How ‘Ted Lasso’ Changed Our Lives at the Darkest Time

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Courtesy of Apple
Courtesy of Apple

We used to have Oprah. Now we have Ted Lasso.

The Apple TV+ comedy series, which debuted last year like a fleeting, gee-golly antidote to our pandemic trauma and malaise, is undeniably funny—hence the record-breaking 20 Emmy nominations it earned earlier this month.

The reason it burrowed not just into the zeitgeist, but also our collective psyche is that for all the laughs, Ted Lasso offered near-incessant revelations about who we are as people and the potential for goodness in our lives. They were “a-ha” moments, to borrow from Winfrey’s phrasing, the kind you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a TV show about an English football squad in which a Saturday Night Live alum known for playing some of comedy’s greatest assholes and jerks instead stars as an unflappably optimistic coach.

On the surface level, those revelations are portrayed as a joke—Ted Lasso, what a goofball—a creative sleight of hand that only makes more profound the series’ ruminations on humanity and its indictment of our instinct towards cynicism and nihilism. That impact deepens when the series returns Friday for its much-anticipated second season.

Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso was brought to England in a bout of diabolical strategy by the owner of the Richmond Greyhounds, Rebecca Welton (the imperious and then irresistibly warm Hannah Waddingham), who pursues revenge against her ex-husband by secretly destroying his beloved team. An American football coach who doesn’t know his offsides from his corner kick, but who is unshakable in his sincerity and desire to make everyone he comes in contact with happy, his presence on the pitch was like ice cubes in a glass of water. That is to say, he was out of step with the British way of doing things, and everyone felt like he didn’t belong.

What nobody bargained for is the power of being nice. Ted’s earnestness, at least at first, borders on cartoonish, as if he’s some sheltered dolt not emotionally complex enough to engage with the darker realities of the world. When Rebecca asks him in the series’ first episode if he believes in ghosts, he replies, “I do. But more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves.”

There was something almost political in his peculiar, throw-pillow clichés and philosophizing by way of obscure pop-culture references. In a mustachioed Sudeikis, here was the physical embodiment of the corn-fed, all-American straight white man in the pinnacle profession for the stereotype, the professional sports coach. Yet he moved through life with gentle compassion and cheerleading instead of the unearned confidence, among other nefarious traits, associated with the epidemic of toxic masculinity.

Throughout the season, he wins over the team’s players, the locals, and even Rebecca. It’s part charm offensive, sure. But it’s also the power of his positivity as a foil (to the other characters but also to us, the viewers) that made Ted Lasso the perfect show with the perfect tone at the perfect time when it premiered last year. Now that we’re coming to terms with how this unmooring period in our lives has fundamentally changed us, that may be even more true now.

Ted Lasso’s basic storyline was genius in its accessibility. Take the movie Major League, stage it in a soccer club in the U.K., and cast Sudeikis as a coach so peppy it requires Steve Carell-as-Michael Scott levels of acting gymnastics in order to keep the character on the endearing side of a precarious teeter-totter towards grating. What’s interesting, then, is the reaction to what was happening on Ted Lasso. All this niceness. All this heart. All this genuine feeling. It was treated as positively radical.

We talked about Ted Lasso as a modern incarnation of a perfect man, as if he’s a myth. A nice guy? My God, what a miracle.

In a cheeky way, the series even leans into that in its Season 1 finale, in which Lasso cribs a bit from Miracle in one of his inspiring locker room speeches. “Do you believe in miracles?” he asks the team. “I don’t need you all to answer that question for me. But I do want you to answer that question for yourselves. Right now. Do you believe in miracles? And if you do, I want you to circle up with me right now.”

It was, in some regard, the series sticking the landing on a season-long mission. We maybe didn’t realize as viewers that we were being recruited, too. Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe that a man this seemingly decent can exist? That by letting down the guard we’ve all been conditioned to use like shields against hurt and disappointment, we can find some of that goodness in ourselves? That maybe it’s not toughness and grit that brings out the best in us, but vulnerability and kindness?

We’ve let the pendulum swing to the point that we’ve convinced ourselves that nice guys do finish last. When you look at the world, that may even be empirically, indisputably true. Heck, it’s true of Ted Lasso, whose smothering of his wife led to his divorce and a life across the ocean from his son. But maybe that’s another lesson hiding in plain sight with this show, one that is a surprise coming from a sports narrative in which what place a team finishes in is entirely the point.

