Ted Lasso absolutely should not work on paper, and I was not interested.
The name of the show is not particularly appealing and told me nothing at all about its premise. All the marketing indicated that it is a show based on English football (soccer, to all you Americans), a sport I haven’t feigned interest in since an Englishman broke up with me circa 2002. Jason Sudeikis is always interesting, but his presence alone isn’t enough to get me to watch something. Like most other AppleTV+ shows, I really hadn’t even heard that much about it.
Ted’s first incarnation graced our screens in 2013 as a promotional short advertising England’s Premier League football starring Jason Sudeikis as the new coach of the Tottenham Hot Spurs. The catch? He’s only been an American football coach, not a soccer coach, and the jokes center around his lack of knowledge of the sport, as well as his stereotypically American demeanor. This Lasso had little backstory, but it was a funny sketch, and created enough buzz for them to bring him back for a second short promo video in 2014.
So when my husband said he was going to start watching it while doing dishes, I didn’t mind that he did so without me. “Oh, let me know if it’s any good.” Soon after, he made a rare pronouncement: “You absolutely have to watch this. You’re going to love it.”Ted Lasso is striking, in this particular time, because it shines a light into our own darkness.
I have since watched each of its 10 episodes at least 3 times. And anyone who follows me on social media has heard me singing Ted Lasso’s praises. But it’s still a tough sell in a Tweet, because, like Ted himself, the show is much, much more than the sum of its parts.
This time, Ted has come from coaching American football at Wichita State to be the head coach of AFC Richmond, a fictional Premier League football team, based in a tight-knit London community. While this seems implausible (because it is), we quickly find that the owner has hidden reasons for hiring him, and Ted has his own reasons for leaving his beloved wife and son behind to take on this new position. Both of these situations, along with those of the supporting characters, set up a show with personal depth and meaning that is unexpected in light of the previous short films, and its sitcom marketing.
What makes Ted truly great as a character is that he not only chooses to see the best in people, but that he also actively works to help them become better. Ted is not optimistic for the sake of optimism, but for the sake of the other. He strategically works to elevate others, sometimes to his own detriment. Ted graciously assumes everyone has a story, a reason why they are the way they are, and sets out to discover what makes them tick. He goes on a mission to find out how best to reach a difficult and cocky player. He sees how the playing history of a formerly great (now mediocre) player affects who he is now and how he treats others. When another player is underperforming, he recognizes in him the longing for home (which Ted relates to himself) and sets about finding a way to encourage him, bringing along others to assist. His recognition of the power of their stories to influence their lives and actions is evidenced further in his gift to each player: a book, chosen for each of them individually, which he hopes will give them greater clarity into their own stories. In short, Ted approaches everyone with the mentality of the coach that everyone hopes for and few have experienced (either inside or outside of sports).
With one villainous exception, Ted Lasso is full of supporting characters that you want to root for—whether you like them or not—because Ted himself is rooting for them. From a neighborhood girl whose name we never know to the owner of the team, we see Ted regularly interacting with people with the primary intent of building them up, valuing them and what they bring to each interaction, and learning from them, all while acknowledging his own lack and their strengths. Throughout the show, Ted makes it clear that he loves coaching, and we realize that Ted loves coaching because he has found the thing that pays him for doing what he truly loves to do.
And of course, his building up of others is infectious. At the start of the season, we see him asking his team members to all pitch in for a teammate’s birthday, which some begrudgingly do. By the end of the season, we see how Ted’s coaching (in all forms of the word) has not only changed the lives of those on and surrounding the team, but how those people in turn have encouraged and elevated others around them.
Lest you be worried, Ted is also not a perfect person, nor is Ted Lasso a perfect show. Ted himself makes some poor choices, and we find that not everyone appreciates his optimism or a coaching style that puts more emphasis on player development than winning matches. Some of what looks like selflessness can even be rooted in his own selfishness and faults. For this, I am grateful, because a perfect Ted would make for a very boring show. We need an imperfect Ted, because we need our main character to grow alongside those he is encouraging to grow. We need an imperfect Ted because we ourselves are not perfect.
