Ted Lasso has virtually everything going against it. Especially in terms of getting specifically me, Cat Valente, to give it a chance.
But I really, really, really want you to give it a chance if you haven’t. So I’m gonna try to do this without major spoilers beyond the premise of the show.
First of all, the marketing team should all be given a serious, yet inspiring and oddly healing trip to the shed out back. It looked awful in the ads, trailers, basically anything meant to tempt anyone to give this show the time of day. It looks corporate and manufactured and offputting. The first season montages had a bizarre fixation on falling-down slapstick comedy, which makes virtually no appearance in the show itself. The lines they choose to highlight are very…ba-bum-tiss borscht belt comedy. It’s obviously a sports show, about a sport that most Americans, even and perhaps especially American sports fans, aggressively do not give one solitary, socially-distanced shit about, to a kind of over-the-top level in which not giving a shit about soccer is sort of part of their fan and political persona. I don’t know man, it’s a weird country. The point is, you would never guess what Ted Lasso is really like from the marketing, inasmuch as they did any marketing at all before it started winning All the Awards and everyone started trying to reverse engineer that shortbread recipe.
They never even bothered to throw a “from the Creator of Scrubs and Spin City” on there, and yet, this is a Bill Lawrence joint.
But that’s not all. This show that is my whole heart and I’ve watched through five times and counting? Was originally a series of goddamned commercials advertising ESPN getting the rights to air British football in America. A corporate IP development I could not possibly care less about even if I put all my cares in a fetching box and launched it out of a fucking cannon into the actual sun, and a comedy format that has, oh let’s be generous and say BLOODY NEVER resulted in a full-length show of any quality whatsoever.
Then there’s Jason Sudekis. By far and away the most common reaction to my wild-eyed begging to get others to watch this show I swear it’s not what it looks like please-oh-please has been “Jason Sudekis? Is playing a nice guy?” I honestly don’t quite know what it is about Sudekis that he’s sort of assumed to be kind of a douche. I had that impression, too, all the way back in the SNL days. I don’t know why. He co-wrote this thing. In the middle of his divorce. all I could do in the middle of my divorce was lie in bed and pretend I didn’t exist. I don’t believe any actual douche could lie this good. And the character is certainly a departure for him—though it would be for anyone, really. It’s also career-defining. I think Jason Sudekis’s reputation is going to drastically change after this show. He’s gonna be Ted Lasso for the rest of his mortal life. But right now, between season one and two, he still seems like an odd choice to a lot of people. And he’s the only real star. Everyone else is British, Nigerian, or otherwise unknown in America beyond “the shame lady from Game of Thrones” or “the little sister in Atonement.”
I suspect Ted Lasso’s accent, name, and mustache put people off a lot, too. It’s HYPER American, and I’m not a big fan of my country’s behavior right now. It’s also a big accent, a choice that could have gone badly very easily. Those of us who love and need this show are often the kind of people who tense up hearing a white cis man with that accent, because we are so accustomed to cruelty toward us following that voice. It’s not fair, but it’s true. And it feeds right into the impression the ads give: that this is a show about a cringey dumb hick American being cringey and dumb and in England HA HA HE DOESN’T LIKE TEA AND LOOKS THE WRONG WAY WHEN CROSSING THE ROAD AMAZING DID YOU KNOW THEY CALL ELEVATORS LIFTS OH THE COMEDY!
And that just doesn’t sound all that fun at the twilight of the Trump administration, when this premiered. The show looks like it will be mean—it’s not clear to whom, but definitely to someone. And yet it’s the least mean show I’ve ever seen in my life. The marketing choices were BAFFLING I tell you. WHY.
But the biggest obstacle is unfortunately the most obvious: Nobody watches AppleTV+. (Wholly as an aside, how can each unique and precious streaming service have discovered an entirely different way to make their UI utter trash?) Which is too bad, because as far as quality over quantity, AppleTV+ probably has every other service beat. Apple sucks, but hardly more than the other massive media companies. I haven’t seen one bad show yet, and three that are absolutely top-tier in the current media climate (Ted Lasso, For All Mankind, and Servant). It helps somewhat that Apple is handing out free YEAR LONG trials like candy, more or less with any other Apple purchase, but I’ve still had to share my password with 90% of the people I’ve managed to convince to give Ted a shot.
