It’s easy to scoff at positivity. So often, it’s encountered as the virtuous, ill-fitting ensemble adorned by advertisements, politicians, influencers, and anyone else addressing a public audience. These are entities that contemporary society understands have clear-cut ulterior motives. People’s bullshit meters are finely tuned from bombardments of this kind of disingenuous messaging. Ted Lasso courageously attempts to reclaim the sincerity co-opted by bad faith, manipulative actors.
Love, respect, and understanding; a simple, obvious formula that almost sounds stupid. It’s a rote sentiment either taken for granted or dismissed as benign wisdom of the naive. The ease with which these tenets of kindness and sincerity are brushed aside makes their true meaning all the more imperative. Ted Lasso turns integrity into art by confidently blending the silliness of the traditional half-hour sitcom with the pathos more commonly consumed in the dramas of the third golden age of television. Much like the fictional A.F.C. Richmond depicted in the series, the show became an underdog force that showed undeniable promise and has its faithful audience excited for what the next season will bring.
The unusual beginnings of both the series and its main character make their successes all the more incredible. Coach Ted Lasso’s (Jason Sudeikis) lack of knowledge and experience with the beautiful game made him an improbable choice to coach a Premier League club. The sitcom centered on its namesake character began as a series of promos for NBC Sports’s coverage of the top-level English soccer league. Through heart and sincerity, both achieved unexpected success and acclaim.
Lasso is a walking aphorism. Accompanied by his stoic and capable assistant Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt), the two proved they could make an improbable impact in their geographic and athletic fish-out-of-water situation. Like the coaching duo, the show also feels out of step with its contemporaries. He shows that make up what is often referred to as prestige television relies heavily on its anti-hero protagonists.
The morally corrupt Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos, and Walter Whites, who captivate us with their charisma and intrigue us with their complex motivations, expose and embrace the evils of the world. Even the guileless Michael Scott, kind-hearted as he can be, acts out of self-interest and ego, which traps him in the situations from which hilarity ensues. They all accept a world that needs to be taken advantage of, and if they don’t, someone else will. Confidence and killer instinct are essential qualities for success. Viewers seem to agree with, or at least admire, this point-of-view as these shows enjoy high ratings and lasting cultural impact. Though these stories may be parables that use their misanthropic characters as cautionary tales, the idea that these are bad people who are not celebrated is lost in the smoke.
Armed with homemade biscuits and a friendly mustache, Ted Lasso rejects this idea and actively attempts to clean up the cynical mess its helped spread. Lasso’s persona is sincere and positive, unrelenting to the point where it’s suspicious. Lasso has the type of energy that many people, particularly those from urban areas, would be thrown off-guard. Co-creator Bill Lawrence said, “if I were to meet Ted Lasso, I would say okay, wait two weeks for the mask to drop, and we’ll see this guy for the asshole he is.” It’s an attitude most of the other characters adopt when they encounter Lasso, acting as surrogates for the perhaps jaded masses the show is trying to win over. Lawrence followed that up by saying, “but if after that two weeks he’s the same guy, you have to look at yourself and think, whoa, what happened to me? What have I become that I don’t trust sincerity?”
In the show’s opening, Lasso sits alone in a sea of stadium seats. His presence radiates throughout the surrounding empty seats as they change color and purge themselves of defacement. He doesn’t do this with a big toothy grin but rather a look of welcome determination.
Much in the same way footballers perfect their paradoxical blend of power and grace by running drills over and over and over and over, Lawrence honed his skill to fuse irreverent humor with dramatic pathos. He created and produced all 182 episodes of Scrubs, a show whose voice is rooted in unabashed sincerity, charming silliness, and irresistible heart. It’s the sincerity that makes the silliness and heart both potent and earned.
The show’s humor traffics in updated dad jokes, purposefully sweaty wordplay, and classic setup-punchline dialogue. Its analogies are a tangle of Christmas lights elegantly unfurled by the actors’ dry delivery. They resonate with viewers who are perfectly happy with a solid broad sitcom and the anti-comedy faithful.
To those still skeptical if Ted Lasso is any good: Be curious, not judgmental.
Sprinkled into the scripts are nods to real world culture that help familiarize the show’s heightened world. References to the Spice Girls, Kenny Rogers, and Boy George work as a shorthand to help establish the characters’ personas. A player’s chant is sung to the tune of the YouTube sensation “Baby Shark.” Mirroring frequent (though unaware and surely apathetic) subject of many a contentious Twitter thread, the characters each proclaim their opinion on the best Scorsese film.
Perhaps due to Lasso’s mid-western roots and his twang, the show takes care to distance him from some of the unsavory ideologies with which an American such as Lasso may be associated if left ambiguous. A denunciation of the extremist Westboro Baptist Church and an immediate puke-take at the offhanded mention of the phrase ‘Proud Boys’ establish Lasso as not ‘one of those’. The audience can rest assured Lasso is comfortably “woke” as he takes a dig at Woody Allen, albeit his musicianship.
The comedy’s comfortable cohabitation with its message is at the core of its brilliance. Sudeikis recently said in an interview, “the only things you’re competing against, I believe, are apathy, cynicism, and ego.” Much has been made of the show’s release amidst the turbulent political atmosphere of 2020, and for good reason. It’s indicative of a prevailing tribalist sentiment, an ‘if you’re not with me, you’re against me’ mentality that often gets boiled down to just ‘fuck the other guy.’
While much of western culture is quick to wield its ideological blade, almost ironically, there also exists an embrace of self-improvement through therapy. The show’s writer’s room understands this and employs its flavor of pop-psychology. Lasso uses this to slowly chip away at the unworthiness and self-doubt, as well as the pride and stubbornness in its ensemble. The show isn’t the first to identify these issues, but it’s at the vanguard of addressing them with nuance and care rather than exploiting them for cheap punchlines.
