Ted Lasso, the popular Apple TV+ show about the misadventures of a genteel American football coach in charge of an English Premier League soccer team, began its second season on a typically tragicomic note. Daniel Rojas, Richmond FC’s new star player, not only misses a crucial penalty but also manages to kill the team mascot (a dog named Earl, RIP) with the ball. Afterwards, Lasso is grilled at the press conference about his memories of Earl, a potentially tricky subject.
In response, Sudeikis pulls off the kind of scene that has made Ted Lasso such a beloved feel-good phenomenon. He starts off with his hokey Midwestern ‘anecdote drawl’, telling us about how as a child he was always afraid of dogs, after a neighbour’s pet, Hank, attacked him at age three. You don’t even realise when Sudeikis moves through the emotional register, telling us about how he eventually came to care for the dog that bit him, until he’s dropping lines like: “It’s funny when you think about it; there are things in life that make you cry, knowing that they exist. They can be the same things that make you cry later, knowing that they don’t.”
This is how they reel you in: Ted Lasso the character as well as Ted Lasso the show. Structurally or in terms of narrative technique there is absolutely nothing groundbreaking in this underdog-at-the-workplace comedy. But it’s remarkable how much mileage this show extracts out of reliable underdog tropes and the generally therapeutic effect of watching niceness unfold onscreen—nobody here is a reprehensible person and almost everybody has baseline self-awareness about their eccentricities and blind spots.
Sudeikis and the rest of the cast know just how to play to the streaming medium’s traditional strength, which is character development at an unhurried pace. And what a cast it is too: Hannah Wadingham is a shoo-in for multiple awards as Rebecca Welton, Richmond FC’s once-antagonistic new owner, who initially wants the club to fail to spite its previous owner, her ex-husband Rupert (played by an appropriately smarmy Anthony Stewart Head; the character’s name is a nod to his Buffy role as Rupert Giles). Jeremy Swift is just as good as Leslie Higgins, the long-suffering Director of Football Operations, back at the helm after a short-lived dust-up with Rebecca towards the end of season one.
Nick Mohammad is nothing short of a revelation as Nathan Shelley, former kit-man now promoted to assistant coach — perhaps it’s a bit early to make this call, but I see this character becoming as influential a comic figure as, say, Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) from Community.
Ted Lasso’s near-universal acclaim is the latest symptom of the last decade or so in American comedy; a palpable move away from glibness and sarcasm and towards a gentler, self-aware, satire-adjacent style of comedy.
And then there’s Lasso himself, winning over all his detractors and critics one by one with a mixture of unrelenting optimism, homegrown aphorisms (“there’s two buttons I do not press: panic and snooze”; “he’s like an awfully expensive measuring tape, he snaps back real quick”) and just good old-fashioned niceness. Hard-as-nails cynical journalists arrive to eviscerate him, and leave having been converted at the church of Lasso. Merciless, jock-for-life footballers discover their tender aspects around him. Children, their over-the-hill parents and octogenarian grandparents are all powerless in the face of his charms (and the charms of his face, which resembles that of a cherubic video game hero; Super Mario Midwest anyone?).
I am just so very chuffed that TV’s most memorable character of the last 2-3 years isn’t another clearly formidable, smooth-talking ‘troubled genius’ antihero like Don Draper, Alan Shore or Harvey Specter. Indeed, Ted Lasso’s near-universal acclaim is the latest symptom of the last decade or so in American comedy; a palpable move away from glibness and sarcasm and towards a gentler, self-aware, satire-adjacent style of comedy.
The reasons are not difficult to fathom—some of the most memorable and long-running TV comedies of the 90s, like Seinfeld and Frasier, were heavily dependent on a neurotic, almost-mean mode of comedic repartee. Sarcastic protagonists traded barbs while the audience figured out who they hated less. This swagger did not come about in a vacuum. It had to do with the economic boom in America in the late 80s and early-to-mid-90s, and the confidence infused into society as a result. Similarly, the success of feel-good comedies like Ted Lasso or Schitt’s Creek has to be seen in the context of events like 9/11, the Occupy Wall Street protests and most recently, the Trump presidency. Quite simply, American audiences were losing their appetite for cynicism; they wanted to spend some time with the dreams and foibles of unambiguously good people for a change.
The Office, which began in 2005, represents a kind of transition between this style and the latter-day, empathy-laden comedies like Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Recreation, where it became cool to center the emotional health of the protagonists. This can be observed through the tonal shift towards its final seasons, as well as the fact that Office alumnus Michael Schur went on to create Brooklyn Nine-Nine and co-create The Good Place, two of the leading lights of the ‘empathetic comedy’ sub-genre.
During my favorite Ted Lasso scene, our man quotes Walt Whitman while whipping Rupert at darts. “All of a sudden, it hit me,” Lasso says, “All them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. They thought they had it all figured out, so they judged everything and they judged everyone. And I realized, them underestimating me had nothin’ to do with who I was.” And that really is one of the stories at the heart of Ted Lasso: what really happens when we are curious, not judgmental? What happens when we allow ourselves the freedom to empathize freely, to forgive readily, to love recklessly and with foolish abandon?
For my money, the answer is a softer world.