‘Ted Lasso’ is celebrated as TV’s nicest show. That’s exactly what’s holding it back
Season 2 of Apple’s beloved comedy “Ted Lasso” should change its name to reflect the real star of the show: “Roy Kent.”
The series, about an optimistic American football coach (played by Jason Sudeikis) hired to run a jaded British soccer team, won hearts, minds and 20 Emmy nominations with its first season, which premiered in 2020. Lasso’s aw-shucks helpfulness, folksy aphorisms — “innit neat?” — and homemade cookies landed like warm hugs during the darkest days of the pandemic and the ugliest of election years. He made viewers feel good in a grown-up, Mister Rogers kind of way, encouraging them to “believe” and showing that’s it’s OK for good guys to finish last as long as they make and help friends along the way.
But well into Season 2, Lasso’s sunny disposition and defiantly goofy platitudes feel like comedy mush next to the blistering cynicism of the sneering, foul-mouthed Kent (Brett Goldstein). His brutal honesty is refreshing in an ice-bath sort of way next to Lasso’s polite-at-all-costs offensive. The grizzled veteran’s advice to cut the bulls— and wake the f— up feels far more relevant now — while we try to climb out of a pandemic lengthened by anti-vaxxer falsehoods and watch the indictments of pro-Trump dead-enders for storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 — than Lasso’s amorphous “Believe.”
This year, the best thing about the warmhearted “Ted Lasso” is its hardest-to-love character.
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The ex-Chelsea legend and former captain of Lasso’s AFC Richmond is a sparking live wire in a season that’s otherwise short on the dramatic tension since Lasso cleaned up most the conflicts that gave him purpose last season. The team’s owner, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), who initially hired the clueless Lasso to sabotage the team, is now rooting for her boys to win. Her nemesis, piggish ex-husband and former club owner Rupert (Anthony Head), is out of the picture. The players are mostly pulling in the same direction, even preening bad boy Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster).
Lasso’s biggest challenge is no longer spreading goodwill among embittered football fans, but whether he should or should not seek counseling from the club’s new therapist, Dr. Sharon (Sarah Niles). There’s only so much gee whiz, okey dokey, go get ‘em tiger babble one can weather per episode now that it’s been stripped of purpose and reduced to window dressing.
But when Kent begrudgingly tries his hand at a new career as a television sports pundit, there’s not a “Believe” sign in sight — literally or metaphorically. After he marches into the studio to the tune of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” (“I am an antichrist / And I am an anarchist”), his first response to his fellow panelists’ empty prattle is a grunt. When asked how he thought his former team played during a recent match, he doesn’t Lasso his words, either: “They played like s—,” he says. “They were too timid. They were too respectful. ... That’s no excuse to play like you’re afraid of ‘em. You could see it in their faces. Abject terror. Like children waiting in line for the handsy Father Christmas. Have some f— pride in your shirt or don’t f— wear it.” Amen and effin’ A.
The series needs an edge. Even on arrival, praised to the hilt for its “niceness,” the show felt like a throwback, a white savior story tucked inside a little-team-that-could tale, wrapped in a fish-out-of-water comedy.
Until the appearance of Dr. Sharon (a cipher) all of the main characters were white save for Nate (Nick Mohammed), the kit man-turned-coach. And despite a minor expansion here or there in Season 2, most of the the players from Africa and Latin America still don’t have backstories, though Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernández) does have an exaggerated accent. That cartoonish representation —"Football is life! Ayayayay!” — doesn’t feel new either.
Even the two leading women, who’ve had much fuller arcs, are based on retro female tropes: the scorned divorcée seeking revenge on her ex for cheating on her with a younger woman and the tart/groupie with the heart of gold (Juno Temple). That social media didn’t pore over its shortcomings as it does most TV shows suggests that timing is everything. (So are race and gender.)
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All “Ted Lasso” has had to do to set itself apart from the sardonic fare that folks are seemingly desperate to avoid right now was to be nice — a pretty low bar, if we’re being honest. That a white, straight man who’s not a jerk is seen as a groundbreaking awards darling says more about TV’s excess of white, straight, male antiheroes than it does “Ted Lasso.”
Imagine if Issa Rae or Mindy Kaling had pitched a show about a nice lady who teaches lost souls how to be better people by simply being polite and courteous to them. That sort of passivity, and earning applause for it, is a privilege of those already in power.
Of all the incredible television that has aired since the start of the pandemic — “I May Destroy You”, “Insecure,” “Ramy,” “Never Have I Ever” “PEN15,” “Better Things,” all series, notably, created by women and/or people of color — it’s not terribly surprising that the light and easy “Ted Lasso” resonated when it did. But that might also say something about why, one year later, it feels increasingly out of step, save for its last character with edge, Roy Kent.
Where: Apple TV+
When: Any time, new episodes released on Fridays
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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