Throw a virtual rock, and you’ll find someone acknowledging that 2020 has been a particularly awful year. From the extreme intensity of the neverending American presidential election to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a roller-coaster whose riders are people who never agreed to ride a roller-coaster to begin with. For anyone with enough streaming options over the last year, it’s been easier than ever to binge plenty of dark dramas, epic films, and more. But because 2020 has been so miserable, you may have wanted a pop-culture option that would serve as a balm against the horrors. You may wish for an escape from the world.
May I introduce you to Ted Lasso?
This Apple TV+ comedy feels like an ultra-charged combination of the unlikeliest of sources. First, the show is based on a character who appeared in NBC Sports interstitials for the Premier League a few years ago, and said character could easily present himself as a stereotypical Ugly American in the premise. Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) is an American college football coach whose success with a Midwestern team has inspired the owner of an English football club to hire him as their new coach…keeping in mind that American football is not the same as English football. Ted uproots himself to the UK in the hopes of coaching his new team to victory, despite knowing almost literally nothing about English football.
Just like the eponymous coach, Ted Lasso could have easily stumbled right out of the gate. Sudeikis’ earlier work, both on Saturday Night Live and in movies like We’re The Millers, felt like a 21st-century callback to the smugness of Chevy Chase. And we’ve all seen at least five too many inspirational sports movies to know the familiar beats of how the underdog team comes back to win big. Perhaps because the show is as much an underdog as the AFC Richmond team that Ted coaches, or perhaps because the timing was just grimly perfect, Ted Lasso is a triumph beyond belief. If 2020 has worn you down, Ted Lasso is the pop-culture cure for your ills. It’s an unexpectedly warm show, whose emotional depth and complexity are matched by an excellent, multi-dimensional ensemble. You can keep The Crown and The Flight Attendant and all the other streaming hits – Ted Lasso is the best TV show from 2020, period.
It’s in no small part because Sudeikis is a revelation as Ted. He cuts an instantly goofy figure as the mustachioed coach, but Sudeikis’ performance is also appropriately self-aware. Ted’s life doesn’t quite match his ebullient and upbeat exterior – midway through the season, the show explores how it is that a married man and father decides to head overseas (by himself, please note) to coach a team full of strangers in a sport he doesn’t know. As the show explores Ted’s emotional trauma, Sudeikis finds new ways to reveal himself as a comic talent well beyond his lengthy stint on SNL.
Ted Lasso works best because it not only acknowledges some of the stereotypes inherent in its setup, but upends them. It’s not just that Ted is far from the obnoxious American he appears to be at the outset. It’s that even the show’s setup gets flipped on its ear. Ted is hired by Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddington), who’s inherited the Richmond club from her sleazy ex-husband and wishes to run it into the ground as a final middle finger to him. So while we may not fully grasp why Ted accepted the position initially, it’s immediately clear that Rebecca’s intending to create a full-on destructive state for the club by hiring such a know-nothing. A few decades ago, this wouldn’t have felt too far off from the setup of Major League, a film that gleefully demonizes its female owner. But Rebecca’s own emotional scars are explored with care and thought; Waddington’s performance is rich beyond the notion of playing an icy blonde. Before the end of the season, we watch Rebecca belt out “Let It Go” from Frozen at karaoke, a moving display of how much she’s grown to care for the team that she wanted to sabotage mere weeks ago.
Though Sudeikis is the most recognizable presence on Ted Lasso, its true secret weapon is the primarily English ensemble of actors who fill out the rest of the cast, coupled with the writing staff’s willingness to create multi-faceted characters for each of them to play. Over just 10 episodes, Ted Lasso offers rich character arcs for its entire regular cast, also including the arrogant upstart athlete Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), the aging star Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), and Jamie’s model girlfriend Keeley Jones (Juno Temple). The pilot episode presents these characters all as archetypes, from the ice-queen owner to the vapid influencer to the grouchy old-dog footballer. The subsequent first-season episodes all carefully and expertly break those archetypes down and reveal the humans underneath them.
The show and its title character share one key quality: they grow on you. In an early episode, Rebecca conspires to have a critical journalist tail Ted for a day for a profile that she presumes will be nasty and spiteful, helping create a negative atmosphere for Richmond. But Trent Crimm (from The Independent, as he superciliously enjoys reminding people) is won over marginally by Ted’s seemingly off-kilter approach. Though Ted says he’s not interested in winning and losing, what becomes clear is that his holistic coaching approach – assigning Roy to read A Wrinkle in Time so that he can more effectively act like the team leader thanks to his experience in the sport, for example – is surprisingly effective.
Ted Lasso’s first season was made before the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, so it would have been this show one way or the other. And there’s likely something to be said for the possibility that some of the popular culture we consume this year – specifically in film and television – may seem either better or worse simply because of the very strange circumstances in which we all find ourselves. Would Ted Lasso feel as profound or unexpectedly emotional or moving if we weren’t watching it in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when America itself is splitting further apart at the seams?
On one hand, it’s impossible to say for sure. (That’s a question we really can only answer with a lot of hindsight, far from the pandemic and sadly, we’re not there yet.) On the other, it’s worth noting that Ted Lasso feels very much of a piece with another thoroughly English piece of culture from the last few years: Paddington 2 (as well as its 2014 predecessor). Both of these inexplicable delights center on a figure who is essentially able to win over a harsh and unfeeling world by willing that world to acknowledge the value of decency and kindness.
While Ted Lasso can’t claim to be nearly as English as the stories of the very good bear Paddington, there is a very similar winsome quality to the Apple TV+ comedy. Ted wins over the Richmond club because he’s kind and he knows that everyone he encounters can be kind as well. Not everyone he encounters is kind, of course; one of the standout scenes from this season is when Ted faces off with Rebecca’s ex-husband Rupert at a local pub, and reveals himself to be a tough enough darts player to win a costly bet that ensures he can continue coaching the team as he wishes. Ted’s own secret weapon is that he can be tough when he needs to be.
So just as Paddington 2 was the best, warmest, funniest, and most charming way to soothe yourself from the harshness of the real world in 2018 (as written about on this very site), Ted Lasso is the same kind of pop-culture heartwarmer in 2020. Apple TV+ hasn’t had a terribly impressive slate of either original films or television shows – though this writer would heartily recommend the year’s best animated film, Wolfwalkers, which you can stream right now with an Apple TV+ subscription – but they were wise to renew this incredible show for two more seasons. Even if future seasons can’t quite measure up, we have the wonderful first season of Ted Lasso now and if you’re feeling miserable about the state of the world, you should give yourself a brief respite and sink into this show like you would a refreshing bath. You need to relax. Let Ted Lasso calm your nerves.
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