The fact that it has managed to overcome all that should tell you how special this show is. If it were on Netflix or NBC or HBO, I don’t think you would have heard a word about any other comedy this year. Instead, it’s had to claw its way into the conversation virtually by word of mouth alone.
All that is simply to express to you how truly special and wonderful Ted Lasso is. It should have failed. It hasn’t. And even if every episode is garbage from here on out, it still won’t have failed, because Season One is quite simply the most perfect first season of televised comedy since The Good Place, and honestly, there’s not a lot of competition for slot #3.
I literally have my sixth watchthrough on right now in the background as I write this. That is not a typo. And the sixth won’t be the final before season two comes out in July.
I 1000% did not want to watch it when I first heard about it. For all these reasons. It practically says THIS IS NOT FOR YOU, CAT on the tin. In fall 2020 I’d be fucked if I was going to watch American Asshole Goes to Ye Kindly England: Sports Edition. And I love sports movies. I don’t care even a little about sports, but I love sports movies. All the passion and angst of actually following a team, but I’m out in two hours and my team usually wins. It’s perfect.
One night I was sad and lonely because it was 2020 and that was (kinda still is) the motto of life during the pandemic. SAD AND LONELY, GET YOUR SAD AND LONELY RIGHT HERE! But on that fateful night, I wanted to put something on to distract me and was like grumble grumble guess I should use that free year of Apple TV whatever the crap it’s called ugh fine it looks colorful I’ll try that Ted thing I liked Jason Sudekis on SNL.
I hit play on Season One Episode One.
At 6:09 in, I said out loud: Oh NO.
Six minutes and nine seconds in is where Ted Lasso leans over his airline seat and cheekily tells Coach Beard: If we see each other in our dreams, let's goof around a little bit, pretend like we don't know each other.
And Coach Beard replies: You got it, stranger.
Listen, show. I don’t know if you know, but there’s a pandemic, and I am at the end of every emotional rope in the Ropes R Us Warehouse and Logistics Center, where I have been peeing in bottles to avoid taking lunch breaks from fear and misery for like a year at this point. I DO NOT HAVE THE CAPACITY TO BE BROKEN DOWN AND REBUILT WHOLE BY A PROFOUNDLY SINCERE SHOW ABOUT HUMAN CONNECTION RIGHT NOW, OKAY? HOW VERY DARE YOU. WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A FUNNY ABOUT SOCCER, YOU DICK. FUNNY SOCCER ISN’T ALLOWED TO MAKE ME CRY SIX MINUTES AND NINE SECONDS IN, WHO GAVE YOU THE RIGHT?
I was sold, at 6:09. I would be watching whatever this show wanted to put in front of me, without pause, until the end. I watched it all in one night. It hurt and I cried. I cried because I miss people so bad. I miss so many people so bad. And I miss believing the world could be like it is in Ted Lasso, that it could contain such people, such forgiveness, such grace, such kindness, such patience, without feeling creepy or weird or cringey or cheesy. Just pure. And hilarious. I just forgot, over the course of 2020, and 2019, and 2018, and 2017, and 2016, that any of us, at any time, could simply choose to be like Ted, and everything would change. Like a miracle. I forgot humans could be like that.
But I suppose more specifically, piercingly specifically, I forgot Americans could be like that.
I was living in a hellscape where people refused to wear a simple piece of cloth in order to prevent others from literally dying because fuck them and fuck me too, fuck tiny children and beloved grandmothers, fuck it all, not one feeling beyond selfishness allowed. And here’s fucking Ted Lasso, being beautiful and heartbreaking and impossible and NOBODY ASKED YOU TO GO THAT HARD, SHOW. WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW, HUH?
