It has often been easy in real time to see the films that best capture the essence of each U.S. President’s specific feel and style. Testosterone fueled “America, Fuck Yeah!” flicks like Top Gun and Rocky IV define Reagan’s America in such a stark, clear way. There’s a particular sort of steroidal rahrah quality to those movies that deeply intertwines with Reagan’s vision for America – a nation who, by God, will win the Cold War by out-militarizing and out-toughing the Soviets as much as possible. Hell, even Rocky Balboa went from barely making ends meet in a Philly dump (itself, a perfect encapsulation of the post-Nixon America in malaise Jimmy Carter would inherit) to essentially winning the Cold War through sheer American willpower and pugilistic prowess.
The lines are easy to see. Our post-9/11 world saw the need for basic escapism and the resurrection and ascension of superhero films. An era that saw complex political situations distilled down to “terrorists” and “heroes” is, of course, defined by the simple escapism of Spider-Man, the Patriot Act encapsulation of The Dark Knight, and the jingoistic pro-torture politics of Jack Bauer on TV’s 24.
A pair of films perhaps best defines Obama’s America: Selma and American Sniper. Both quality films that exist in an air of hyper-reality divorced from the actual storytelling on screen. Selma, Ava DuVernay’s spectacular Martin Luther King film, attempts to bring a human immediacy and intimacy to the racial struggles of a country content to paper over vast iniquity with moments of Black success. That Obama’s election was oft depicted as an achievement of a new post-racial America is precisely the sort of notion that Selma rebukes. American Sniper, still misread brutally by the Right, is Clint Eastwood’s absolute wheelhouse of storytelling: a simple man who tries to do right for his family. It is perhaps the single film that best defines the post-truth era of America we are currently muddling through.
Let’s take a step back: this is a film whose climax sees Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle tearfully weeping to his wife over the phone that he wants to come home then tossing down his sniper rifle as he escapes the battlefield – and Iraq – in the midst of a sandstorm. His time back home is cut short when he is murdered by a fellow veteran suffering from PTSD. Eastwood’s message – war is hell, and this particularly war deeply unnecessary – has been distorted into a funhouse mirror version of patriotism. How a certain sort of viewer distorted the story Eastwood actually tells into an American The Triumph of the Will is the perfect pop culture preview for the success of Trumpism.
While the dust hasn’t quite settled on the artistic legacy of the Trump administration era, the easy and obvious film analog is Joker. A film that when read literally espouses a sort of burn the system quality which so many of Trump’s supporters seem to find his most appealing trait. Taking a step back, however, we have a movie that steals each and every one of its most interesting ideas from better films and filters them through the corporate profit-driven IP machine of a comic book story. The growth of corporate excess through the Trump era is perfectly captured by the intellectual bankruptcy of the storytelling on display in the film. At least The Snyder Cut has the intellectual honesty to admit it is in the blockbuster business. Like Trump himself, Joker plays the long con on art.
Which brings us to Joe Biden.
Though it premiered during the Trump administration and aired its first season largely during the chaos of a vicious election cycle, Ted Lasso’s ethos, charm, and success ultimately embody what appealed to many American voters about Joe Biden: fundamental decency. Biden’s “brand” is that he gives a damn about people. He may stumble into errors or bumble into gaffes, but what drives him is a genuine devotion to treating people with decency and a faith – perhaps misguided at times – that when given the choice between right and wrong, a person’s better angels are likely to prevail.
Ted Lasso is the story of an American college football coach hired to take the reigns of an English soccer team, AFC Richmond. While the show hits all the obvious comedic beats of fish-out-of-water comedy and uplifting sport drama, the genius resides in the clear human decency of the show. Ted Lasso is not a good soccer coach – he’s not even a competent one – but he is a profound empath. His decisions, successful or not, are driven by human interests, not personal. A better coach would build his entire team around obnoxious star Jamie Tartt’s skills; a better person would try to make Jamie Tartt the best teammate and person he could be even to the team’s detriment.
Criticism has arisen that because the early episodes of season two of Ted Lasso are devoid of some of the first season’s interpersonal conflict. There’s no deception by the team’s owner, Rebecca. The first season’s love triangles have been distilled down to happy relationships. To some, it’s “too easy” and thus somehow less fulfilling. The criticism woefully misses the point. That Ted Lasso managed to restore human decency to AFC Richmond and has reduced interpersonal strife to “Keeley’s sexual kink” or “Ted’s reluctance to try therapy” is what the show is about, and it’s what Joe Biden is about.
Joe Biden is, despite his flaws, a man driven by a fundamental decency. His vision for America is one driven by people choosing to do right by one another. Overcoming almost insurmountable personal loss and grief through the loss of a wife, a daughter, and a son helped form Biden into the person and leader he is today. He has openly discussed how he has tried to channel his loss into improving things for others, and the small acts of kindness he has bestowed upon people he encounters are plenary. A campaign trail meeting with a young boy with a stutter who Biden would later invite to participate in a speaking role as his inaugurations feels like the sort of thing Ted Lasso creator Bill Lawrence might deem too treacly even for a show where Santa Claus is real. And yet it shows the kindness of the man.
Likewise, as the slow burn of season two has revealed, Ted Lasso is a man who strives for decency to fill the holes of personal tragedy in his life: the circumstances surrounding the death of his father, the slow crumbling of his marriage, and an increasingly distant relationship with the son he adores. When Ted hugs Rebecca after her long first season deception is revealed, it is an act of genuine mercy and compassion. It’s the sort of act only possible for a man truly dedicated to seeing a person’s better angels. Lasso and Biden both serve as exemplars of fair-minded people attempting to channel the trauma of loss into the betterment of a community.
After four years of flagrant and embarrassing bullshit in American politics, a return to calm, quiet normalcy is exactly what the country, and apparently streaming television viewers, needed. It is no surprise that Ted Lasso is the single show that has most occupied the zeitgeist since Game of Thrones ended. It only makes sense that in Biden’s America a show about uplifting kindness would take the place of one focused on narcissistic palace intrigue.
[Politics Disclaimer: Movies and television are essentially political like all other art. Even the choice to strive for a milquetoast, inoffensive apolitical stance is itself a political choice. Accordingly, The Invention of Dreams will not shy away from the interplay of history, race, politics, gender, and (I can’t believe I have to write this one) science in discussing storytelling.]