When “Ted Lasso” was dropped on Apple TV in August of 2020, it was a runaway hit. For two decades, prestige television had been obsessed with complicated anti-heroes such as Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper. And along came Jason Sudeikis’ affable fish-out-of-water portrayal of a midwestern football coach who is now coaching an English football team and who spits dad jokes like fire and charms everyone in his orbit. It helped that the show was helmed by Bill Lawrence, creator of the beloved sitcom “Scrubs,” who kept the writing crisp and made sure even minor characters were well-cast and well-drawn.
Still, it was clear who the beating heart of the show was. Lasso was the anti-anti-hero — and to say that viewers were ready for a healthy dose of feel-good comedy in the middle of a global pandemic would be an understatement. The first season was indeed exceptionally good. The show was a pop culture phenomenon, and everyone couldn’t stop talking about it.
However, the second season was the Angel Falls of precipitous drops in quality, we’re neck deep in a lackluster season three, and people still won’t stop talking about it. Just a few days ago, The New York Times published this column on how Ted Lasso is a “holy fool” who “reject[s] respectability and embrac[es] humility and love.” As such “holy fools are so profoundly out of step with the broader world that they appear to be ridiculous or even insane and often invite ridicule. And yet, they teach the rest of us how to live.”
Out of deference to the earnestness “Ted Lasso” at least aspires to, I’ll spare you the lengthy treatise on what I think of the theological grounding people who score columnist gigs at The New York Times. Suffice to say, I expect that moralistic therapeutic deists are cheap enough dates that they’re content with the moralistic therapeutic pablum Ted Lasso is serving up — even sans a trace of any redeeming deism.
The first season of the show worked because, as Daniel Radosh pointed out in this Twitter thread, there was an essential moral conflict at the center of the show. Ted Lasso shows up in the U.K. and has to win over a bunch of cynical Brits who call him a “wanker” all the time and prove his optimism and positivity is the right way to fix a foundering football club.
But by the second season, Lasso has largely won over all his doubters. So either out of necessity or desperation, the show had to create an entirely new central dynamic for all of the characters in the show. That dynamic was, in Radosh’s words, “watching good people support each other,” and he observes this is “not a recipe for either drama or comedy.”
Radosh is correct, but I would go a step further because none of the characters in “Ted Lasso” are necessarily “good people.” Perhaps they’re trying to be good people, but they’re not “good people” per se. It’s a pretty crucial difference. Indeed, one of the frustrating things about being an occasional culture critic who happens to be a Christian is that every time I turn on the television and see otherwise very intelligent creative types trying to flesh out modern relationships, romantic or otherwise, it’s like putting on the glasses from “They Live.” The moral rot behind the decisions of well-meaning characters should be painfully easy to see, but no one within spitting distance of the writers’ room has any deep personal convictions about sin or transcendence.
So we get stories where there are strong moral and political judgments reserved for how corporations treat people in Africa, and meanwhile, the workaday plot mechanisms that drive the show all hover around the romantic discontent of a bunch of people sleeping around or otherwise ineptly pursuing their desires without hewing to enduring moral principles that require much in the way of sacrifice. And somehow, viewers are supposed to relate to the struggles of a bunch of characters whose unhappiness is overwhelmingly of their own making. (Note that the one squared-away family man on the show, Jeremy Swift’s Higgins, is portrayed as a bumbling fool who takes endless abuse. It’s not terribly flattering even if his character’s heart is always in the right place.)
So how are these characters supposed to navigate their conflicts in the absence of any shared understanding of capital-“T” Truth? They talk about their feelings, and with the introduction of a therapist as a major character in season two, “Ted Lasso” gleefully indulged one of the laziest and most predictable deus ex machina in TV. Have difficulty dramatically illustrating why life is hard and why self-centered pursuits aren’t the ticket to happiness modern culture says they are? Well, here comes a talky scene with Ted and a therapist so we can engage in some half-baked rationalizations of the character’s motivations that make a 30-minute comedy descend into pure cringe.
In that respect, I’d say “‘Ted Lasso’ visits White House, promotes mental health care” is just a wordier version of “jumping the shark.” Lest I sound like too much of a jerk, I concede it’s admirable to use your fame to try to draw attention to the need for more mental health resources. But as for what it means on the show itself, this mental health focus has been a cop-out to avoid the hard work of satisfying character development from the moment it was introduced. Now it’s the show’s entire identity.
Which brings us back to the show’s central character. A big part of the show’s initial appeal involved an unspoken culture clash that nobody wanted to say out loud: Ted Lasso shows up with his hick accent, and his heartland American values triumph over cynical European sophistication. That would have been an interesting angle for the show to explore, but that would have meant delving into the background of an American football coach from a small college in the Midwest, a character that if it had some relationship to reality, would have exhibited, at a minimum, some fairly explicit small-“C” conservative values.
While I can understand the show not wanting to feint at all in the direction of American culture wars, the show refuses to root Lasso’s character in any sort of broader American cultural context or values that might clash with those around him in interesting ways, let alone produce emotionally resonant moral conflicts. And so, the protagonist we’re left with after season one is a bit of a cipher and a bit of a contradiction. Ted Lasso is a hyper-accepting beta male who vacillates between being a complete goofball who can’t take anything seriously but also has panic attacks because of the pressure of the job. Anyone believe such a feckless guy would have risen out of the ranks of America’s college football’s athletic culture to coach at a high level? Me neither.
Somewhere amidst this mess of “watching good people support each other,” the only compelling character left on the show is the only one with any real transformative character arc. (Do I have to do a spoiler alert?) Nate started out as the club’s towel boy who was picked on by the players before Lasso helped him overcome his insecurity to become a brilliant assistant coach. But then Nate became the show’s ostensible villain because he got fed up with Lasso’s desire to prioritize hacky attempts at team building over winning, and he turned his back on Lasso to go coach at a hated rival club.
I rolled my eyes initially at this plot development because Nate’s heel turn was sudden and forced. However, at some point I had one of those “the Empire are the good guys” realizations. Nate is supposed to be the bad guy for wanting to, you know, actually win instead of taking a backseat in Lasso’s solipsistic trainwreck? The writers of “Ted Lasso,” because they’re so invested in the supposed goodness of their characters — and, again, the goodness of said characters is being defined by subjective therapeutic claptrap rather than achieving tangible personal and professional victories — are already hinting that Good Nate will return by the time the show mercifully ends after season three. Well, I know you’re not supposed to root for the bad guy, but at least his motivations are understandable, and as for everyone else on the show, not so much.
The only satisfying ending at this point would be to see Ted Lasso move back to Kansas to be with his kid and find his level managing a Home Depot, or some other job actually commensurate with the skills and maturity his character has actually displayed on the show. It would be nice to believe that the ridiculous and cloying antics of the character everyone came to love three years ago ultimately taught us all “how to live,” but at this point it’s pretty clear that Ted Lasso is no holy fool. He’s just an ordinary emotional idiot.