What are we supposed to do with this? I feel like a fucking orphan in Oliver Twist, holding up my bowl with empty, aching eyes and begging for just a little more of that kindness, starving for it, my bones crying out for the warmth of those emotional calories. It’s such a powerful dumbass feeling a big stupid tear is rolling down my big stupid cheek as I type this. FUCK YOU SHOW, I WAS DOING FINE PROTECTIVELY NOT FEELING ANYTHING.
The whole process of watching this show is everyone in the show's process upon meeting Ted. First you think this guy is a wanker, and you're just waiting for the garbage shoe to drop and to find out it's all a ruse or a trick or an act because no one is like that, no one talks to people like that, and then we all slowly realize that no, this guy is serious, there is no other shoe because all our hearts are vulnerably barefoot and we were just pretending to have shoes at all, somehow this person is not fucking with us at all and it's terrifying.
Ted Lasso is like if Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross, Coach Taylor, Leslie Knope, and David Tennant’s Doctor all got together and had a big strange baby. It is a completely formulaic premise that turns around and refuses to follow the formula. It’s wholesome without being boring, kind without being trite, smart without being pedantic, so loving it’ll take your breath away, and gut-bustingly funny. Scripts so tight and hilarious that even one guy just saying his name and the paper he works for is not only a meme but makes you smile each and every time.
Do you know how fucking hard that is to pull off?
It is so much easier to be funny while being cynical. Everyone knows life sucks, it’s easy to get them onside by accessing that universal experience. To sneer and punch down and stand back from the world wrapped up in a sense of coolness that comes at the expense of everyone else and call that edgy. It is so much harder to stay funny while you’re being kind. In a show for adults. For cynical adults who are having a thoroughly rubbish time of it—and that was everyone in 2020. It’s nearly impossible, honestly. Even Parks and Rec constantly shit down Jerry’s neck. The Good Place was full of demons to balance out the philosophy with that kind of humor.
Ted Lasso is just a guy. It’s not the afterlife, it’s not in space, it’s not in a medieval morality play, it’s not even something as high-concept as the fantasy life of JD in Scrubs. He’s just a guy, who has problems, not insignificant ones, but also maybe the secret of life, moving through a traditional comedy plot—in fact, the actual plot of Major League—and handling it like comedy characters never do because it’s easier to do a madcap plot when everyone is being stupid and not communicating and running on the rails of their particular archetypal tropes.
The premise is Major League meets An American Werewolf in London, I suppose. Ted is a small time American football coach hired to lead a British football team, despite knowing nothing at all about the game, by a recently and brutally divorced rich bitchy lady named Rebecca, who actually just wants to drive the team into the ground as revenge against her ex.
And that’s all fine. But the reason this show has managed to overcome so damn many hurdles to be seen by more than ten people is that we all think we know how that story goes. And this story never once goes the way you think it will. the way we’ve been trained to think it will by decades of these kinds of plots. Every time you think you have a handle on how characters will behave and react, Ted Lasso jacknifes sideways and runs in another direction. Without being meta or wink-wink postmodern, it absolutely refuses to let your assumptions about these people become their narratives.
Rebecca is the most perfect example of this. She says, carefully, dancing around spoilers. I rolled my eyes when she first revealed her evil plan, because I’ve just seen so many female characters like this, consumed over their obsession with a man, abusing power (because ladies shouldn’t have it, don’t you know) and being a dick to everyone for no particular reason but that she can, and everyone has a good two minutes of hate for women over 40 who are all, naturally, evil as darkness pie.
But I love Rebecca. Rebecca and Keeley are my romantic endgame, and I kind of think they may actually go there. I love her so much I’ve watched the actress who plays her, Hannah Waddingham (could there be a more English name), in shakey-cam West End shows for hours now. In a very real way the show is about Rebecca, as much as it’s about Ted, and the script never allows her to be the archetype she’s modeled after. She’s a real person in deep pain, and we are given space to understand and sympathize with her just as she’s given space to grow and change. She is given dignity few other stories would ever allow her character type. Everyone on Ted Lasso is given dignity, even the antagonists.
And I swear, it’s still funny as fuck.
