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Photo: ‘Ted Lasso’/Apple TV+
It’s easy to be skeptical or cynical about ‘Ted Lasso‘ as a TV show. The idea of basing a comedy series around a joke character originally created for TV commercials sounds flimsy at best. Then factor in the fact that it’s an original show on Apple TV+, a streaming service that—despite already having some solid-to-strong original content—hasn’t taken off yet the way Disney+ has. Needless to say, the deck was somewhat stacked against it.
Fast forward to today and I’m kicking myself for being late to the game. I didn’t give it much thought and just dismissed it when it first came out this past August. But then word-of-mouth began to grow through various feature articles as well as recommendations from people I follow on Twitter. Then it made numerous Best TV Shows of 2020 lists. So I bit the bullet and gave it a chance. And they were right.
Funny and heartwarming in equal measure with a great cast led by a very winning Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso is one of the best new shows of the year and a reminder during these difficult times that kindness pays off. You don’t need to be a football (soccer) fan to enjoy this.
“He Think He’s Mad Now, Wait Till We Win Him Over”
Developed by Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt, Joe Kelly, and Sudeikis, the show follows the eponymous Ted Lasso (Sudeikis), an American college football coach who is inexplicably hired as the new manager of the (fictional) English Premier League soccer team AFC Richmond. Despite having no knowledge or experience in the game, Ted and his taciturn best friend and assistant coach Beard (Hunt) arrive in the U.K with the goal of rebuilding the struggling team. What no one knows is that Ted’s hiring is an act of intentional sabotage by the team’s new owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) to get back at her ex-husband by ruining his team, the only thing he ever loved.
Yet despite being set up to fail, with skeptical team players and a less-than-warm welcome from fans, Ted slowly wins people over with his optimism, overwhelming positivity, and folksy charm.
At its core, Ted Lasso is essentially a workplace comedy not unlike, say, Parks and Recreation crossed with a traditional underdog sports story. You have the dysfunctional coworkers/teammates who struggle to get along until their supportive coach rallies them into becoming a better and stronger team; the encounters with upper management and skeptics; and it all leads up to the Big Match. It doesn’t break the mold, but it’s all very well-executed.
So what is it that makes Ted Lasso, the show and the character, so good?
‘Ted Lasso’ (the Man and the Show) Cares About Its Characters
As mentioned, viewers don’t need to be familiar with soccer to enjoy the show (Ted himself barely understands it). And working on a premium TV budget still means that much of the soccer action we see is when the team trains, up until it’s time for the Big Match in the finale. The relative lack of game action works in the show’s favor as this allows it to focus on its real strength: the characters.
This is something Bill Lawrence does very well in his previous shows like Scrubs and Cougar Town: that combination of humor and heart. As funny as they are, what makes them work is that they care about their characters. We become invested in their stories and arcs, and Ted Lasso is no different.
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With the exception of Rebecca’s condescending ex-husband Rupert (Anthony Head), the show gives virtually every character in its ensemble nuance and depth. It would’ve been easy for the show to portray Rebecca as a one-note icy villain constantly out to undermine Ted, but as the season progresses she finds herself won over by his decency (and his homemade biscuits) and she becomes more invested in her team’s success; we come to see that she’s motivated less by malice and more out of heartbreak and hurt. Team captain Roy’s (Brett Goldstein) anger issues mask insecurity of being over the hill and facing an uncertain future—and his irascible nature disguises a softie who dotes on his young niece and stands up to bullies. Cocky and selfish star player Jamie (Phil Dunster) learns humility and how to be a better team player, and we come to understand that his attitude is rooted in a toxic relationship with his absentee father.
Even the other supporting characters get solid character arcs. The painfully shy yet knowledgeable equipment manager Nathan (Nick Mohammed) gains confidence and self-esteem as Ted gets him involved with the coaching. Sycophantic assistant Higgins (Jeremy Swift) finds himself increasingly conflicted over Rebecca’s plan as Ted befriends him and makes him feel like he belongs. Coach Beard, despite being loyal, eventually calls Ted out on the limitations of his philosophy. Jamie’s model girlfriend Keeley (Juno Temple) finds both her calling working for the team and the resolve to hold Jamie accountable for his behavior; among the show’s sweetest plot threads are Keeley and Rebecca’s growing friendship and the budding romance between Keeley and Roy.
And then there’s Ted Lasso.
“Believe”, and “Be Curious, Not Judgmental” — The Case for Ted Lasso as a Very Likeable Sitcom Lead
The Ted Lasso character initially debuted back in 2013 as part of an NBC Sports promo campaign for the network’s coverage of the Premier League (here’s one). The joke in the promo is Ted’s obnoxious and cocksure attitude clashing with his ignorance: your basic Ugly American abroad.
While still a fish-out-of-water and dealing with culture clash, the show’s version of the character is vastly different—incredibly kind, caring, compassionate, enthusiastic, and optimistic. Imagine Parks & Rec’s Leslie Knope crossed with Mister Rogers and a sports coach, and you pretty much have Ted Lasso.
Ted faces a lot of problems at the start of the show: a scheming boss, a team that doesn’t take him seriously, and an angry fan base calling him a “wanker” every chance they get. And yet he faces every problem with enthusiasm, optimism, and earnestness. And his goodness isn’t treated as a cheap gimmick: it’s sincere. Ted is the kind of person who tries not to let the mocking get to him and is determined to see the good in every situation.
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Two things best exemplify Ted’s worldview. One is the word taped on the wall above the door to Ted’s office: “Believe”. Specifically, it’s his belief in people. As Ted tells a skeptical journalist, his focus isn’t on wins and losses; it’s about encouraging his players to be better people, on and off the field. While his logic is flawed considering what’s at stake (as Coach Beard reminds him), his philosophy persists. Ted takes an interest in the lives and well-being of those around him; he genuinely listens to them and cares about them. He treats them as human beings and has faith in them to learn to be better people, and this takes root. The idea here is that when you show someone you believe in them, sometimes they can surprise you and even themselves.
The other we learn late in the season and it comes down to a Walt Whitman quote—“Be curious, not judgmental”. It perfectly encapsulates Ted’s philosophy on being underestimated (as well as for viewers approaching this show). As Ted explains, people have a tendency to jump to conclusions with regards to him, his Midwest demeanor, and his unfailing positivity: they judge him without getting to know him. But if they were more curious they wouldn’t be surprised if and when he succeeds, or to see that he has layers or that he truly wants to learn. Fittingly, Ted takes people by surprise as they come to see that there is no front: he’s a genuinely good and decent man, and they, in turn, warm up to him.
That’s not to say Ted is a one-dimensional Pollyanna. He’s not afraid to be stern (but fair) when it comes to lecturing a lazy Jamie. He struggles with a failing marriage (we learn early on that he took the coaching job to give his wife some space) which turns into an impending divorce that takes a toll on him. This later leads to one of the show’s most moving sequences when Ted suffers a panic attack and Rebecca (despite her goal to see him fail) sincerely comforts him. By giving Ted his own struggles and issues, and in seeing how he responds to them, he’s all the more human. Sometimes it means dealing through good humor and a can-do attitude. And sometimes it means letting people help you.
As I finished the first season, I finally understood why people latched onto this show. In a year that’s pretty much seen the whole world torn asunder, there’s something comforting about a show that’s optimistic about humanity; a show about fundamentally good people just trying to be good; a show about not giving up hope.
And that’s what Ted Lasso is. Earnest while still being very funny (and foul-mouthed) and sentimental without being cloying, it’s just a really damn good show and one I highly recommend.
By Mario Yuwono
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