This article contains spoilers through the Season 2 finale of Ted Lasso.
In an episode halfway through the new season of Ted Lasso, Apple’s sweet and strange series about an optimistic American coach thrown into the cesspool of British soccer, the three AFC Richmond fans who compose the show’s dim-witted Greek chorus get ready to watch the FA Cup quarterfinal in a pub. “I swear, if we actually win this match, I will burn this pub to the ground,” one boasts. The landlady fixes her gaze on him. “I will … knock over a chair,” he counters. She raises an eyebrow. He grimaces, deflated. “I will channel my raging enthusiasm into ways to help my community.” The landlady smiles at this reluctant display of personal growth and gets back to pouring pints.
Moments like this might have been what the Peabody Awards had in mind earlier this year when they honored Ted Lasso for “offering the perfect counter to the enduring prevalence of toxic masculinity.” Heavy expectations have thus been placed on the shoulders of a show whose main character (played winningly by Jason Sudeikis) is essentially a Labrador retriever with a mustache. And so the backlash, and the counter-backlash, to a show that won acclaim for simply being nice was probably inevitable. “Ted Lasso Can’t Save Us,” The New Yorker argued. The series, other writers said, isn’t doing enough to further conversations about sex and power in the workplace, or “heal the trauma of patriarchy.” In an incisive piece for Time, the TV critic Judy Berman observed how Ted’s cartoonish qualities, his unrecognizability as a real human being, are part and parcel with his seeming “so deliberately constructed to teach other adult men how to behave in the world.” Expectations for what this comedy can do have become so disproportionately high that Ted can’t merely be an entertaining character, or even a likable one. He has to be plausible, too, or our only icons of “inspirational” masculinity would be Joe Rogan, Ice-T, and Dr. Rick from the Progressive ads.
What’s undeniable is that, structurally and stylistically, Season 2 just hasn’t been as good as the show’s first 10 episodes. Season 1 benefited from having a tangible plot arc (underdog American coach hired by Premier League team), a primary antagonist (the team’s owner, Rebecca, a heartbroken divorcée who secretly hired Ted not to save Richmond but to bury the only thing her feckless ex-husband ever truly loved), and a whole universe of skeptical naysayers to be won over by Ted’s evangelical hope for both soccer and human nature. The story, its tropes ripped wholesale from sports movies, Westerns, and even Mary Poppins (a magical outsider teaches a broken family to love one another), functioned so gorgeously that it resisted critique.
Season 2, having reformed all of its villains via Ted’s contagiously sunny disposition, had a harder time homing in on an animating tension. Without conflict, as the Daily Show writer Daniel Radosh pointed out on Twitter, a show struggles to deliver either drama or comedy. Ted Lasso has flunked at form, wildly throwing around plot points that it belabors (Rebecca’s romance with the Richmond player Sam) or never mentions again (the team’s financial woes post-relegation). Not helping matters, Apple extended the season to 12 episodes after the writers had plotted out 10, leading to two awkwardly inserted “specials”—a woeful Christmas episode and a dreamlike homage to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours—that further broke up the flow. The decision to transform Nate (Nick Mohammed), the formerly mild-mannered kit man turned assistant coach, into a gray-haired model of seething incel resentment was an obviously manufactured heel turn that negated the show’s central tenet: that Ted as a leader brings out the best in people.
But more curious are the arguments that Ted’s optimism is empty, his shtick annoying, and his philosophy fundamentally flawed—because the show occasionally seems to agree. Season 2, for all its plotting woes, engaged in a thorough deconstruction of its own hero. Ted’s singular characteristic, his folksy goodness, is revealed to be not an inherent quality but a deliberate defense mechanism. In the words of Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), a psychologist drafted to help the team, Ted “refuses to open up. And when he gets anywhere close to being vulnerable, he fires off a zinger or some obscure reference to something very specific to a 40-year-old white man from middle America.” The emotional arc of the season is Ted’s outright hostility to the idea of therapy, followed by an inevitable breakthrough—his admission that, when he was 16, his father died by suicide. Ted’s persistence, his BELIEVE poster, his commitment to carrying on regardless of the circumstances are exposed for what they really are: oppositional reactions to a father who Ted believes quit on his family when he shouldn’t have. With this information at hand, the Winners Never Quit, Quitters Never Win poster Ted has in his office starts to read as less inspirational and more pathological.
For a series to present its primary character as a kind of superhero whose powers are his amiability and positive thinking, only to reveal that those powers may have been an illusion and a crutch, is a fascinatingly counterintuitive thing to do. If it hasn’t quite worked, that’s because Ted remains nearly as enigmatic as he was at the start of the show. We know next to nothing about his childhood, the sports he played in college, his marriage, his interests, his hobbies. Apart from his encyclopedic knowledge of cultural references, he’s a cheerfully blank slate. What most defines him is his ability to shape other people, which is why the revelation about his father’s death didn’t feel fully conceived. Marrying the fairy-godmother role that Ted plays with a fully grounded backstory (or any kind of realism, at that) is a tricky act to balance.
And yet the fantasy of Ted Lasso—the idea that an unabashedly loving, kind, committed male role model and father figure can change the paths of the people he encounters—abides. That’s true even if Ted never manages to lead Nate, or for that matter Rebecca’s ex, Rupert (played by Anthony Head as an exemplar of casual malice), away from the dark side. One character alone can’t fully rid pop culture’s masculine paradigm of violence, cruelty, and destruction, a millennia-old model. (Although Gareth Southgate exists, so anything’s possible.) But the impact the series has had among viewers is pronounced because Ted is such a unicorn in a landscape of TV fathers and father figures who torture their children, murder their mistresses, cheat with interns, or fail their family altogether. The very quality that makes Ted Lasso the character and Ted Lasso the show feel so distinctive—their rareness—underlines how necessary they are.