In the final month of this terrible year, I’m here to celebrate the achievements of a white man who is manifestly unqualified for his job. No, I did not expect to end up here. But then—and I am the first person to point this out—2020 has been incredibly weird and tough.
The man in question is a mustachio’ed gent named Ted Lasso, and while he may have his share of flaws and blind spots, which he would freely admit, I am here to tell you that Ted Lasso the show is just fucking delightful. It’s not only an entertaining antidote to craptacular 2020, it also provides the kind of energy and ideas we should absolutely bring into 2021. But before I explain why Ted Lasso is not just good but Important, here’s a brief explainer of what it is. I’m not going to spoil any key plot points, because I want you to watch it, and thank me later.
Ted Lasso, which sprouted from a string of promotional spots NBC Sports ran a few years ago, is an Apple TV+ comedy that debuted in August and stars Jason Sudeikis as a college football coach from Kansas who—to the confusion of many—takes the reins of a pro soccer team in London. Members of the fractured, struggling squad hate his energetic “yeehaw bullshit,” and fans chant “wanker” at him at every opportunity.
The reactions Ted gets are not merely byproducts of British people’s innate dislike of both Americans and sincerity. Ted, the human embodiment of Dad jokes, doesn’t help his own cause by saying things like, “I have a hard time hearing people who don’t believe in themselves!” Sentences like that are illegal throughout the United Kingdom, and Ted makes the situation worse by bringing his boss delicious cookies every morning. What a wanker!
But using Ted and his best friend, Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt), as sacrificial hayseeds suits the goals of Ted’s steely boss, Rebecca Welton, AFC Richmond’s owner. After a nasty divorce, she controls the team, and has her reasons for wanting to run it into the ground. Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) assumes Ted will quickly serve her purpose and the unwanted “rodeo clown”—in the words of arrogant star player Jamie Tarrt (Phil Dunster)—will soon be out of her well-coiffed hair.
Courtesy of Apple TV +
No one expects Ted’s kindness and persistence to have a ripple effect on just about every person in the orbit of the team. In 10 deeply satisfying, funny and smartly crafted episodes, Ted Lasso avoids the most predictable jock stories, sketches a dozen indelible character portraits, and earnestly delves into the lives of people who begin to believe in each other, even as they start to make halting progress toward making amends for their cluelessness, cruel actions and mistakes.
By the way, if you’re avoiding the show because you don’t care about sports, neither do I, most of the time. I loved The Last Dance; I’d rather stab myself in the eye than than watch an entire NFL game. As for soccer—sorry, football—I (correctly) regard it the way that Ted (incorrectly) views hot tea: It’s garbage.
So I put off checking out Ted Lasso, only to find out that, in the grand tradition of Friday Night Lights, it’s a stealth show that seems like it’s about sports while it’s actually about situations that are much richer, weirder and more important. Both shows subtly highlight the importance of compassion, humility, enlightened discipline and common decency; both shows are about how difficult and cathartic change can be. You could easily build a highlight reel of characters from both shows calling each other on the carpet for their mistakes, and comforting each other when things go wrong, on and off the field. I thought about all the times FNL made me cry when Ted Lasso made me tear up toward the end of the season, because it’s 2020, and—did I mention?—it’s been a hard damn year.
I put off checking out Ted Lasso, only to find out that, in the grand tradition of Friday Night Lights, it’s a stealth show that seems like it’s about sports while it’s actually about situations that are much richer and weirder.
Ted Lasso is not all reconciliations and weepy realizations, of course, in part because the British characters often resist these things with every fiber of their beings. Ted Lasso also features spit-takes, witty asides and a lot of beautifully goofy physical comedy. Just thinking about the way Ted regularly bursts into Rebecca’s office makes me smile.
So no, Ted Lasso does not take itself seriously. But like its television cousins—smart, searching, silly comedies like The Good Place, BoJack Horseman, Schitt’s Creek and even What We Do in the Shadows—it’s about what we owe each other, as friends, as co-workers, as fellow human beings and/or vampires trying to co-exist in this benighted world.
