Wholesomeness Has Never Been Ted Lasso's Strongest Feature
Sports comedy Ted Lasso found an audience for being the most wholesome show around, but that has never been what makes it so good.
Over the last year, AppleTV+ breakout hit Ted Lasso has become something of a conversational hot topic, depending on which circles of the internet you run in. It wouldn't be fair to say that the sports comedy, which became a beacon of hope and wholesomeness after its 2020 premiere, has become "controversial" in its second season, but words like "backlash" have been used to describe the reaction fans and critics alike have had to the show's second season. There are plenty of reasons for this--we've even chronicled a few of them here, as well as some rebuttals--but, now that the show's second season has wrapped, conversation around the show hasn't gotten any less divisive.
Season 2 saw a major heel turn for one of Season 1's protagonists. Relationship drama bubbles up in Season 1's break-away favorite couple. A number of central characters reveal corners of their personalities and their lives that are anything but wholesome. Now, as the dust settles after the season finale, some viewers are grappling with some pretty big feelings that run the whole spectrum of emotion from anxiety to betrayal. All told, it's a pretty far cry from the warm-and-fuzzy buzzwords used to sell Season 1.
But here's the thing: Maybe those buzzwords themselves were wrong, and maybe they have been wrong from the start.
From here on out, we're getting into major Ted Lasso spoilers for both Season 1 and Season 2. You have been warned.
It's not hard to see how we got there. First there's the character Ted Lasso (Jason Sudekis), who genuinely is the exact sort of person you'd want to describe as "wholesome" if you met him in real life. His very first moments in the very first episode feature a viral video of him doing a goofy locker room dance and then being kind to service employees. We need to love him from the second we meet him or whole parts of the show just won't work. But we also have to consider the timing of the release. There's absolutely no way AppleTV+ could have foreseen the social and cultural climate that we'd all experience during 2020, nor could they have known just how important streaming escapism and positivity could become to so many people. It's certainly not lack of media literacy or even any sort of deliberate trick played by the show that earned this reputation, just a strange case of being the exact right thing at the exact right time.
It's actually not that hard to view the entirety of Season 1 through this rosy lens, even when the show takes steps to challenge it. As we meet Ted and his friends at AFC Richmond, everyone more-or-less slots into the sort of character tropes we expect to see in a sports show. There's underdog kit man Nate, who fumbles and stutters his way through introductions and slowly comes into his own with Ted's encouragement; vengeful club owner Rebecca who's desire to sabotage her philandering ex-husband blinds her to everyone and everything; supermodel Keeley who has to figure out that maybe there's more to dating than just picking the person who's the most fun; pushover Higgins who has to learn how to say no. And then there are the players themselves, gruff Roy Kent who must learn to let go; vapid Jamie Tartt who has to overcome his ego, unsure Sam Obisanya who has to figure out how to assert himself on the team.
They are, all of them, archetypes you've undoubtedly seen before in some form or another. In sports fiction, we're primed to them--after all, these stories are never actually about the sport itself, right? That's kind of the whole point. So it comes as no surprise when Jamie gets his come-to-Jesus moment upon the arrival of a newer, nicer player who is better than him, or when Roy has a quiet, tender breakdown in the locker room after playing his final game. We're not surprised when Rebecca finally gives up her quest for revenge or when Keeley sees the light and leaves Jamie. Okay, maybe Higgins growing a truly terrible mustache was a bit of a surprise, but him finally standing up to Rebecca certainly wasn't.
But all throughout these moments--even the ones where you could have spotted the eventual outcome from miles away--Ted Lasso was quietly working to subvert its own tropes. So quietly, in fact, that it's really no wonder it took an entire second season for the clues to start lining up.
From the jump, though we like Ted, we're constantly subjected to people who do not like him, and, like dominos, he wins them over one by one. Some are easier than others--reporter Trent Crimm (The Independent) goes from arrogant and down right mean to a full-on supporter within a single episode, Sam accepts a birthday gift from Ted early on without cynicism or second guessing. Keeley's in his corner from the start. Others are less so--Roy takes practically the entire season to break, Jamie barely gets a chance to, Higgins lets himself be bossed around by Rebecca for weeks before he finally puts his foot down. And these moments are in themselves tiny narrative arcs--and, what's more, they're arcs we feel good about. Ted is our focal hero, we like him, and we want other people to like him.
