I Want To Believe in Ted Lasso.
The Apple hit is a fantasy show where the magic system is healthy masculinity and TLDR I bloody love it. [SPOILER-FREE]
“Thirty years of hurt never stopped you dreaming. It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming, football’s coming home…” -The Lightning Seeds.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Ted?” - “I do, ma’am, but more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves” -Ted Lasso.
For some people, pleasure is always suspicious. Personally, I find few things more delicious in these dark times than watching judgy fuckers try not to enjoy themselves and fail. That, in fact, is one of the best bits of the inevitable backlash to Ted Lasso, the violently wholesome Anglo-American sports comedy that just scooped up an eyewatering number of Emmies in advance of today’s season finale and is currently the biggest show on television.
Snobs hate Ted Lasso. They hate it because it’s popular, and most of them didn’t get a chance to like it before it was popular. Nor did I, as it happens, but if I had done it wouldn’t matter, because Ted Lasso is above that sort of petty point scoring. Ted Lasso is the opposite of petty. It’s a show so pure and heartfelt it’s hard to trust.
It’s hard, after decades of being flayed alive by the a culture of toxic individualism and mashed under the heel of toxic white supreemacist heteropatriarchy, to trust a story where authority is basically benign, where gentle people make relentless dad-jokes and toss out such cloyingly cross-stitchable slogans as “I believe in hope. I believe in believe”.
It’s hard to trust this sort of thing. It’s hard to trust a show so transparently about masculinity, where spoilt young men are taught safer, kinder ways of relating to the world and its disappointments and it all somehow works. For those of us who came by our hypervigilance honestly, Ted Lasso is hard to watch with your back to the door.
I’m old enough to have learned what happens when you underestimate human cruelty, even in fiction. I’m old enough to know that when damaged men let you into their private emotional worlds they often lock you in and expect you to start scrubbing.
But there’s no trick here. Astonishingly enough, Ted Lasso just loves you and wants you to be happy. (Coincidentally, I feel the same about you lot, which is why this review is as near-as-dangit spoiler free.)
For anyone who hasn’t taken the plunge, Ted Lasso is a story about an American football coach who finds himself training a British premier league soccer club despite knowing nothing about the game or the culture and eventually wins everyone over by being an unlikely human firehose of gosh-darn down-home Yankee optimism. In the process, a whole lot of cranky alpha males get to learn the power of self-belief and teamwork in blizzard of folksy wordplay and feel-good football-themed shenanigans. That’s what Ted Lasso is, technically speaking, about.
But it’s actually about more than that. It’s far more than a football show, although Ted Lasso effectively explains the rules of the game most of the world calls football for the benefit of American cultural hegemonists and those of us who spent their schooldays wearing black and dodging sports. But what Ted Lasso is really about is belief, and hope, and other painfully embarrassing things that only Americans get away with addressing directly, like the possible upsides of not being an absolute prick all of the time.
The British can’t stand sincerity, and Americans are suspicious of silliness, and in both cases a basic fear of being vulnerable sours our cultural narrative and severs us from our better selves. Ted Lasso is a transatlantic show which manages to be both profoundly sincere and deeply silly, and to some critics its success is final proof of the theory that irony died decades ago somewhere in the wreckage of the World Trade Centre.
In fact, irony is not dead. It’s just gone to a better place. Witness, for instance, how many millions of pundits, critics, snobs, anxious fans and joyless critics are frantically anticipating the failure of Ted Lasso, a show which is literally about how winning isn’t everything.
On that basis alone, you’d think the Left would love this show. But some people just hate fun.
Welcome to a world where humiliation and failure are borne with dignity and homemade biscuits and where everyone is redeemable, except Anthony Head, who spends two villainous seasons chomping on the scenery like a happy drunk at Nandos in his best role since Rocky Horror.
Ted Lasso is not a subtle show. It doesn’t have to be. Its very clever writing team are clearly capable of both subtlety and snark and choose neither, which is the screenwriter equivalent of big dick energy. If I want subtle, exquisite characterisation and deft, agonising exploration of everything precious and depraved about the human soul- wait, no, I do want that, but not from this show. That’s what Succession is for. If I want my heart broken into tiny sparkling shards watching brilliant doomed young men fed into the meat grinder of 20th-century masculinity, I will watch It’s A Sin, and in fact I did, and it was brilliant and awful and excoriating, and that’s why ‘which of these TV shows is best?’ is a pointless game and a rather pathetic way to engage with culture. Not everything is a competition, Jamie.
By contrast, my favourite Greyhound spends his intro episode so high off his own affectless glee that he just charges around the set yelling his own name. He has no character development, and he doesn’t need any, because he’s already perfect. I would die for Danny Rojas. No notes.