Now, it is a Bill Lawrence show, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that there’s a beautiful model of positive masculinity here and a big emphasis on positive, fruitful, nurturing friendships between men. BIG JD and Turk energy all over the place. But I gotta be honest, Scrubs and nearly all other Bill Lawrence gigs I’ve seen have some real down-deep problems extending that high energy unselfconscious camaraderie and sense of joy in life and delight in companionship to the women in the building.
Lawrence’s women are funny, sometimes, yes, but they very often play the killjoy of the plot in one way or another. One is usually a complete sociopath (and she’s the most fun). They whine about babies and marriage a lot because LADIES, AM I RIGHT? Friendships between women apart from the men they are attached to via employment or romance are never the focus, if they exist at all, and mostly the women are in competition, lonely, and fairly often annoyed with or by each other. Just sticking to Scrubs, Elliot is only friends with Carla because JD and Turk are friends. Carla doesn’t even like her for several seasons. Jordan and Julie are both defined by their relationships to Dr. Cox and literally just vanish when he isn’t actively sleeping with one of them. And quite frankly, there aren’t many more female characters that aren’t one-shots. It’s always been a blind spot while the male friendships are so amazing, so refreshing, so rarely found anywhere else.
So imagine my shock at how female friendships are handled on Ted Lasso.
They’re like the friendships I have in real life with the women who are closest to me. Keeley, Rebecca, and Sassy are freaking DELIGHTFUL. And that thing that comedy writers seem to be compelled by their DNA to do, where any group of women is catty and competitive with each other, is just gone. Leaving support and jokes and holding each other accountable but never wavering once a connection is made. Big love. Big grace. All of it. It would have been so easy to either let these characters be that weird Sorkin-esque caricature of a strong working woman (who always turns out to be such a goddamned basket case you could hide her on Easter) or to just not include them at all. It’s a story about a UK football team. They really barely had to have any women in the plot at all and only humorless feminists like me would have squawked about it. And it’s not like most sports stories do much with The Girlfriend, The Boss Bitch, the Bartender, the Ex-Wife, or The Boss’s BFF. But each one of these characters is a jewel allowed to rise to their own particular occasions. I fully expect even Bex (at the moment a trophy wife to the villain) to have a plot next season where we come to understand her vivid inner life.
It’s as refreshing as a spring wind, is what it is.
And then there’s Ted himself. Who again, could have so easily been a mess of stereotypes and try-hard Hallmark card leavings. Yeah, he doesn’t like tea. But it’s a couple of (quite good) lines and then we’re off to the next thing. He doesn’t know about football—but the joke is never that he’s incompetent, which is perhaps the most surprising thing of all. He clearly has a tag-team going with his assistant coach who handles strategy while he handles the team’s mental state. When they lose it’s not because Ted is a bad coach, and when they win it’s not necessarily that he’s brilliant. He’s trying, all the time, and the story skips over a lot of obvious laughs and narratives to arrive at something quite apart from any other comedic lead I’ve ever seen.
Ted Lasso is…basically…the answer to toxic masculinity a WHOLE lot of people have been yearning for. He’s an extraordinary combination (forgive the binary) of masculine and feminine energies. He’s nurturing, caring, wise, capable—he makes Rebecca biscuits every morning just to crack her shell and genuinely cares about getting the recipe just right. He encourages everyone, starting at the surface (Higgins’ puns or Jamie’s confidence) until he can get a glimpse of something deeper to encourage. He is others-focused but devoted to his own passions. He is radically, confrontationally sincere about his own feelings, and his #1 trick is just saying what he feels flat out, without guile. He’s a football coach who loves musicals and food and people who you just wish was your dad. He gives everyone books, mostly science fiction books, specifically tailored to who they are in order to teach them how to evolve without losing that sense of self (I AM TELLING YOU, THIS SHOW).
And he's contagious. Perhaps I don't quite buy that all these cynical British folk would so easily get on board the Radically Sharing Our Feelings Train, but it somehow works. He’s who I want my son to be. Hell, he’s who I want to be. I’ll wear the mustache if I gotta, I don’t care.
