of these characters were terrible, terrible people.

It was just that, in the 1990s, we hadn’t regarded this as problematic. If onscreen characters behaved the way normal, well-adjusted people do in real life … Well, there wouldn’t have been a movie.

Ted Lasso: Brendan Hunt, Jason Sudeikis and Nick Mohammed. Photograph: AppleTV+
Ted Lasso: Brendan Hunt, Jason Sudeikis and Nick Mohammed. Photograph: AppleTV+

Clearly, there has been a generational sea change in what comedy audiences are willing to laugh at. Blame Covid, perhaps, but one of the biggest winners at the Emmys this Sunday is likely to be the relentlessly wholesome and life-affirming Apple TV+ comedy Ted Lasso.

The show currently has an enviable 95 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. If you haven’t seen it, the gist is that Lasso (played ably by Jason Sudeikis) is a small-time American-football coach inexplicably recruited to manage a fictional Premier League soccer team.

Initially, the Producers-style twist is that he has been hired by the club’s scheming chairperson (Hannah Waddingham) deliberately to sabotage the club’s fortunes. But, like Walter White’s cancer in Breaking Bad, that premise is abandoned almost immediately once the show is up and running.

A generation ago, one of the maxims Larry David used to instil in Seinfeld’s writers was: ‘No hugging, no learning.’ In Ted Lasso, the show’s unfailingly nice characters do little else

A generation ago, when Larry David helmed perhaps the most critically acclaimed TV sitcom of its era, one of the maxims he used to instil in Seinfeld’s writers was: “No hugging, no learning.” In Ted Lasso, the show’s unfailingly nice characters do little else.

In fact, you get the impression that if the only things AFC Richmond’s commendably multiethnic cast of players and backroom staff did during a given season was support each other’s mental health and teach each other valuable life lessons, then – league table be damned – the club’s owners and supporters would be satisfied.

Obviously, that doesn’t ring remotely true to anyone who knows the first thing about elite sport. That isn’t the problem, however. No one thinks Taxi accurately depicted the lives of New York cabbies or Cheers realistically approximated the lifestyles of people who spend every day drinking in a Boston bar. But those were still funny shows.

The problem with Ted Lasso is that the feelgood vibes come at the expense of the comedy. For example, in season two, Nick Mohammad’s character, once a shy and humble groundsman, now promoted to the position of assistant coach, begins to receive a small bit of acclaim on social media. This turns him, briefly, into a raging egomaniac.

Jerry Seinfeld was taken to task in recent years over his show’s lack of minority representation. His response oozed sarcasm. ‘Good point,’ he conceded. ‘We did not do all we could have to cure society’s ills. Mea culpa. Other questions?’

This is a subplot with real potential. (Recall the classic Larry Sanders Show episode in which Larry’s chatshow sidekick, Hank, played by Jeffrey Tambor, briefly wins acclaim as the show’s stand-in host?) But in Ted Lasso’s universe, Mohammad’s character is quietly taken to task over his behaviour, recognises he’s out of line and resolves to do better. The parties then hug it out.

There are occasional moments of true hilarity in Ted Lasso. But these seem almost peripheral to the show’s main aim, which seems to be to put its arm around its audience and reassure us that the world is a kind and safe place. That’s a nice message. But I’m not sure it’s true, much less funny.

When Seinfeld was streamed on RTÉ Player last year, it came with a disclaimer, warning viewers that the show and its humour were of their time. Reacquainting myself with the series, long after it went off air, I would have to concede that, yes, the star’s mullet and garish white sneakers are, honestly, the least of its troubles.

Seinfeld: when the comedy was streamed on RTÉ Player last year, it came with a warning that the show and its humour were of their time
Seinfeld: when the comedy was streamed on RTÉ Player last year, it came with a warning that the show and its humour were of their time

Besides a steady stream of non-PC clangers in the dialogue, modern audiences must grapple with the lead characters’ utter selfishness and amorality. In an episode filmed the same year as My Best Friend’s Wedding, George’s kind, blond fiancee, Susan, dies after licking cheap envelopes George purchased for their wedding invitations.

Relieved that he won’t have to go through with a ceremony he had already wanted out of, George cannot hide his glee. The other characters’ reaction is one of sheer indifference. (Clearly, the 1990s were not a good time to be blond and betrothed in Hollywood comedies.) I still think that episode is hilarious. But I won’t be showing it to my niece anytime soon.

In recent years, Jerry Seinfeld was taken to task over the show’s shameful lack of minority representation. His response oozed sarcasm. “Good point,” he conceded. “We did not do all we could have to cure society’s ills. You are correct. Mea culpa. Other questions?”

Seinfeld is an old white man with $950 million in the bank. He doesn’t have to worry about what contemporary critics think about the show that made his fortune.

But, in a way, maybe he also has a point there. Comedy is already hard. Expecting it to soothe over all the world’s problems would make it nigh on impossible.

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