If I had to boil Ted Lasso down to one word, I’d say it’s a show about noticing.
If Ted were not self-aware—and if he did not have a keenly attuned perception of other people’s emotional states—he would probably be unbearable. But as a man going through some difficult things in his personal life, he not only has therapy jargon at the ready, he notices when other people are struggling. He may careen into Rebecca’s office without always noticing how his brimming energy unnerves her, but day after day, he sees how she’s using anger to keep pain and humiliation at bay.
Rebecca is not an intrinsically shitty person; post-divorce, she is lashing out, and hiring Ted was part of that revegenda. But using her power to grind others into dust doesn’t come naturally to her, though it does to her ex, Rupert (Anthony Head). Hannah Waddingham brings an astonishing array of subtle emotional nuances to Rebecca’s reactions; Emmy voters, if you don’t notice her great work, I will be very, very angry at all of you. And speaking of fantastic performances, the show is full of them. Case in point: If you loved Olivia Colman as the undermining stepmother in Fleabag, you are very likely to enjoy Anthony Head as Rupert, who is working in a similarly delicious, vicious key.
Rupert is gloriously terrible, ingeniously cruel and charmingly toxic. Ten years ago, the show would have been built around him. Yes, I get that mean, lying, conniving people can be fascinating, but holy cats, I’m so tired of them, especially after the past four pummeling years. Watching Ted move through the world—and every day, inspiring and requiring himself and those around him to be better, to do better—well, it was just such a relief.
If nothing else, Ted Lasso the guy, as well as Ted Lasso the show, never expect or require women to carry and process the emotional baggage of men who refuse to clean up their own messes. Sudeikis does terrific work as Ted, especially in scenes in which we see the coach’s flaws and fears. Ted snaps at people on occasion, and his jaunt to the UK is a way to avoid some hard truths. He can use his sunny demeanor the way that Rebecca uses her power wardrobe: to deflect anything messy, complicated or challenging.
One of the things it explores wisely and well is what it looks like when men engage in (sorry for using these dreadful words) nurturing behaviors.
But he wants to be better. He allows others to change him, and he pays attention when he realizes he screwed up. The noticing he’s so good at spreads throughout the club; more and more people start to figure out how they might be able to evolve—maybe. If they really try.
At one point in the season, a male character says, “I’m a grown man, I’m not a baby child.” In context, it’s a funny line; out of context, it could serve as the show’s mission statement. Ted finds ways to reach the Richmond players, fans and staffers who are angry, who are lonely, who need to face the consequences of their arrogant or abusive tendencies. He draws out junior staffer Nate (Nick Mohammed) and bolsters his confidence in a dozen ways, and it’s not long before the entire club benefits from Nate the Great’s input.
We’ve seen plenty of examples in recent years of the wrong kind of tenacity and the worst kinds of confrontation. Ted does not, to use therapy jargon, model that kind of behavior. Displaying humane persistence and quiet creativity, he figures out how to motivate each person, even the baby men—and when that doesn’t work, he gently but firmly imposes consequences on them.
None of this is radical stuff, I know. But here is a show that holds the Ruperts of the world up to (mild) ridicule. The rich white man’s shittiness is not presented as the aspirational mindset of a get-things-done guy.
Rupert’s not the hero—or the anti-hero. He’s just kind of sad, really.
Courtesy of Apple TV +
If you spend any time online, you’ll come across the phrase, “Are men OK?” It’s usually asked semi-jokingly, and often presented alongside evidence that the answer is decidedly “No!” The men I spoke to for the many stories I’ve done on toxic, abusive bosses were not OK, and I absolutely understood why. They— and literally hundreds of other sources of all genders— were deeply troubled by the industry’s convenient insistence that sociopathic, narcissistic, cruel, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and simply shitty behaviors should not just be tolerated but celebrated.
