When a Show About Kindness Gets Darker

The hit sitcom Ted Lasso is a witty ode to empathy. Its second season remains warmhearted—and turns the show’s original thesis on its head.

A close-up shot of the actor Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso, the fictional American soccer coach
Apple TV+ / The Atlantic

This article contains spoilers for Season 2 of Ted Lasso.

This week, the richest man in the world took a jaunty tour of space, and then thanked the workers who labor in his warehouses for providing him with the opportunity. This week, the coronavirus has continued to surge in states where vaccine uptake is slow—some people echoing the idea, as one man put it this week, that the medical establishment is attempting to “shove” the vaccines “down your throat.” This week, the Olympic Games that were delayed because of that pandemic will begin in Tokyo—a testament to the miraculous capabilities of the human body that might well double as a super-spreader event. This week, too, a TV show that explores what happens when rugged individualism turns toxic begins streaming its second season.

These events should not be so connected. But the coincidence is darkly apt. Ted Lasso began as a fish-out-of-water story about an American football coach brought to the U.K. to lead a British soccer team; it expanded into a nuanced meditation on kindness, masculinity, and responsibility—and on what it means to be a good person. “Fútbol is life,” one of Ted’s players, Dani Rojas, likes to say, and Ted Lasso, over its first season, converted that slogan into its premise. Through a feel-good story about a soccer team, Ted Lasso slyly questions Americans’ abiding mythologies—about talent, about success, about the elemental relationship between the individual interest and the collective good. It is a show with a lot to say about the grim fictions at play when, say, a billionaire, enabled by a culture that treats commercial success as permission, joyrides into space while his workers fear taking bathroom breaks.

Sports, as metaphors, bring to mind notions of competition, but in the process, they bring to mind notions of fairness: In any given game or match, everyone is constrained by the same set of rules. Part of the poignancy of Ted Lasso is that it recognizes how powerful sports are as microcosms—of the world as it is and as it could be. The show’s first season embraced, with humanity and heart and excellent wordplay, the most optimistic elements of sports. Its second season, to its great credit, questions all the optimism.

“There’s a wonderful atmosphere here,” Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, a sports psychologist brought on to help the players of the fictional AFC Richmond, says of the club. “All the employees are thoughtful and kind, and they actually listen to one another.” This is not the end of her assessment, though. AFC Richmond, she also points out, is not winning any games. The team is stalled, beset by losses and draws. One by one, its players—and, finally, Ted himself—seek out the doctor’s counsel. One by one, they tacitly acknowledge that optimism, as an operating principle, can take them only so far.

Dr. Fieldstone is a fitting new foil for Ted, because she is impervious to his aggressive strain of tenderness. She is not charmed by him. She is instead mildly annoyed by him. She forces him, through that simple rejection of his schtick, to question himself. But the introduction of an actual therapist into the mix of characters in Ted’s orbit—she does professionally what Ted prides himself on doing informally—allows the show to explore the nuances of its own convictions. What does kindness look like, actually, when your financial fortunes, and those of your team, depend on you winning matches? Does optimism suggest a faith in oneself against the odds, or a delusion?

“For me,” Ted declares in the first season, “success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”  In the first season of the show, the coach’s aspirations in that regard—aspirations about the ethical dimensions of sports—were simultaneously wholesome and radical. In the second season, the show suggests that Ted’s optimism risks tipping into naïveté. The new season brings back Jamie Tartt, a player who had left Richmond in the first season and now returns to play for the team. The Jamie of the first season was an inflated ego incarnate, swaggering and preening and often buffoonish in his arrogance. He regularly wore a cap with icon printed on it. He once refused to wear a shirt to a fancy fundraising event because he wanted to share with the world the gift of his abs. During one particularly great moment, as the Richmond crowd chanted his name after a goal, Jamie, grinning, pointed to the name on the back of his jersey and said, simply, “Me!”

The conflict between Jamie and Ted in that first season established the show’s preoccupation with aggressive kindness on the one hand and aggressive self-centeredness on the other. The characters, and the ideas they represented, battled each other. Ted benched Jamie during a game—after Jamie had scored the Greyhounds’ two goals—for failing to pass the ball to his teammate. (“Wanker!” the irate crowd chanted at Ted for the decision.) Ted would keep reminding his blithely talented young player that soccer is, fundamentally, a team sport. “I think that you might be so sure that you’re one in a million,” he told Jamie, “that sometimes you forget that out there, you’re just one of 11. And if you just figure out some way to turn that me into us, whew”—he whistled—“sky’s the limit for you.”

