Among the many things I’ve gleaned from my fascination with professional wrestling is the concept of “selling the rib.” A “rib,” in wrestling jargon, is a prank; “selling” refers to the way wrestlers perform being hurt. And along my informal quest to read every wrestling autobiography ever written, I have noted the repeated advice that you should never, ever “sell the rib,” lest you give a prankster cause to keep it up — guidance that’s essentially a show-business variant of “don’t feed the troll.”
So it was only with sullen defeat that I recently accepted that Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, of all unlikely culprits, had successfully ribbed me. A couple of days before Halloween, Romney tweeted GIFs of his costume, which had him donning the blue sweater, bland khakis and tidy mustache of Ted Lasso, the protagonist of the hit Apple TV+ show of the same name — an uncommonly kind American football coach hired to lead a British soccer club. As Lasso, Romney approaches Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — herself dressed as the club’s owner, Rebecca Welton — on bended knee. “Biscuits with the boss,” this was captioned, a reference to Lasso’s ritual of gifting Welton with homemade cookies to win her over.
Obviously this caption also winked at the outsize influence Sinema has wielded over President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which she has driven to shed countless provisions over rounds of negotiation. Thus the image doubled as a gleefully trollish provocation of Democrats who thought their party might actually enact its preferred policies. Openly mocking the people who didn’t vote for you is, lately, just something politicians do, but I confess that this one caught me off-guard. Romney’s self-flattering comparison to a TV character for whom “kill them with kindness” is a mantra, his genuflecting recognition of Sinema as a deciding figure in a process that will determine the future of the country, the folksy appeal to bipartisan deal-making — typing all this, and even just thinking about it, fires off irritating klaxons inside my brain.
I must not have been the only one, because the GIFs went viral in the bad way. “That’s so funny!” one representative reply went. “People in both of your states go bankrupt from medical bills!” Not that it made any difference: A vast accumulation of frustration and hatred is heaped upon politicians every day online, and disregarded using simple adjustments of Twitter’s settings. The senators most likely went on with their lives without much reflection on what they had done to make a subset of people so authentically mad.
That all this revolved around “Ted Lasso” added another layer to the performance. This layer may have been partly unintentional, as I would wager that Romney, a 74-year-old grandfather of 25, is not dialed into the rhythms of online discourse. (A separate tweet introducing his costume referred to “clear eyes and full hearts,” a slogan from a totally different show about a totally different coach.) But Ted Lasso has become the mascot for a certain strain of upbeat liberalism, the sort impressed by catchy signs at the Women’s March and doing the right thing at all times. This is part of what made Romney’s costuming specifically vexing: Imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez donning the clothes of the “American Sniper” hero Chris Kyle to announce her support for a gun-control bill.
The first season of “Ted Lasso” garnered 20 Emmy nominations. The Peabody Awards praised it for “offering the perfect counter to the enduring prevalence of toxic masculinity,” and the show’s Twitter account, which spouted pabulum about the decency of the human spirit, became extremely popular. This made a backlash inevitable; before its second season, articles like “Ted Lasso Can’t Save Us” (in The New Yorker) and “Ted Lasso Is a Perfect Show if You Hate Laughing” (Gawker) pushed against the expectation that this show, or any piece of pop culture, could serve as a delivery system for the healthful values Lasso supposedly embodied. Either way, though, the consensus was that the series was advancing some kind of deeply held beliefs about kindness and empathy, and that this had something to do with its success. And if you earnestly believed in both the power of “Ted Lasso” to make us all nicer and the value of, say, paid parental leave, Romney and Sinema’s photo must have been quite a slap in the face.
Nit-pickers might point out that the costumes are not as complimentary as intended. After all, Lasso’s aw-shucks affectations mask a deep wellspring of anxiety, alcohol dependence and naïveté. And Welton, the stony team owner, is gradually revealed to be an overwhelmed, compassionate woman with no real stomach for Machiavellian mind games. (She is also initially rooting for Lasso to fail, which might upset the senators’ premise.) But the way the photo can be overlaid with details from the show to tease out an infinite number of interpretations hardly matters. Segments of the internet may twist themselves into undergraduate-seminar arguments over the show’s ideological positioning, but just as many people watch their TV from a disinterested remove. For them, “Ted Lasso” may simply be “the nice-guy soccer show,” just as “The Sopranos” was the fun mob show.
The expectation that pop culture might teach us something is rewarded only if every consumer signs up for class. Most don’t. Evidence abounds that good taste — long considered the yardstick of personal merit by record-store employees and Tumblr users — is, in the realm of politics, even more of a performance. Paul Ryan, a former speaker of the House, once professed to be a fan of the aggressively left-wing band Rage Against the Machine. Barack Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney loved boasting about his love for the shaggy romantic rockers Guided by Voices — and he’s now battling union drives on behalf of Amazon, perhaps the least romantic or rock ’n’ roll thing of all time. Obama himself cited Patrick Radden Keefe’s book “Empire of Pain” as one of his favorites of this year, even as it portrays his administration as ineffectual observers of the Sackler family’s drive to wring more profit out of the disastrously addictive opioid OxyContin.
I still wonder what Romney and Sinema meant, or thought they meant, even as I also imagine the entire thing was whipped up by terminally online aides who knew exactly what reaction they would receive. What I am certain of is that none of this has to do with “Ted Lasso,” a show whose successes or failures cannot tell us anything about American society because we are too large and irreducible a body of people for it. Probably the photo was a straightforward attempt to reach across the aisle by informing the country that Romney is just like us, because he watches the same shows. What he’s learned from this one, apart from how to concoct a genuinely impressive rib, we cannot possibly know.
Source photographs: Screen grabs from Twitter and Apple TV+; Ronald C. Modra/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images.