He’s also surprisingly progressive (he instantly understands why a Nigerian player isn’t wild about his Army metaphors and changes tactics without rancor) for, you know…an American football coach from Kansas City. One of my favorite moments is when he meets Rebecca, calls her Miss Welton, and she says “Call me Rebecca, Miss Welton was my father.” Without missing a beat, Ted replies: “If that’s a joke, I love it. If not, I cannot wait to unpack that with you.”
I actually think Ted’s progressive jokes are rather desperately important, as far as TV is every desperately important. There’s this crushing, dominant idea that real comedy, edgy comedy, modern, cutting-edge comedy is by nature regressive, offensive, in your face, dirty, snickering about women and minorities and LGBTQ folk because if those pious SJWs don’t like it, it must be hysterical. So to speak. That if you’re not offending people, you’re not doing it right. And the intersection of comedy and sports is where this attitude is likely to be EXTREMELY firmly rooted and taken for granted.
But here it’s just…gone. There are zero jokes made at the expense of…really anyone except Jamie and Roy, who both need to experience not being bowed down to in order to become who they need to be. Ted doesn’t even think before deftly acknowledging that Rebecca is funny, but on the off chance she actually has a trans parent, he’s excited and interested to discuss her experience with her without judgment. And yet nothing is lost in terms of fun or laughs, because in every scene, Ted lets everyone be in on the joke with him instead of being a target.
Art can be like this. Art can be like this and nothing is lost. There's still plenty of edge to go around.
But for all that, Ted is not Mr. Rogers. He can and does have a respectful one-night stand, then talks to his friends about it (in a literal actual LOCKER ROOM) without being terrible to her or himself. He swears, he has desires, he fucks up and gets called on it by the people closest to him. He has some mental health issues it is VANISHINGLY rare to see a cishet white male deal openly with on a hit TV show. He is everyone’s dad all the time but not present to raise his own son. And his wife left him, for reasons we don’t yet understand.
He is a deep and well-rounded, complex character whose default setting is simply kind. I wish we could all be like that. I wish we could all have been raised by people like that and be in relationships with people like that, I wish every day we could recognize the tropes of the story we’re telling about ourselves and go another way like that. It’s a jaw-dropping model of interpersonal relations that pretty much everyone needs to see. Especially now. Especially America. Because we can be like that. We can. I swear.
And now I’m gonna say something REAL weird.
This is the only thing in my life that has made me, even briefly, proud to be American.
Because when we’re not busy being utter cock-ups with no sense of decorum or duty or self-awareness, Ted is the best of us as Trump was the worst. Offputtingly honest, unsettlingly cheerful, way too open about our feelings, incorrigible over-sharers, affectionate, gregarious, loud and shameless, flawed, absurdly unrealistically optimistic, caring, generous, well-meaning in our blundering and far too blunt in our speech. Hugs too much when a handshake will do, way too confident that we can make the best of any situation, unwilling to follow tradition, as enthusiastic as a golden retriever on our first day of puppy school. And all that can get twisted and go bad. But it doesn’t have to. It doesn’t.
Sometimes you can put a stupid piece of yellow printer paper that says BELIEVE on it over the door and really mean it, really fucking mean it, even though its crooked and everyone hates it being there because it tricks them into thinking for just a second that inspirational cliches might actually have truth buried down there in them, and none of us can afford to believe that anymore. It hurts too much.
And by god, we needed that. After the last four years, we needed to see a kind of masculinity that wasn’t the bloviating, ignorant, cruel and entitled dictator-in-training that Trump convinced so many they should model in their personal lives. I don’t think this show would hit so hard if it wasn’t 2020. It premiered in August, months before the election, and I think if we hadn’t been so browbeaten and broken down by everything that’s happened, Ted Lasso wouldn’t seem so much like a rope flung down the psychic hole we’ve so doggedly dug for ourselves in this country.
