Lots of minor SPOILERS ahead. This piece is definitely for people who've watched both seasons.
It’s hard for me to write about Ted Lasso. So many others have delivered skillfully written think pieces detailing what’s right or wrong about the show, like how it serves as a balm for what’s ailing a COVID-ravaged and divided America, or how it reinforces the power of Ted’s white male privilege and fails to amplify LGBTQIA voices. Such articles make my words feel small and redundant, especially since I first tuned in to the show for less lofty reasons. The idea of a folksy yet clueless American football coach rubbing up against English football culture just seemed like a good laugh. I remembered the original promos Jason Sudeikis shot for NBC when they inked the US broadcast rights to the English Premier League in 2013. The mammoth potential to send up two very different but equally ridiculous versions of “football” culture stayed with Sudeikis and seemed too good to not flesh out.
Those absurd moments hilariously came to pass in the show, but as the cartoon characters filling the screen began brushing up against one another, it was clear that the creatives behind the scenes were reaching for something deeper: so much so that I’ve found myself laughing, crying, and even thinking during its run right along with millions of others. Ted’s earnest sincerity won the hearts and minds of the show’s other characters while being an aspirational touchstone during the COVID shitstorm that was America in 2020. Every time he brought Rebecca biscuits (cookies in ‘Murica), shrugged off being a “wanker,” and called on his players to “believe” he was reinforcing the ideals we wanted to see in the world -- from our leaders, even -- but that were absent in the moment. But where does a protagonist go when his antagonists are no longer antagonistic? Ted succeeded in helping other characters become better people just as he was falling apart.
This is where the show lives for me, and probably for a lot of people. Though finally copped to in full in “No Weddings and a Funeral” (Episode 10, Season 2), Ted Lasso has always been about parents and children. Initially, what we see regarding parenting in Ted Lasso is just thumbnails, not photographs, done quickly to capture and convey an impression in service of conflict and character development -- like when Ted calls home in the pilot episode. The brief exchange Ted shares with his wife and son lets us know that part of Ted’s journey will involve balancing long-distance fatherhood against an incredibly demanding job he is hilariously unqualified for while trying to save a marriage he doesn’t want to end. The poignancy of this scene is brilliantly soundtracked against “Opus 26” by Dustin O’Halloran, but I might have played Jamie T’s version of The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young.” The opening line -- “God, what a mess…” seems to capture the gravity of the moment and the premise of the show, while also solidly connecting to issues Ted has with his father.
Later we learn that Ted’s tenacious optimism stems from losing his father to depression and suicide. He is determined not to quit -- on his players, his marriage, his friends, or his life. Like Ted, many of the characters can trace their struggles to the universal need to define ourselves against and apart from our parents, or to be the people they hope us to become. Getting star player Jamie Tartt (“doo-dooo-do-do-do-doo”) to play the sort of football that puts the team’s success ahead of his own glory is another arc directly related to fatherhood. Jamie’s father James stands as Dick Dastardly to Ted’s Peter Perfect, and in coaching Jamie to “make the extra pass” Ted is really asking Jamie to disobey his father. Owner Rebecca Whelton’s need to tear down the team her ex-husband loves so much can be seen not only as an attack against his unfaithfulness, but also against her father’s infidelity and her mother’s acceptance of it. Nate Shelley’s rise from bullied kitman to a (somewhat) confident coach only happens when he ditches the humble, unassuming persona crafted by his parents and bluntly calls out Richmond players. He completes his arc towards villainy in this season's finale when he confronts Ted and rejects the Lasso Way. He moves on to Rupert as a role model because for Nate, "the ones who love us least are the ones we die to please." Sam Obisanya puts his role on the team in jeopardy after a text from his father pointing out a sponsor’s role in Nigerian corruption and environmental exploitation inspires Sam to protest. Roy Kent, whose signature lines are “Fuuuuuuck” and a cross between a grunt and a growl, lovingly stands as a surrogate father to his niece Phoebe. He comes to realize that his professional life after football carries little meaning unless he is passing his knowledge of the game on to younger players. It is Roy, Jamie’s foil in season 1, who steps in to comfort Jamie when Tartt’s anger at his father boils over into violence. In all of these examples the show is not just comedically sending up sports culture, but critically inverting the masculine expectations of that culture; and, by extension, fatherhood itself.
All of us need a Doctor Sharon to help us unravel our issues with our parents. My dad was absent, but in his absence he was no less an influence. Much of my adolescence saw me reaching to connect with possible stand-ins -- something grown-up Nate seems to be doing -- as I longed for the attention my dad took from me when I was six. When I became a father myself, I worked to be the inverse of the negative he left undeveloped in my psyche; even as my marriage fell apart shortly after my daughter was born. I also tried to run, but the weight of my father’s absence in my life kept me nearer to my daughter. It becomes clear that Ted’s choice to leave his family back in the States is motivated by personal reasons as much as professional ones, and that choice gives the show’s absurd premise unexpected sharpness that cuts deeper as the show progresses. Like the Greyhounds, Ted’s role as “husband” is relegated by the first season’s end, and while he tearfully resigns as husband just as he later offers to resign as coach, we know Ted will never step away from being Henry’s dad. This is the better path he plots for his son, and the example he sets for his players and for the very real men watching the show. In loving Michelle enough to let her go, Ted shows Henry that true love is selfless. Even if it hurts. It stands in sharp contrast to James Tartt and to every real story about a controlling male athlete or abusive male coach.
It also serves to drive the show’s acclaim and criticism, at least to some extent. "Carol of the Bells," the controversial Christmas episode works because it shows people being buoyed by the loving presence of others -- something we all long for even if we may be too jaded to admit it. Ted’s disconsolation at being away from his son on Christmas is eased by Rebecca as they play Secret Santa for children in need. Roy and Keely help Phoebe in an arc that sees them help her and a bully at school be better. Meanwhile a stream of Richmond players make their way to the Higgins family home. It is the bumbling Leslie Higgins, who is probably less qualified for his role as Director of Football Operations than Ted is as manager, who represents the show’s best father figure. No doubt, even his seemingly well-adjusted children are destined to struggle against their perceptions of their parents’ expectations or shortcomings. It’s the caring community, so sweetly presented to those kids in this episode -- and the hope that comes with it -- that Ted Lasso fans love. In this sense, criticism of the show’s lack of representation is valid. I have faith that Ted Lasso will introduce a character who is a member of the LGBTQIA community, though some suspect they already have (#ColinHughes). When that happens it will be controversial and polarizing, and perfect in its imperfection. It’s a challenge to give ANY sitcom character three-dimensions, and the male sports world is not known to be the most welcoming of places. The basic premise of professional athletics is rooted in the traditional, often toxic norms of fathering and fostering masculinity (to the detriment of female athletes whose growing success challenges those norms). While AFC Richmond is a fictional pro sports team, it is still a product of this reality (which Nate embraces in Vaderesque fashion). It's Ted Lasso's inversion of those ideals that I stay tethered to and want to see in my world. All of us -- even people who don’t like the show -- are Richmond til we die, the sons of no one, and we all want a seat at that surfboard.