At the start of the season, both clubhouse attendant Nate “The Great” Shelly (Nick Mohammed) and player Sam Obisanaya (Toheeb Jimoh) were downtrodden and inward, mocked by superstar Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) and his cool table lackeys. Understanding their deficiencies, Lasso and Beard take the ‘good ideas can come from anywhere’ approach, encouraging the bashful Nate to share his insights. His contributions grow as the coaches include him in their strategizing, christening him ‘Nate the Great.’ The tone set by the coaches spreads to the team as they, too, foster his budding confidence. By the end of the season, Nate trades in his stinky laundry bin for a coach’s whistle. Obisanaya, who moved from Nigeria to England, is homesick, which impacts his performance. His underperformance is also the target of Tartt and Co.s’s ire, only exacerbating his own self-condemnation. Lasso encourages him to “be a goldfish” and forget his mistakes. For his birthday, the team surprises Sam with a cake and snacks from Nigeria. As the team grows into more of a family, Sam is more at ease, and his on-the-pitch performance reflects his alleviated stress.
The overt caricature of the positive, happy-go-lucky coach is not lost on Lasso. Despite her best efforts, Lasso’s wife can no longer deal with the constant barrage of optimism. His trip across the Atlantic was, in part, to give space to the mother of his son. When it proves to be not enough, Lasso struggles through a divorce while grasping at his positive demeanor. It’s here where it becomes clear why Lasso doesn’t relinquish his positivity. It’s because, really, what’s the alternative? He can choose to be bitter and sad at the world and the valleys he ends up in, but then he’ll be bitter and sad. The show is at its best here when it crosses the line and addresses its own sincerity. Sudeikis describes it as “a fun way to view the world.”
As the show surrounds a professional men’s soccer team, particular attention is paid to masculine fragility. The team’s two premier players, Jamie Tartt and Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), are distant points on the same timeline that each reflect the delicate male ego. Adored by fans, Tartt’s inflated self-importance consumes much of the space in the locker room and his personal relationships. As the childish, selfish, and brash hotshot of the club, he’s the overconfident himbo- attractive and largely unaware of his actions, though if he were, he would likely behave the same. As the cool-kid-asshole on the team, Lasso sets out to sprinkle some of his decency fairy dust on the young talent. Lasso appeals to his ego by leading with flattery, positing that becoming a better teammate will make him a more dominant player. Tartt’s reformation is supplemented by Keely Jones (Juno Temple), who, like many women must, educates him on becoming a more thoughtful partner. As with many male issues, the source of Tartt’s shortcomings largely stems from the classic ‘bad dad.’ His path to becoming a better person proves to be one step forward, two steps back. Tartt’s smug nature acts as the foil to Kent, the team’s aging captain.
The plight of the once-great veteran is a common trope in sports. Grizzled and distant, Kent reacts to his failing body with bottled aggression. The prickly leader has yet to reconcile that he’s no longer the force he once was. The thought of losing his status as an intimidating force is what scares him the most. Scouted at a young age, the game is all he knows. Kent is the tradesman whose hands can no longer perform the tasks they once could. The loss of routine and purpose instills dread in the old craftsman, to which he responds with anger at the inevitable predicament. There’s no way for Kent to regain the ability, so those around him try to help him deal with the harsh reality. When Nate confronts him about this, he says, “I’m afraid of what that anger’s going to do to you if you keep it inside.” Kent’s anger will destroy him.
Continuing the examination of toxic male culture, the embodiment of the patriarchy exists in Rupert Manion (Anthony Head), the philandering ex-club owner and ex-husband to new owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham). It was Welton’s idea to hire Lasso as manager of the team to sabotage its success as retribution for Manion’s indiscretions while they were married. Manion carries himself with the confidence that privilege affords, masking his malice with charm and fortune.
Like Kent, Welton is similarly short and dismissive, often reflected in her interactions with her sycophantic assistant Higgins (Jeremy Swift). The difference in the manifestations in their anger reflects the double standards of gender. Welton faces a malicious and hostile tabloid press, to which she responds with a forced smile and grace. Were she to respond with the performative aggression of Kent, it would not be met with the same reverence and respect.
In one of the season’s best scenes, Manion’s dismissive arrogance brushes by Lasso. The pompous ex-owner revealed he purchased interest in the team and condescendingly challenges Lasso to a game of darts, the stakes of which will decide Manion’s future involvement with the club. Lasso reveals that he may lack skill in coaching soccer, but he is extremely good at shooting darts. During his last turn, he tells Manion that people have underestimated him his whole life. He shares a Walt Whitman quote: “Be curious, not judgmental.”
The idea of a half-hour sitcom about a mustachioed coach who teaches with quaint, buckboard optimism that’s based on a character from a promo is admittedly a sweaty sell. The show premiered quietly on Apple+, an unassuming addition to the new service’s exclusive content. A mass quarantine and a divided nation proved a fertile ground for the simple pleasure of the A.F.C. Richmond squad. Now with 20 Emmy nominations and a SAG win for Sudeikis, the show releases its second season without the low-stakes profile it once had. Brett Goldstein, who is also a writer on the show, said audiences could expect much of the same as the club deals with its relegation to a lower league.
Be true to and with yourself and do what you know is right. This is the message and the art of Ted Lasso as he works to nudge the world toward a better place, one seat at a time. In building his team, he emphasized that everyone needs to love, respect, and celebrate each other. It’s the same as building a community. When players are down, they need to love themselves. They can’t love someone else unless they love themselves first. Lasso’s not trying to turn everyone into thoughtless “Kumbaya” clones. He’s just trying to take the edge off so that others don’t cut someone or themselves. To those still skeptical if Ted Lasso is any good: Be curious, not judgmental.