Like any first season show, Ted Lasso (the show) struggles in a few minor ways. At points, the passage of time seems unclear (especially to those who may not be familiar with the length of the Premier League season), and its TV-MA rating (largely for extensive “fruity” language) could be a turn off for some viewers. But like Ted (the character), it feels like the writers are kind to their characters. Most other truly great TV comedies (for example, The Office, Park and Recreation, and The Good Place) have taken at least a season or two to find their footing. Lasso is truly one of the rarest of shows that feels excellent right out of the gate. The writing may not be perfect, and some episodes shine brighter than others, but it’s terribly close, with character arcs that invite immediate investment, with excellent payoff. (Without including spoilers here, I found myself far more emotional when viewing the final match of the season than I ever have been for a real game of sports ball, simply because I was more invested in the people involved.) Sudeikis plays Ted with a range we haven’t seen from him before, balancing physical comedy and broader jokes in some scenes with a tenderness, and a kindness, and even fear and heartbreak in other more emotional scenes. Each supporting character (many of which are also writers and producers) is expertly cast, bringing diversity of race, gender, culture, and attitude with simply exceptional acting. The show gets a huge emotional boost from the excellent soundtrack and score by Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons.
In the real world, it feels difficult to find examples of people looking for the best in others, encouraging one another, or hoping well. Culturally, we are trained daily by the liturgies of social media to seek out the latest clamor, brace ourselves for the worst, and call out each mistake as we see them. Negativity bias pulls us strongly to find the worst in others, in the news, sometimes even in ourselves. We are trading in comebacks and put-downs, swimming in a culture of cleverness, assumptions, and despair. It’s exhausting. We too easily believe, like the fans of AFC Richmond, that “it’s the hope that kills you.”
Ted Lasso is striking, in this particular time, because it shines a light into our own darkness. For those of us who are not natural optimists, who tell ourselves that we do not have the “gift of encouragement,” or perhaps even sinfully run toward cutting down others in the name of “speaking truth,” Ted offers the bright alternative of what we are called to be: life-givers, who love well, and hope well.
So how do we love when we are tired? How do we hope for others to change when it seems hopeless, and our culture tells us negativity wins? We can’t, at least not on our own. Ted’s attitude, optimism, and encouragement are aspirational, but are also carefully written and acted, doled out in 10 30-minute episodes. If in Ted we see something that feels unattainable, it’s because that’s true: we simply cannot attain it—at least, not on our own.
We see over and over again in Scripture the call to love well, with intention and purpose. Hebrews 10:24–25 calls us to consider how to stir one another to love and good works—a call that assumes thoughtfulness and work in our actions of love. Romans 15 leaves little room for the excuses of calling out the failures of others, but instead tells us that we should “bear with the failings of the weak,” pleasing our neighbor for his good, to build him up. There are no other caveats to who we should do this for aside from our weak neighbor—and who among us hasn’t been at many times the weak neighbor ourselves, and benefited from others building us up?
Thankfully, we are not left to do this work on our own. The giving of life, the loving well and hoping well will feel impossible without the work of the Spirit and the outside of the community of the local church. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7) because God himself is love and has endured all things on our behalf. The call to encouragement and exhortation in the letters of Paul to the churches all assume his readers are doing the encouraging and building up of each other in the context of the local church community. To attempt this hard work without these is a futile and exhausting effort. But with the Spirit and our church families and the example of Christ, we can, with joy, “not grow weary of doing good” (Gal. 6:9).
And, while we do, we can feel encouraged by watching the results of Ted’s hard work in the love of others. In real life, this work is longer than 10 weeks or a football season. It is harder than a simple conversation that fixes an argument or confronts deceit. It needs the fuel of grace and prayer and of being a part of the team of the church. It is a years-long, life-long, gritty work that sometimes does not neatly resolve like it might in Ted Lasso. But Ted reminds us that the work is good, and the efforts are worth it, and others can grow and shine brighter because of it.
So love and encourage and hope boldly. Ted Lasso is rooting for you.