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Quick TV Rec: Ted Lasso

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Many LGM commenters, I know, are fond of the sportsball. I myself am not fond of the sportsball, which is one of several reasons why I was in no rush to watch Apple TV+’s comedy Ted Lasso, in which Jason Sudeikis plays a mid-level American football coach who is hired to manage a top-tier European team who play the other football. Not only did the premise sound dumb, but it also sounded quite blokey. And yet one by one, everyone on my twitter feed seemed to fall under Ted Lasso‘s spell, making comparisons to shows like the recently-departed Schitt’s Creek. So I gave it a shot, and what do you know, everyone was right—this is truly one of the most charming and instantly winning new comedies on TV.

The thing about Ted Lasso, the show, is that your reaction to it will almost certainly be the same as the reaction the characters within the show have to Ted Lasso, the person—initial skepticism and even outright dismissal, which gives way with almost alarming speed to fondness and partisanship once the show, and the character’s, charm and openness make themselves known. The character of Ted Lasso was created by Sudeikis for a series of shorts on NBC Sports. The show ports over most of the jokes in these segments (Lasso promising that his team will give its all for “all four quarters” only to be reminded that football is played in halves, for example). But it’s clear that the show’s team (Sudeikis is credited as co-creator along with Bill Lawrence, probably best known for Scrubs) realized that this gag wouldn’t carry a series, and would even come off as mean-spirited. Instead, they’ve come up with a core concept for Ted Lasso that is, I think, unlike any other comedy currently running.

Ted Lasso’s first incarnation. Note: the show is nothing like this.

That concept is: what if you took one of the most laddish human beings in existence—a Midwestern football coach—and transported him to one of the most laddish workplaces in existence—the locker room of a premier league English football team—and then made him a person possessed of seemingly superhuman levels of empathy, emotional intelligence, and openness to new experiences? It’s not just that Ted is “woke”—we’ve seen too many comedies (and dramas) over the last few years that try to get mileage out of the fact that their middle aged, middle class, cis straight white guy protagonist is hip to social justice language and concepts, and usually they just come off as smug. But Ted is genuinely kind, friendly, and modest, to degrees that can’t help but win over the people who are, quite reasonably, skeptical of his presence in their club, slowly transforming them and it in his image.

In other words, Ted Lasso is a fantasy along the lines of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation, one that imagines how a workplace that in the real world is usually associated with toxic masculinity, dysfunctional relationships, and bullying can become a haven of kindness, and a place that celebrates the impossibly wide range of human interests and experience. The sort of place where the team captain can be spurred to take on more responsibilities as a leader by the thoughtful gift of a copy of A Wrinkle in Time, and the coaching team come together to “talk about the complex dynamics between men and women.”

It’s a premise that doesn’t always work—it is, for one thing, quite jarring that it takes nearly the entire length of the season for someone to point out to Ted that his attitude, that winning and losing aren’t important and that what matters in his job is making a connection with his players and helping to guide them on their journey into manhood, is admirable in a high school or college coach, but completely inappropriate for a professional team (for that matter, it takes Ted an inordinately long time to take in the fact that if his team loses too many games, they will be dropped out of their league). But the show has charm enough to cover for these rough spots. If kindness-based comedy is the sort of thing that appeals to you (and I recognize that some people might be a bit tired of it, given that there are few sitcoms these days that don’t at least gesture in this direction), Ted Lasso will hit you right in the heart.

None of this would work, of course, if Ted were the show’s only focal point, and Ted Lasso quickly establishes a strong supporting cast. Phil Dunster is delightfully hatable as the team’s egomaniacal young star, who needs Ted’s mentorship more than he realizes. Brendan Hunt plays Ted’s taciturn assistant coach, who clearly realizes, far better than Ted, how ridiculous their situation is, but follows him with complete loyalty. Juno Temple plays an influencer dating Dunster’s character, who forges an unexpected friendship with Ted. And Brett Goldstein is the season’s breakout character as the team’s former star, now in his final years of playing, whose grumpy exterior conceals a winning awkwardness (like Schitt’s Creek, Ted Lasso is not a laugh-out-loud kind of comedy, but the exceptions almost always involve Goldstein).

But the season’s true MVP (which we know because at one point, Ted starts chanting it at her) is Hannah Waddingham as team owner Rebecca Welton. You’ve probably seen Waddingham in any number of things, but her most memorable performance has been walking behind a naked Cersei Lannister, ringing a bell and intoning “Shame! Shame!” So if you’ve ever said to yourself “I wish I could watch Septa Unella playing a glamorous, sexy, slightly confused but also really funny premier league football club owner”, Ted Lasso is the show for you.

Rebecca initially hires Ted as an act of vengeance against her ex-husband Rupert, a hard-partying serial philanderer (Anthony Steward Head, whose post-Buffy career seems to have consisted almost entirely of playing cheerfully oily villains). She wants Ted to tank the team because it’s the only thing Rupert ever cared about, and does some pretty shady stuff to make that happen, including trading away some of Ted’s best players, or setting him up to be caught in a compromising position by papparazzi.

Of course, Rebecca, like everyone else, is won over by Ted’s kindness and generosity, and quickly regrets her lies and manipulations. But what’s most interesting about her storyline—and what makes her more than an obligatory female presence in an otherwise strongly male-dominated show—is how it ties into the show’s ideas about masculinity. Given the emphasis that Ted Lasso places on developing a kinder, more empathetic version of masculinity, it’s no great surprise when Rupert turns out to embody a particularly toxic kind of it, casually belittling and humiliating Rebecca in ways too subtle for her to be able to call out. And yet at the same time, Rupert is publicly beloved—by the team’s fans, by his and Rebecca’s former friends, and even by a mutual friend who enabled his infidelity—for being what a cool guy should be. His behavior towards Rebecca—which, we ultimately have to conclude, is no less than emotional abuse—is forgiven, because that’s what guys do. That Rebecca goes a little crazy in response to that abuse (and the way that she’s cast as the bad guy, the has-been, and the witch in the public narrative of their divorce) is, the show ultimately concludes, entirely understandable. Any other show would have made Rebecca the villain, but Ted Lasso realizes that she deserves a chance to heal and grow, and that Ted is just the right person to encourage her in that direction.

As a sitcom, Ted Lasso treads fairly familiar territory—it’s obvious, for example, that Ted and Rebecca are intended as each other’s love interests. Very little here will surprise you except, as noted, the fact that a show with such an unpromising premise will so quickly worm its way into your heart. But if you’re looking for a sweet, thoughtful, extremely well done comedy about kindness and empathy showing up in the most unexpected of places, I highly recommend Ted Lasso.

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