But cracks start to show in this formula in unexpected places--Ted's folksy, meandering kindness isn't always portrayed as the correct move. Sometimes this is a gag--frequently it's a gag, even, in the first season--for instance, he gives people toy soldiers as a gesture, giving one to Sam who returns it as he "doesn't have the same fondness for the American military" as Ted does, you know, because of Imperialism. It's a punchline here, but other times, it isn't. Ted frequently says things like "it ain't about winning or losing," to which, in a moment of rare direct conflict, his assistant coach Beard finally explodes, "damn it, it is!" Later, we learn that Ted is going through a divorce. He doesn't want to sign the papers to send back to his wife. He's experiencing panic attacks and grappling with a tremendous amount of anger, stemming from that fact.
While all of these things are very human--and none of them are enough on their own to make us not want to root for him--they do, upon deeper inspection, call into question some of his judgement. Judgement that is further strained in Season 2 when we learn that he's not only resistant, he's flat out hostile to the idea of seeking therapy. It would seem the man who only ever wants to be everyone's best friend, to unselfishly help, who can shrug off any kind of humiliation and claims to want to better both himself and those around him, isn't all that interested in stepping out of his comfort zone. His judgement may actually just be plain bad sometimes, in fact. He's not the Disney-flavored coach who always knows the right thing to say--or at the very least the right joke to crack at his own expense. He's struggling.
It's a realization that creeps up slowly. The same thing happens for Nate, who spent Season 1 as the sort of loveable bullied kid who finally got his big break. But even then, signs of Nate's deeply cruel and resentful side were obvious from the start--we're just too primed to excuse it because we know the archetype Nate represents and the way his story is supposed to go. When he rounds on Rebecca, calling her a "shrew" for a slight he completely concocted in his head, it's played off and shuffled immediately into a triumphant moment. When he lays into the players in the style of a pre-game "roast" it's funny and cathartic. By Season 2, however, these traits haven't gone anywhere--the only thing that's changed about Nate is the amount of power he has, and the way he expects to be treated as a result of that power.
Other characters experience similar journeys in kind. Keeley and Roy's fairytale romance begins to show some very real strain at the end of Season 2, but we know from Season 1 that neither of them have ever been in a relationship like this and both of them struggle with communicating feelings in a way the other can understand. Rebecca finds herself in a relationship with Sam that could so easily tip over into an unbalanced power dynamic, the very thing she struggled with in her divorce. Jamie's forced to find humility but it's not a relationship with Ted that does it for him, it's mending bridges with Roy--something he learns after Ted repeatedly tries and fails to help Jamie actually reach his full potential. We could have guessed this would happen--we've seen how Jamie responds to father-figures and how Ted struggled to reach him before, but that's not what we're primed to expect in this type of show.
Even Trent Crimm experiences his own sort of mini-arc, despite having very little to do in Season 2, where he reveals to Ted that his anonymous source for a disparaging article was Nate, a move that any professional journalist would know is both a massive conflict of interest and a huge ethical lapse. Trent subsequently quits journalism altogether, has a (somewhat awkward) conversation with Ted about it, and then, bizarrely, is shown having locked himself out of his own car. None of this is inline with the Trent Crimm we expect from our assumptions in Season 1--once a coach or a player wins someone in the press over, they should have them in their pocket from then on--but then again, what did we really know about Crimm to begin with? Is it possible that he just wasn't a very good journalist from day one--and that his snide, mean-spirited disapproval of Ted at first blush was a bigger clue than we gave any thought to?
Maybe. And maybe that's been the point all along.
The fact is, though some of its moves have been subtle, Ted Lasso's "wholesomeness" has never been it's strongest asset or its most utilized storytelling technique. Throughout both seasons, Coach Beard can be spotted reading a book called "Inverting The Pyramid," which just so happens to be the title of the Season 2 finale. But what may slip by unnoticed is the fact that this has become a sort of stealthy motif for most of the characters--every character is experiencing some sort of inversion, not in their literal success or the genre tropes they represent but of expectations we have for them, for better or for worse. Even those who end the season in a position that is ostensibly much better than where they started got there by ducking and weaving around a traditional path--much like the way Ted himself ended up at Richmond in the first place.
After all, if a show about an American college football coach taking a job about a sport he knows nothing about in a country he's never been to can't tell a story about defying the assumptions of the people (or the viewers) around you, what can?
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