There have been a lot of excellent essays about why Ted Lasso is childish and problematic and cringey, and most of them are well-considered and all of them miss the point more than I miss Livejournal. The second season of Ted Lasso has not been as rapturously received as the first, and the Trent Crimms of this world have all sorts of explanaions for that, from the plotting to the problem of putting enough conflict into a show where the first rule of fight club is no fight club. But I know a little something about how television gets written, and here’s what I think happened.
What happened was that Apple had a new streaming service which not enough people were signing up to and found themselves with an huge hit on their hands, and everyone was extremely anxious to make sure that whatever it was that people liked so much about the first season was delivered again, precisely, in the middle of a pandemic. I’m sure that at some point in history good, raw art has been made by comittee, but I can only imagine how many rounds of notes and revisions the poor writers and producers had to go through before those in charge were convinced that this season was as bankably wholesome as the first. The fact that it only feels slightly strained is pretty damn impressive, if you ask me -but then I’m one of those disgusting perverts who takes a simple joy in watching others try their best.
So of course I love this show. There’s a blanditudinous triumph to it, like an army marching to a last stand under a ‘live, laugh, love’ banner. Sam Kriss, who hates the show with equal enthusiasm, points out that Ted Lasso is more or less who George W Bush thought he was in 2001 when he set out to bring democracy to the world with cluster bombs, and that’s not wrong, but it’s also not the point. It’s not the point because in the real world, almost every man who isn’t the president of a heavily armed superpower gets punished for that sort of vulnerability, let alone the audacity of hope.
NO MORE HEROES
Ted Lasso is a prison-break drama. Modern masculinity is the prison. It explicitly pits patriarchy against an ideal of fatherhood, and it does so with all the subtlety of a drag king telling dad jokes. ‘I love a locker room,' says Ted, in the pilot, before handing out little totems of plastic soldiers in said locker room, where most of the show's significant emotional turns take place.
This is a show about men. It is a show about men stumbling towards emotional literacy, starring the theatrically moustached white wizard of substitute fatherhood, and it has been suggested that such testosterone-heavy programming might be superfluous. Surely we don’t need any more white male role models? This is a reasonable critique with which I deeply disagree. There are, in fact, howling gaps in the omnipresent story of male heroism, and one of those gaps is the absence of hero’s journeys which don’t involve thundering triumph or bloody revenge. In a world that creates far more losers than winners and refuses to teach its sons how to fail, a lot of men and boys fall into that gap.
In fact, the entire reason I started watching Ted Lasso was how much the show matters to some of the men I know who struggle to locate themselves in a culture which offers few stories of masculinity they can ethically inhabit. In Ted Lasso’s world, unlike in ours, kindness and self-sacrifice are rewarded, albeit with more hearty teachable moments than actual trophies. In Ted Lasso’s world, it’s safe for men to be vulnerable. Ted Lasso’s world is not the real world, any more than that show you like with the dragons. But then, it never pretended to be.
Ted Lasso invites us into a fantasy universe where the magic system is healthy masculinity and Ted himself is Jesus Dad Wizard shooting out lightning bolts of self-confidence and community spirit. Women and queer people get just as much out of this sort of fantasy, especially in that rare thing, a story about men that actually likes women, respects female agency, and passes the Bechdel test like a…like a penalty kick? Sorry, I’m not good at football metaphors. But nor is Ted, so that’s okay.
Ted Lasso is wish fulfillment fantasy, and part of that, at least for its queer and female viewers, is getting to watch a story where men can escape the straitjacket of masculinity on their own. They don’t need us to undo the buttons for them while dodging the swinging fists. It's refreshing, given that the actual planet is still held hostage to men’s refusal to deal with their emotions like grown ups.
It has been correctly observed that Ted Lasso would not work if the title character weren't a cis, straight, white man. That's true. That's because it's a story about the heroism of non-dominance. About refusing the thuggish, bullying logic of masculine authority and choosing gentleness, silliness and patience. Only Ted gets to do that, because he’s already in charge. Rebecca doesn't get to do that, because she's a woman with power who has to fight for respect. Nate doesn't get to do that, because he's a short, socially awkward South Asian man who starts the show as the in-house whipping boy. Nate’s arc this season goes to a very dark place, and I’m crossing every free digit that the Ted Lasso team manages to land it, but if they don’t, I know they tried, and that’s what counts.
The idea that giving power to one good man is all it takes to obviate the worst parts of human nature is essentially a conservative fantasy, just as it is in the Bible. And, in fact, Ted Lasso is a curiously devotional show, even though it never directly invokes Jesus- and a good job, too, as he would have to compete with Ted, another grinning mystic with strange facial hair and daddy issues who spends two seasons teaching twelve lost young men to love one another and believe in miracles.
