An assortment of thoughts about Ted Lasso
The Unbearable Brightness of Being Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso is a very good show that you may have (a) heard about; and (b) been strongly encouraged to watch.1 This post discusses events that happen over the course of the first season. The impetus for writing this is a question. But before we get there, I wanted to pretend to be a TV reviewer and give some impressions.
All television is strange but Ted Lasso is especially so. The show depicts Ted Lasso, an American football coach who unexpectedly succeeds in coaching a Kansas college football team to a championship. Rebecca Welton, the owner of an English Premier League team, brings him to the UK to coach her football club in a season where failure will result in relegation to a lower division of England’s complicated soccer league. Ted is a preternaturally positive person, seemingly undeterred by the challenge of moving to London to coach a sport he barely understands.
This is already a pretty nuts premise but it’s even stranger when you learn the character was originally created for a series of advertisements made in 2013 to promote NBC’s coverage of the Premier League. This is not normally how sitcoms emerge but since we’re currently in the midst of a batshit insane arms race between giant technology companies desperate to create new revenue streams it is now apparently.
And so the first thing you notice about the show is that it really shouldn’t work at all. Sure, Jason Sudeikis, the actor who plays Ted Lasso, is a famous comedian and the show is developed by Bill Lawrence, creator of Spin City and Scrubs among others2, so it’s not as if they gave millions of dollars to a bunch of complete rubes but it sounds like something set up to fail.3
The second thing you notice about the show is that it does that rare thing in TV where it plays dumb. Most TV shows are transparent about their level. When you watch, say, the West Wing, you know that everything that’s being said is considered: the motivations of characters will be revealed, plot threads will be tied up, throwaway lines will be paid off. In contrast, if you’re watching some daytime crap, nothing will make sense: characters will act inconsistently, plot holes will be driven through and every line is disposable.
At first you think Ted Lasso is closer to the latter than the former. Sudeikis’ Ted seems every bit the two-dimensional stereotype, so flat you could use him as a plate. The show is a 30-minute comedy, though, so who cares if characters do things inexplicably? That’s part of the joke.
Except it’s not part of the joke. At the end of the first episode, it’s revealed that the little voice in your head that stridently complained throughout Mall Cop 2 was right. It didn’t make any sense that a happily married American from Kansas with a young son would move to England to coach a sport he knows nothing about. Ted, though, isn’t happily married. He’s having serious relationship problems with his wife. The reason he took the job was that he wanted to give her space; so much space that he’s literally moved across an ocean.
Things like this happen in Ted Lasso consistently. Hannah Waddingham’s Rebecca shreds her hapless assistant, Jeremy Swift’s Leslie Higgins, in every scene they share. It’s funny because she’s the boss and he’s her sycophantic lackey. And then, late in the season, Higgins finally stands up for himself and it’s revealed that Rebecca’s venom springs from the fury she feels toward Higgins for the role he played in the philandering of Rebecca’s ex-husband, Rupert Mannion. That reveal, like so many, hits you with the force of a freight train, all the more powerful because you thought this was just part of the joke.
When I started watching the show I thought I knew where it was going. I saw Bill Lawrence’s name, saw the second episode was directed by Zach Braff and was pretty sure I had its measure. This was Scrubs, with a hospital switched out for a football club. I enjoyed Scrubs in the first few seasons but came to tire of its rhythms and cadences. I feared that the outpouring of praise for Ted Lasso came from a cohort of viewers unfamiliar with the adventures of J.D., Elliot, Turk and Carla.
Thankfully, those fears were misplaced. I saw people praise Ted Lasso for its positivity and optimism but what really made me a fan was the darkness. Not cinematic, premium cable chemistry-teacher-becomes-drug-lord darkness. Ordinary, boring, mundane darkness. Ted is in serious pain and as the show goes on you come to marvel at the tightrope that Jason Sudeikis is walking. The way in which he seamlessly moves back and forth between joy and anger, hope and despair deserves all the praise I can heap on it.
Which brings me to my question.
As mentioned, Ted has moved to England because he’s having issues in his marriage. These issues aren’t resolved during the course of the show and he and his wife divorce. The question that obsessed me as the season progressed was who else knows this? Ted’s assistant coach, the delightfully named Coach Beard knows. But who else?
Because the state of Ted’s marriage is revealed slowly, I struggled to remember exactly what was said and to whom. In particular, did Rebecca know? At the end of the season, Rebecca admits to Ted that she hired him to fail. She is consumed with rage at her ex-husband, Rupert, and is desperate to exact revenge. She believes that relegation of his beloved football club is the answer. Ted characteristically forgives her, saying that divorce causes people to do crazy things. I turned this conversation over in my mind repeatedly. It felt in that scene as if Rebecca had acted in a way that suggested that she knew Ted was talking about himself but had she actually said anything that proved that she did?
Ultimately, I realised it didn’t matter.4 Whether anyone else knows, the key fact is that we do. We know that Ted’s life is difficult and that he isn’t always happy. We know that bringing joy and optimism to others is a choice that he makes and that, by extension, we can make, too. For me that’s the message of Ted Lasso. The brightness isn’t unbearable, it’s affirmative. ✺