If the past several (hundred) years did not provide you with endless confirmation of that undying and demoralizing tendency in all areas of our culture and in every important power center, I wonder what planet you’ve been living on (and please, can I go there?). But once these bad men—and they are usually men—have been exposed, what then? Where do we go from there? I think about that a lot. A lot.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across this 2016 essay by Nora Samaran, who later expanded it into a slim but transfixing book called Turn This World Inside Out. It addresses a number of persistent questions I’ve had with lucid, thoughtful prose.
As Samaran puts it, “the men I know who are exceptionally nurturing lovers, fathers, coworkers, close friends to their friends, who know how to make people feel safe, have almost no outlets through which to learn or share this hardwon skill with other men…. Meanwhile, the men I know who are kind, goodhearted people, but who are earlier on in growing into their own models for self-love and learning how to comfort and nurture others, have no men to ask. … The answer to all of these difficulties is to openly discuss nurturance: how it looks, how it feels, how men can learn to practice it from the men who already know how.”
I can’t help but cackle as I imagine Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), Richmond’s cranky team captain, reading Samaran’s essay and then projectile vomiting.
But Roy would think about Samaran’s words, and ultimately act on the guidance and suggestions they contain, because underneath his grunting, furrowed-brow exterior, he does not really want to be a baby child. In a rewatch of the season, I noticed that Roy knows all the words to “Let it Go” from Frozen, and that he also, like the rest of the team, got teary during a screening of The Iron Giant. Roy is, like everyone else on Ted Lasso, frequently in a glass case of emotions, as Ron Burgundy would put it. And that’s OK!
Ted Lasso does a lot of things well—I adore the budding friendship between Rebecca and marketing whiz Keeley (Juno Temple)—but one of the things it explores wisely and well is what it looks like when men engage in (sorry for using these dreadful words) nurturing behaviors.
Apple TV+ doesn’t release viewership numbers, but Ted Lasso is its No. 1 comedy in more than 50 countries, including the UK, Japan, Germany, France, Canada and Russia. Extreme Ted Lasso voice: “Nice one, Japan! I appreciate you!”
It’s a sprightly, well-constructed, enjoyable comedy about sports, sure, but it’s also about men who—like the many good men I have known (even in Hollywood!)—take responsibility for the example they set, for their emotions and for the actions they take. Ted Lasso will remain deeply valuable into next year and beyond, because it is also about a bunch of very different people who display fulfilling, conscientious confidence and leadership—not the bullying, toxic, arrogant, violent, condescending domination that has, in this country, has too often masqueraded as “leadership” and “confidence.” In evolving and supporting each other through those changes, these characters form friendships and communities that are truly meaningful.
How I love to be able to say that all this good, wholesome, hopeful shit is smuggled into a goofball comedy that features a lot of drinking, sex jokes and swearing. Apple TV+ doesn’t release viewership numbers, but a representative for the service noted a quarter of the show’s viewers are using the service for the first time, and added that Ted Lasso is its No. 1 comedy—not just in the US, but in more than 50 countries, including the UK, Japan, Germany, France, Canada and Russia. Extreme Ted Lasso voice: “Nice one, Japan! I appreciate you!”
I will circle back to where I began by reminding all of us that Ted is absolutely not equipped to be a professional soccer coach. And I also can never forget that folks from marginalized communities suffer most from the glorification and upward trajectories of the shitty, incompetent, cruel Teds out there—and there are a lot of them. Everywhere.
So here’s something for the suggestion box Ted passed around the AFC Richmond locker room: For a show set in London, it’s frankly ridiculous that white people get the vast majority of Ted Lasso screen time. In particular, the absence of meaningful roles for Black, Asian, Latinx and South Asian women feels like a huge missed opportunity, to say the least. And though I am happy that the delightful Keeley appears to be canonically bisexual, giving LGBTQ people more to do in and around the club would be—to be my most extreme Midwestern self about it—pretty dang cool.
All in all, there is lots of championship potential in Seasons 2 and 3 (which have already been ordered, hooray!). Season 2 goes into production early next year. Glorious news: It will not touch on the pandemic at all. And as my fellow Tedheads know: It cannot arrive soon enough.
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