I was slightly late to the “Ted Lasso” party. I did not get Apple TV+ until just a few weeks ago, when I bought a new IPad Pro to replace my 12-year-old MacBook Pro, which is sadly on its last legs. The Apple streaming service came free for a year with the IPad purchase— boo ya! I was perhaps inordinately excited because I am a huge fan of soccer, especially the English Premier League. The Premier League is arguably the best soccer league in the world, which is saying something because there are professional soccer leagues literally all over the world. It is, after all, the world’s most popular sport.
So, I felt I needed to watch “Ted Lasso” to stay true to myself, and internally validate my soccer fandom. As it turned out, I was rewarded for this service to my inner soccer nerd with easily the best television show I watched all year. “Ted Lasso” is a genuine stadium-sized ray of light in a world (and media-verse) all-too-often filled these days with cynical darkness.
The premise of the show is simple and, frankly, somewhat silly: the eponymous main character, played to absolute pitch-perfection by Jason Sudeikis, is hired by a struggling (and fictitious) Premier League football club to be its head coach (see kids, soccer is called football in…well, just about everywhere except the United States). The humor starts with the fact that Lasso is an American college football coach who does not know the first thing about soccer, let alone English Premier League soccer. The team owner brings him on for her own selfish — and destructive — reasons.
Now, that premise alone would be capable of providing us with some moderate laughs, primarily playing on the fish-out-of-water trope of an American coach in English football hilariously and ineptly misunderstanding the sport and engaging in the resulting hijinks. To be honest, that is kind of all that I expected when I started it, but man oh man, was I joyously surprised by what I encountered instead.
The first thing to note is that the show is not a soccer show, even though, yes, it takes place in and around a professional soccer team. Nor is the show a sports show, even though, yes, almost all of its characters are directly involved in a professional sport. And to be honest, the show is not really even a straight comedy series, even though, yes, it is as funny as hell. I mean, it has Jason Sudeikis in it, so you know it is at least hitting a baseline of solid humor.
No, “Ted Lasso” is none of those things — at its core— even though it is all of those things to a certain degree. See, at its heart, “Ted Lasso” is a show about heart. By heart, I mean it is about humanity and empathy, about how we treat each other in good and bad times, about what is important (and what is not) in life, about redemption, and about striving to be our best selves, in winning and losing. It is about the heart of a struggling husband, and of an absent father. It is about the heart of a doubting wife, and a scorned ex-wife. It is about the heart of a not-very-good soccer team, a seemingly unqualified head coach, the team’s aging star, and his rival, the team’s rising star. It is also about the heart of an aging soccer groupie, a loyal assistant coach, a towel boy with aspirations, and the collective heart of a town that both loves and hates its soccer team.
Now, all of that sounds kind of heavy, right? I mean, just reading back over the above, it sounds like some sappy sports melodrama. But see, that is the beauty of the show. It touches on all of those themes — in 30-minute episodes, to boot — with the almost magically-perfect mixture of humor, light touch, genuine compassion, and insightful, hilarious dialogue. It is also blessedly free of condescending Hollywood-style simplicity and resolution, and never dwells for too long on any one of these human micro-dramas.
Nor does the show ever really seem to ask (or care) that the viewer agrees with the choices the characters make – or the resulting consequences. Instead, the writers create possibly the world’s most genuinely decent and good person, in the form of Lasso himself, and then they show us how someone like that might handle an often shitty world. They also give him a surrounding cast that is fantastically quirky and jaded, as if they all know that they could never be as fundamentally decent as Lasso, but that they will just have to strive to absorb some of the decency shining off of him.
Lasso’s assistant coach — who pretty much goes by the names “coach” and “beard” throughout the show’s first season — is one of the best sidekicks I have seen since Chewbacca in the original Star Wars trilogy. He is taciturn, odd, generally gruff and usually unspeaking, and is just along for the ride with Lasso in the new coaching adventure. But from the get go, you know that he genuinely loves his boss, and would do anything for him, including chewing his ass when it becomes required. He is a gloriously-written curmudgeon with a penchant for chess and occasionally biting asses for money.
The beauty of “Ted Lasso” — the sublime core principle of the show — is that how Lasso handles what is thrown at him in that often shitty world does not always work out for him in the way he (or the viewers) hoped it would. His goodness does not equal some karmic free pass, by a long shot. That is probably the most significant theme of the show: things do not always work out, and that is just the way it is. How you respond to that fact — and how Lasso does in the show — is where true, glorious, beautiful humanity is found. That is where the show ascends from really good to absolutely great. That is where the heart of the show beats loud and pure.