Part of the problem is that the entertainment industry is still hopped up on the hero’s journey as the solid, central, single formula for bankable storytelling, so every story has to boil down to one key individual struggling alone against the odds, defeating enemies, and achieving his or very occasionally her ultimate victory. Rugged individualism is rarely allowed to fail, these days, in a culture that refuses to imagine failure as anything other than tragic.
But we can only become what we can imagine. I like to imagine, as nightmare white patriarchy come to terms with its own failures, that men might learn ways of handling failure other than violence. The most important part of Ted Lasso, to me, is the way it refuses to give us the easy win. Instead, in Season 1, the show tosses away the rulebook on plucky underdog sport movies right before the final victory, choosing to put the team through continued disappointment and defeat. This is refreshing, given that it's a show written and set between two nations who have proven themselves entirely prepared to set fire to the future if they don’t get to own it.
Back in the real world, when the actual England football team decided to follow their American counterparts in taking a political stand against racism and child poverty, Tory politicians joined the rancorous public in mocking them for trying. When then-22 year old footballer Marcus Rashford used his celebrity to petition the conservative government to provide basic meals for the growing number of kids living below the poverty line who relied on free school lunches before the COVID lockdowns, he made an enemy of the Prime Minister. And then, this summer, Rashford and the rest of the England team made it to the European Cup final.
There is nothing so plaintive and precious as England fans watching nations we used to own steamroller us at a sport we invented to stop public schoolboys masturbating - a practice that still continues all the way up to ten Downing Street. England fans are used to disappointment, to the chaotic energy of hope against hope. The literal best song ever written about sports is about this. But something was different this time. After a grueling post-Brexit pandemic year, Britain was full of angry, bitter, grieving people unprepared for any more humiliation on the world stage.
The England squad fought hard and lost, and because this is not Ted Lasso, the players had to face down an an ugly avalanche of threats and racist slurs, as a nation of sore losers lunged for self-indulgent sadism to muffle the brief, terrible memory of hope. A mural of Rashford was vandalized in Manchester. I like to believe my country used to be better than this. I like to believe that when football finally comes home it’ll recognize the place. But then again, I like to believe lots of silly things.
The Ted Lasso backlash has some of that same mood of anticipatory cruelty. There is almost no way that this show can live up to the expectations that have been set for it, and that can feel unbearable. Ted Lasso is relentlessly sincere, even though it’s alive to the risks of putting yourself out there in public. Most of our main characters live in the public eye and have to contend with loss of face, reputation all damage and humiliation, and the squalid, perfectly- rendered ritual bullying of the British tabloid press. Our title character spends half the pilot trending on Twitter in the worst possible way. The writers of this show know the risks of being vulnerable in public. In today’s season final- sorry, finale- Ted has just been ritually humiliated in the British press for the personal vulnerabilities he’s spent twenty episodes encouraging everyone around him to be open about.
This show knows the stakes. It knows it could all go horribly wrong. It asks us to believe anyway.
It’s always safer to be a wrecker, just like it’s safer not to make art, or personal progress, or a difference in the world. If you try, you might fail, and the prospect of yet more failure feels utterly overwhelming for almost everyone these days. Ted Lasso invites us into a magical fantasy world where failure is a safe option, and that might be utterly delusional, but it’s the sort of delusion that might get some of us through this godawful decade intact.
This is why the British can’t stand sincerity, why Americans are suspicious of silliness - because sometimes it hurts to believe. It hurts to believe even though human beings need to believe stupid, unlikely, beautiful things. We need grand, ridiculous narratives to make meaning out of the random savagery of existence, and we need reasons to hold on and to hold on to each other.
It hurts to watch decent people try their best and fail. But it’s essential pain, the sort of pain you get when you learn to use muscles you need to keep you standing- pain we’re going to have to get used to in the coming years, because the alternative is not trying at all.
Sometimes it’s easier to be a critic than a fan. Fandom isn’t easy, or simple, or the same as self-delusion. It takes a lot of intellectual dexterity these days just to come up with reasons to get out of bed, let alone walk forward into a frightening world where the future feels like a great dark graveyard of possibility.
But the human race isn’t a race you run to win. Ted Lasso believes in believe. Well, in a culture that worships snark and sneers at enthusiasm, where every conflict is war and every fight is to the death, I am a fan of fans.
And I’m a fan of this show. In last season’s finale, I was rooting for the Richmond team to beat the odds. In this season’s finale I’m rooting just as hard for the writers, for the actors, for the directors and producers and every other creative professional involved in this show to somehow triumph in the face of the combined might of corporate interference, studio notes and vertigo-inducing public expectation that this show will somehow save mankind from itself. I’m rooting for that, even though I know I might get hurt, and if I do -
Well, I’ll just be a goldfish.
That one’s for the fans.
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