The Miracle & Audacity of Ted Lasso
Behold the quiet revolution of an optimistic comedy.
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The second season of Ted Lasso premiered on Friday, and it’s a rather wonderful and infuriating thing that Apple TV has decided to release the episodes weekly. I’m crestfallen that I can’t binge the season in one night whilst simultaneously grateful I’m being forced to ration them out like they’re the last cups of hot cocoa I’ll ever drink for the rest of my winters on this earth.
There really is nothing like it in popular culture — has there ever been anything like it?
Here’s the premise for the uninitiated: Ted Lasso is an NCAA Division II football coach (ahem, American football) who’s hired by the owner of AFC Richmond, an English football club, to lead that team to glory. (Spoiler: that was not the real reason he was hired.)
If you know nothing about sports, there’s a big framing joke here from the jump that’s important to point out: NCAA Division II football is a world apart from Division I football (the top college teams) and several worlds apart from the National Football League (pro football). And that’s within the same sport.
This is kinda like the manager of a successful Olive Garden in Texas taking over an especially classy restaurant in Paris and wondering aloud why they’re not offering unlimited breadsticks.
It’s pretty absurd, and luckily, the writers of Ted Lasso lean into this absurdity, skillfully turning it into a quiet vehicle to talk about vulnerability and humility and all those very human things that require some skin in the game but in exchange, make us feel… wonderfully human.
Recently, after I praised the show on Twitter, someone replied:
Why do people like that show? I tried watching it last night. Could not watch it. Too dumb. What am I missing?.. honestly, what is it that people like about it? I know it has to be a smart show. My sig other is very smart. I'm just not 'getting it'.
He doesn’t get it, and that’s okay. Art and entertainment are subjective, and folks aren’t required to like the things you like.
But I have a theory here, and it explains as much why so many people like it as it does those hold-outs who seem disinclined to embrace it.
Ted Lasso is not a "smart show" in the sense that performative intellect is the audience target. It says a lot of smart things, but it’s far more in the vein of emotional intelligence. It's about unapologetic earnestness and optimism. It's about believing in others and caring about them and being vulnerable. It's about finding joy in messiness and pain.
I think folks who struggle to pinpoint what it is about Ted Lasso that's so different will arrive at the conclusion that it is completely the opposite of the pervasive cynicism and ironic detachment and anti-hero narratives that have dominated great television for years.
The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, VEEP, Game of Thrones and on and on…
Notice I said "great television". Because those shows are great television. They’re fantastic art. They're great writing and acting and directing, and I enjoy them. But they're also deeply cynical, and Ted Lasso is refreshing because it's the absolute opposite of cynical.
Actually, no, that’s not quite it. It’s not just that Ted Lasso is the opposite of cynical; it’s that it manages to be unapologetically optimistic and earnest without any sense of ironic detachment, let alone a detachment from reality.
That last part is especially critical. This is not a utopia workplace show about perpetually happy people finding resolution by every episode’s end. In Ted Lasso, people get hurt and make mistakes and struggle, including our hero in the title role, and there are tough, pointed conversations that don’t invite easy answers.
More than its earnestness, I love Ted Lasso for its commitment to recognizing the mountains of shit that life can present, even when we’re trying our best to put on a smile.
That’s a daring thing these days. Doom-scrolling has migrated offline and become doom-thinking, in which the nastiness at the center of social media combines with the endless news cycles of bad things happening and then clings to the empty breaths in our most idle moments away from our screens.
There is no shortage of existential worries in this moment of our history. In 2021, life in America is saturated with anxiety and concern.
And it honestly feels as though anyone who dares say “hey, things will get better if we believe in ourselves” risks accusations of failing to read the room, as though the thing we all collectively need is yet further confirmation of the inherent desperation every reasonable adult now accepts as central to the American Experience.
Why not hope? Why not kindness?
I’m certainly not endorsing “toxic positivity” or making the case that folks shouldn’t feel what they feel and recognize the awfulness around us. Do all of that. It’s human and honest.
But why can’t nuance within ourselves have a shot at winning the day by recognizing the challenges that face us while making the case that optimism and earnestness have never been more needed in order to negotiate those challenges?
What’s more hopeful than a hilarious show in which grown men talk honestly with each other about their emotional health without feeling the need to couch it in thinly-veiled homophobia and fragile masculinity?
There’s the famous Bechdel Test, which asks if a work of film or television features two (named) women talking to each other about something other than a man. You’d likely not be surprised by how many projects fail to clear this very low bar.
There needs to be the Lasso Test: at least two men talk to each other about their mental health or emotional wellbeing in a frank and vulnerable and loving way without needing to involve women as vehicles or guides for their self-improvement.
I’m sure it would be easy for some to accuse Ted Lasso of being a form of escapism, but that doesn’t track with its general vibe. It doesn’t feel escapist or pollyannaish. It does, however, seem hellbent on asking the viewer: what would the world be like if we all approached each other with just a little bit more good faith?
Even in Ted’s world, good faith alone doesn’t end our pain or solve our problems (him being the biggest example of that in the show), but it does allow you to better recognize the pain and problems of others.
And that kinda feels like the point of the show: creating space for those around you and being surprised to learn that even in the midst of our pain, there are healing connections to be made with others feeling that pain, too. How much could be gained from those connections?
My genuine hope for every person is that they get a personal answer to that question and don’t need a TV show to guide them there.
Until then, I’m so damn happy Ted Lasso isn’t going away anytime soon.
I missed him.
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Charlotte, a better late than never comment, just received from my 34 y/o daughter: "Reading this definitely made me realize what a negative spiral I'm in! It was good to be reminded of my once existent optimism." I sent your piece to all three of my children in hopes they were inspired. Optimism, though is difficult to feel at the moment with the challenges to our democracy and rights (al la Texas today.) Keep sharing your perspectives and ideas as they are very valuable. Cheers, John Cooper