When we first meet Ted Lasso, his Kansas accent and cornpone witticisms make it tempting to dismiss him as a hick, a rube, a simpleton. And the fact that he’s taken a job coaching AFC Richmond, a Premier League soccer team, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the beautiful game, makes him out to be a total fool. (Or as one of his fellow passengers on the flight to England puts it, “You are a legend for doing something so stupid.”)
But as we — along with AFC Richmond and the rest of England — quickly learn, we underestimate Ted Lasso (played in all of his mustachioed glory by SNL alum Jason Sudeikis) at our own peril. And our own delight. Yes, Ted Lasso’s approach to soccer is unorthodox (which is just a polite way of calling it clueless), but it brings with it an outpouring of optimism, encouragement, and sheer goodness that feels like nothing short of a balm during 2020.
It’s easy to write villains. It’s much harder to write truly good characters who radiate hope, conviction, integrity, and honor while at the same time, making them believable and three-dimensional rather merely wish fulfillment (or worse, caricatures). But miracle of miracles, Sudeikis and his Ted Lasso co-creators have done just that. Originally conceived for several promos for NBC Sports’ Premier League coverage — careful viewers will note that some of the promos’ jokes, like Ted’s confusion concerning offside, resurface in the series — Sudeikis et al. have parlayed the Ted Lasso character and premise into one of the brightest moments in 2020’s pop culture landscape.
Ted Lasso is a truly good man. Not a perfect man, mind you. And not a man for whom goodness always comes easily. We see him struggle with doubt, grief, and loss (both on and off the pitch). We see him hurt those closest to him, and get hurt by those he loves most of all. But time and again, we also see him choose to make amends and pursue redemption, forgive and ask for forgiveness, and above all else, challenge those around him to be the best possible versions of themselves.
Which, of course, is easier said than done.
His players, which include the arrogant young Jamie Tartt and the aging, perpetually angry Roy Kent, respond to Lasso’s unorthodox coaching with a mixture of disbelief and contempt. The press view Lasso with skepticism and pepper him with questions that highlight his ignorance. The fans hate Lasso and aren’t afraid to call him “wanker” to his face, which they do… a lot. And above all else, his boss is an icy, manipulative woman named Rebecca Welton who hired Lasso precisely because she hopes he’ll drive AFC Richmond to ruin.
But to the show’s credit, every major character is layered and nuanced, and part of the joy of watching Ted Lasso is seeing how these nuances reveal themselves. Jamie is certainly an arrogant prick, but he’s driven by a fear of failure instilled by poor parenting. Roy’s age and diminishing skills are running up against his intense pride and desire to be the team’s backbone. As for Rebecca, her desire to ruin AFC Richmond isn’t borne out of mere cruelty, but rather, out of a desire to get back at her unfaithful ex-husband (arguably the series’ only real villain) and avenge all of the pain and shame that he’s caused her.
In his inimitable way, Ted helps each of these characters see themselves as something more, or at least, that they have the potential to be something more. Arguably the best example of this is Ted’s relationship with AFC Richmond’s equipment manager, a mousy, soft-spoken man named Nate whose lack of confidence is matched only by his knowledge of soccer. Ted, however, is the first person to pay him any notice or respect, and under his wing, “Nate the Great” becomes something much more.
I feel like I could go on about every character, really. Welton’s beleaguered right-hand man, Higgins, slowly evolves from spineless sycophant to become part of Ted’s inner circle. Jamie’s girlfriend Keeley is introduced as a ditzy model and social media influencer, but she’s revealed to be canny and brilliant in her own way, and her burgeoning friendship with Rebecca is a joy to watch. And I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention Coach Beard, Ted’s fellow coach and loyal right-hand man, whose sunglasses and taciturn exterior hide a deep fount of wisdom.
For all of its vulgar language (“wanker” is just the tip of the iceberg) and crass sexual humor, Ted Lasso might be the purest TV show that I’ve watched in a long time. And by “pure,” I mean the undiluted goodhearted-ness that undergirds nearly every scene. It’s a shame that, for a TV series or movie to feel “grounded” or “meaningful” these days, it must be tempered by snark and cynicism. But Ted Lasso achieves grounded-ness and meaning precisely because of its decided and determined lack of cynicism.
Rather than making Ted and his exploits seem divorced by reality, this approach allows Ted Lasso to depict a reality that I think we all would like to see manifest itself — a reality in which people are more curious than they are judgmental (to paraphrase a Walt Whitman quote that Ted uses during one of the season’s best scenes), where kindness, compassion, and decency rule the day, where people actively seek the good of those around them, and where people aren’t afraid to be honest with each other because they know that they’re loved and appreciated.
Indeed, this first season of Ted Lasso is so good that I’m both worried and excited about the promise of two more seasons. On the one hand, Ted Lasso’s first season is so perfect that I worry about subsequent seasons even coming close to matching it (see also Stranger Things). But on the other hand, I’ve come to love Ted, Coach Beard, Nate the Great, Rebecca Welton, and AFC Richmond so much that I can’t wait to return to Richmond and experience more of the “Lasso Way.”