The new season of Ted Lasso pushes back on its own protagonist. It suggests that Jamie, louchely egotistical, might have had a point. Jamie, chastened by his dismissal from Manchester City—and by a father who treats him as little more than a business prospect—has come around to Ted’s lessons about the “I” and the “we.” He might have, in fact, overlearned the lessons. He passes the ball, all the time. He supports his teammates. But he has lost his swagger. It takes Roy Kent, the retired Richmond player who knows something about the interplay between ego and sports performance, to make things plain: Jamie is a lesser player, Roy observes, because he has become such a team player.

In a show that has argued so eloquently for the benefits of teamwork, that development is a fascinating plot twist. And the second season of Ted Lasso is full of such subversions. Nate, the kit man who spent much of the first season defined by his meekness, has been promoted to assistant coach—and, making sense of his newfound fame, flirts with power trips and selfishness. Sam, a player with perhaps even more innate kindness than Ted, becomes an activist—one who ends up taking on DubaiAir, the team’s (fictional) corporate sponsor. Ted himself, in what might be the show’s most radical move, battles with his own defining optimism. He resists going to therapy. He sees Dr. Fieldstone as a threat not just because her job overlaps with his, but also because the role gives her unique insight into the limits of his positivity. The panic attacks that Ted had occasionally during Season 1 have become worse. They hint that Ted’s cheerfulness might be a kind of feint.

Ted Lasso in his office surrounded by his colleagues
Apple TV+

Ted Lasso, this time around, also weaves its considerations of individualism into its story structure. The show’s first season, though bolstered by an excellent ensemble cast, was squarely focused on Ted: his move, his job, his relationship with his estranged wife and beloved son. But Ted is now more of an ensemble player; the new episodes devote more attention to the people around him. Higgins, the team’s operations director, gets a poignantly rom-comic plot line. So do Rebecca, the team owner, and Sam. The relationship between Roy and Keeley, the model turned team-branding lead, gets challenged, complicated, and deepened. Even the relationship between Roy and his young niece, Phoebe—which served, last season, largely to emphasize the complexity of Roy’s character—gets several arcs devoted to it.

The slight shift in the show’s focus makes sense. Ted Lasso is an ode to collectivism, infused with layered references to facts of pop culture, and a deep knowledge of the real-world context in which sports operate. Soccer is an elegant metaphor for society because it lives in the collision between rugged individualism and social commitment. The ignorance that seemed to define Ted at the outset of the first season—“​​Heck, you could fill two internets with what I don’t know about football,” he said during an early press conference—was only a starting point. Ted, yes, truly did not know anything about football, but he knew a lot about the world, and the show’s sly argument is that if you know about one, you already know about the other. Fútbol is life.

Ted Lasso, as it happens, returns on the same day as the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Games. The Olympics have their own answers to the question of the individual good and the collective. For one thing, they rationalize nationalism. This time around, they have also placed many other factors—entertainment, athletic dreams, profit—before public health. But the Olympics go out of their way to humanize the athletes who compete in them—to make audiences care not just about the final tallies of gold and silver and bronze, but also about the people who do the work to win them.

The new docuseries Golden, on the NBC streaming service Peacock, is an outgrowth of that effort. The series follows several elite gymnasts as they vie to represent the United States on the women’s 2021 Olympic team, featuring interviews not just with the handful of athletes it follows, among them eventual team members Sunisa Lee and MyKayla Skinner, but also with the community of people who have made their success possible. “For us to all get there together would mean something incredible,” Lee says of the Olympics in the final episode.

Her use of us and all, after the audience has spent hours watching footage that proves how tenderly Lee’s gifts have been nurtured, reads as an argument: Talent does not emerge fully formed. Talent is conditional; it is vulnerable. And it is, above all, collective. Even an athlete whose abilities are so great that they allow her to defy gravity talks about the “us” that allows for the “me.” And yet a stubborn element of American mythology is that talent—whether athletic or artistic or entrepreneurial or another kind—is, fundamentally, individualistic. American culture, despite all the evidence to the contrary, remains obsessed with going it alone.

Golden challenges that fiction. So does Ted Lasso. The show’s latest episodes find its characters, instead, making peace with the fact that their fates are shared—on the pitch and off. Jamie finds a balance between ego and community. Ted admits that his defining selflessness, to be fully effective, requires him to take care of himself. A soccer team moves, together, down the field, passing the ball, navigating the obstacles. Their mistakes are shared, as are their victories. “Fútbol is life!” Dani Rojas shouts. For better or worse, Ted Lasso admits, he is right.