And honestly, if it wasn’t the very late 2010s, I don’t think this show would have gotten made at all. Detached irony or edgy offensiveness have ruled TV comedy for a few decades now. Caring about things too much is lame. So is making anybody examine themselves or the system. Gross. This was embraced up and down the comedic spectrum from the open mic to the sitcom. If you’re a white dude, because withholding attention and enthusiasm toward something represented a kind of power. If you’re not, because staying emotionally detached protected you from a world that mostly has it out for you. And only when the news cycle was constantly dominated by an avatar of Depraved Schadenfreude 00s Reality TV Programming cramming our minds full of horror and fear and crises upon crises and the detonation of everything we thought would protect us and constant death and just plain mean heartless shit with no further veil of respectable discourse to make it ignorable, did we finally fucking change. A little. America, because of geography and history, usually mucks up other places while nothing effects the homefront, then lies to itself about how great the homefront is. But nobody could lie anymore, and the homefront was locked in and set on fire. We all have actual PTSD, some more recently acquired than others, shellshocked and mentally bulldozed and exhausted.
And there are no ironic hipsters in foxholes.
So somewhere in the mid 2010s, maybe starting with Parks & Rec’s back half, maybe not, some of us finally decided that standing back expressionlessly with cool shades on and being the wittiest bully was not the only way to get a laugh. We couldn’t stand back anymore, my generation of writers. You’re in the game or you’re not. Practice, as Ted, and Allen Iverson, would say. Life and art do not reflect each other, they create each other, in an endless serpentine loop, and the loop is only now starting to show who we aim to be on the other side of this specific trauma. Stories matter. We are the stories we tell about ourselves.
For a perfect vision of this transition, Schitt’s Creek, perhaps the most acclaimed comedy of the new century, began in that snickering, detached, schadenfreude mode in 2015, and by the time it ended in 2020 was almost impossibly loving and kind and forgiving toward all its characters, in a way that is nigh unimaginable in Season One, Episode One.
So yes, there’s been a marked shift to comedies of radical sincerity, but it’s still so new that it knocks you back when something like Ted Lasso, if you’ll forgive, takes the ball and runs with it. And all the more so in a year where we all suffered so much, the whole world, lost so much, so many, so often, when we just drifted in the grey hoping to not die. I needed something like this horribly. And I didn’t even realize what I needed. Just a shaft of joy and light and fun and humanity and meaning and connection beaming down through the window into the black box of my TV.
It’s like how we all loved cat memes for 15 years in which the joke was usually how superior cats are, how much they don’t need us, or how they only want us for our service to them. And then suddenly the world went to shit and everyone went ALL IN on dog memes about love, loyalty, goofiness, friendship, and connection.
Ted Lasso is the ultimate dog meme. Only there’s no dogs. Just good boys. And girls, too.
And the show knows what it’s about. One of the best episodes is called Make Rebecca Great Again. That shit is on purpose. A deliberate re-centering of the slogan of a truly evil political party, and an episode about healing and connecting to who you used to be before pain became the whole of your reality, an episode about humility and teamwork and sorrow and loss and taking the first steps on the road back to yourself.
And I’m crying again because the whole episode is just gently telling us that making ourselves great again doesn’t have to be this selfish, fascistic headlong dive into nihilistic hate, but just, very simply, about being healed by love.
Fuck you, show, my heart let the world convince it healing was impossible and nothing will get any better here you come with that wrapped up in a football story like a Trojan Horse of hope. The audacity.
So, look. There’s more serious shows that more directly engage with the bad out there. There’s angrier shows and more cathartic shows and more profound shows full of calls to action and the need to face not only this recent trauma but all the others, too.
But when you’re done watching those, you gotta watch this show. You just gotta. Give it six minutes and nine seconds. I’ll give you my Apple+ password. Because—and I am aware this is A LOT for a 30 minute sitcom—it’s the only recent piece of media that’s made me think there’s a way through this moral relegation we’ve chosen for ourselves, that there really could be new and better models for human behavior that people would actually want to emulate, that maybe lies and darkness and lack of connection won’t take us all, that maybe the 2030s won’t just be hell and very high water, and it hurts me so much to even allow any kind of hope, but somehow Ted Lasso convinces me to bear the hurt and just for a second…for one second…well.