The focus is too often on the result: the heroes and villains, wins and losses, the powerful and powerless, the generous and the taken advantage of, the painful existence and the hopelessness to change things. What if it was more rewarding to instead center the humanity we discover and experience on the way? To focus, in spite of outcomes we may truly not be able to control, on how there is that Ted Lasso kindness and joy we can actually make happen for ourselves and others?

At a time in our lives when we all needed a pep talk, to feel like the impossible could happen and, more, like we could be the ones to rise up and accomplish it, this show really did feel like a miracle. To that end, there’s a line from the season finale that never really left me over the course of this horrible year. When Richmond loses the big game and is relegated to the Championship league, Ted tells the team, “There are worse things out there than being sad, and that is being alone and sad.” Then after a beat: “Ain’t nobody in this room who is alone.”

It’s that last part that has been so hard to really hear and remember. But that, to me, is the big message of the show. A truth like that only needs us to validate it. The ball, so to speak, has always been in our court—even if we didn’t know we were playing in the game.

Ted Lasso reminded us of our own happiness agency, at a time when we had become certain that such serotonin would never be experienced again. It would never be instant, and the work might be brutal and uncomfortable. But it might also be the most rewarding kind of work there is.

Season 1 of Ted Lasso could never have expected that so much would be placed on it because of the circumstances in which it premiered. But season two is very much aware of what has become almost the burden of responsibility: It was the show that, by surprise, helped heal many of us. Now it’s the show we’re expecting that from.

To wit, the new season finds the players and staff at Richmond not just won over by Ted’s quirky idioms and upbeatness—“There’s only two buttons I never like to hit, and that’s panic and snooze,” he says in the premiere—but they have come to rely on it. They seek out his advice and, more, his intense, intimate way of connecting with them. He’s the kind of person that rattles something inside of you that makes you see yourself and what you deserve differently. The Oprah “a-ha” moments.

There’s a shock gag that happens minutes into Season 2 that I won’t spoil, but which triggers darkly comic—you could even call it tragic—consequences. Everyone, from the team to Rebecca to the football fans watching at home, turn to their newfound spiritual guide, Ted Lasso, to hear what he has to say about it, something that will make sense of it all and help them through.

He delivers, spinning one of his overlong personal yarns about a childhood dog he learned to care for that has everyone in the press conference on the verge of tears. He gets misty himself.

“It’s funny to think about the things in your life that make you cry just knowing that they existed, and then they’re the same things that make you cry just knowing they’re now gone,” he says, a wallop of wisdom that, when I applied it to my past year, bowled me over like an emotional wrecking ball. But what makes this show work is that it doesn’t just leave you there. There’s a lesson, too: “Those things come into our lives to help us get from one place to a better one.”

It’s yet another one of this show’s dares. What if we let ourselves actually believe that, after all we’ve been through? Do we even have the audacity to do so?

Ted Lasso wouldn’t work if its ensemble sprawl wasn’t populated by fully realized characters, all of which are explored more deeply in Season 2. Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) and Keeley (Juno Temple) navigate uncharted relationship waters. Nathan (Nick Mohammad) taps into an unsavory side effect of earning power and respect. Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) finds his ego crashing back down on earth, while Rebecca and Keeley’s budding friendship becomes the unexpected heart of the series.

When a sports psychologist (Sarah Niles’ Sharon) is brought on board to help the team, the series even explores a natural, if meta, question: Can things start to be too nice? Is there too much harmony among the team? Could it even be toxic? Ted bristles at Sharon’s presence. If you ever wondered what this guy’s deal is—surely, that kindness must be masking something—suffice it to say your suspicions are explored.

Now, this is all a lot of existential hand-wringing that buries the most important thing to know about the new episodes of Ted Lasso. Watching them made me feel very happy. I’ve seen eight episodes and that was true the entire time. It never let up and my smile only disappeared when it was time to cry. (The Christmas episode, in particular, will become an instant classic.)

In some ways, it’s curious that we’re so obsessed with the idea that Ted Lasso is special because it is so nice. Especially in recent years, the best TV comedies have been nice and were celebrated for it, like Parks and Recreation or Schitt’s Creek. I think it speaks more to who we’ve become that the idea of kindness is viewed as radical.

Ted Lasso has often been characterized as the antidote to all the hurt we’ve felt this last year. But I think it goes beyond the premise, tone, or its endearing lead character. The secret sauce to Ted Lasso—just like Schitt’s Creek before it—isn’t that it’s nice. It’s that it has found a way for us to feel it, too.

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