Ted Lasso and the Limits of American Optimism

On the new Culture podcast The Review, our Atlantic staff writers break down the Emmy-winning soccer sitcom and its much-discussed second season.

Ted Lasso
Getty; Charlie Le Maignon; The Atlantic

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In the first episode of The Review, our Culture staff writers David Sims, Megan Garber, and Sophie Gilbert discuss the unlikely hit that is Ted Lasso. Its Emmy-winning first season—and its smart writing and heartwarming positivity—connected with pandemic audiences. As the sitcom’s much-discussed second season complicates the message, what is it saying about the merits (and the limits) of American optimism?

This episode was produced by Kevin Townsend and edited by A.C. Valdez and Katherine Wells.

The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity:

David Sims: Apple’s soccer sitcom, Ted Lasso, is in its second season. It didn’t win all of them, but it won a bunch of Emmys. And part of why I wanted to talk about Ted Lasso—besides it being a great, very interesting show—is that it’s kind of a strange phenomenon.

We’re in a strange moment in TV. We’ve got all these new streamers, a lot of them Big Tech–backed streamers splitting up audiences. There’s not a lot of macro culture or crossover hits anymore—watercooler television that everybody watches at the same time. But Ted Lasso has been a bit of an outlier. It has resonated. It has found a real audience.

Sophie Gilbert: Yeah, it’s interesting that it’s the Apple show that seems to have caught fire. When Apple TV+ launched, The Morning Show was the show with the big fanfare. And there was See, which seemed to mostly be a joke, and Dickinson, which people really loved, which was kind of a modern-infused take on the life of the poet Emily Dickinson.

And then Ted Lasso came out of nowhere, almost. It was adapted from a 2013 NBC Sports ad in which Jason Sudeikis played an American coach who knew absolutely nothing about soccer/football but comes over to England to coach a Premier League team. And this very loose framing of an ad—surprisingly and against all the odds—turned into the heartwarming feel-good show that we have in front of us now. And I think it took off because people really loved its ethos, its optimistic sports narrative in Season 1. Jezebel had a story about how it’s the only positive example of a locker room in sports history.

Ted has an ethos he writes on a poster and sticks up above his office: It’s the word Believe. He is an optimist. He doesn’t seem to care so much about the winning and the losing side of sports. He just wants his team to be the best versions of themselves that they can be.

Sims: Ted Lasso has been a pandemic comfort watch in my household. My wife, I believe, watched the first season through three different times. It’s just something she delighted in having on in the background.

Apple TV+ had these gargantuan, expensive projects, and then kind of tucked away was this little comedy. Whereas with Season 2, now it’s like, “Ted Lasso: Has he redefined the American man?” Like, are we all nice now because of Ted?

When did you guys come around to Ted Lasso?

Megan Garber: I’d heard about the premise of the show, and the whole thing did not seem very appealing to me. It seemed like something I would actively not want to watch. I don’t really watch football in the British sense, but my partner kept saying, “I promise, just give it a chance and I think you will love it.” And that’s definitely how I came around to it.

I think there’s something quietly genius about making this show that is about team sports not about the sport at all. The sport functions in this show so much like a metaphor, and it becomes a way for the show to talk about very fundamental questions of how the individual should act with the collective; how individuality becomes either rugged or toxic and where the lines are between those two things; what we owe to each other as individuals but also as, fundamentally, teammates.

Those are the questions that undergird public policy, that undergird our economic systems, our education system—everything, really. And this show is getting at them in this very quiet, subtle, but very powerful way. The show’s optimism is connected to the idea that we can never do anything on our own. We are always going to need some kind of team.

I watched the show when the mask mandates were a big debate in American culture, and people were refusing to act in any way that might be selfless. And I think, to watch a show like this, especially at a moment like that, where it was very easy to feel despair about our ability to just be human to each other—the show just felt kind of revelatory in that way.

Gilbert: So much of Season 1 is about proposing niceness as a counter to toxic masculinity. The sports setting is one of the most toxically masculine venues of all time, and you have Ted coming in diffusing all of that. Roy Kent and Jamie Tartt are these caricatures that Ted breaks down and exposes. And so you think about niceness by itself and what it means. And then in Season 2, it becomes clear that niceness is actually a different expression of toxic masculinity for Ted Lasso. It is his defense mechanism that he uses to deflect things as much as anything else. And niceness is still who he is, but it’s also something he has weaponized over the years to protect himself and protect others.

Garber: Yeah, this made me think a lot about the American happiness industrial complex. Throughout American history, but definitely right now in influencer culture and wellness culture, there’s this ongoing debate about, “Can we be in charge of our own happiness? How do we actually find happiness? Is happiness something that can be bought? Is it something that can be willed into effect?” I’m reading this book right now, William Leach’s Land of Desire, about the history of consumerism in America (which I would really recommend). I mention it because it has a whole section on the mind-cure movement in early America, Norman Vincent Peale, the power of positive thinking.

And so much of our culture right now is based on the notion that you can cure your own mind. That if you want happiness enough, you can achieve it. And I think in some ways, Ted is such a faith-based person. And part of his faith in Season 2 transfers over from faith about the team’s ability to win and faith in other people to faith in his own ability to heal himself. And that’s a message that a lot of Americans are given. Whatever your circumstances, whatever the structural forces weighing down on you, ultimately it’s on you to fix yourself. And I think Ted embodies that in the second season.

And I think the show is arguing that you can’t do it alone, and it is actually kind of cruel to ask people to deal with whatever they’re dealing with on their own. It’s got to be a team effort.

Sims: The show has an unfathomable challenge in having to do a second season, to replicate what people loved about something that they didn’t see coming. So are they doubling down on the references to supercharge what people enjoyed about Season 1? Are they emboldened by the success? It’s kind of like, “Look, guys, we’re a hit. Let’s see how niche we can take it and still sort of hold onto the audience.”

Garber: One of the things that rubbed me a little bit the wrong way about this season—and I completely empathize with sort of the broad structural challenge that was presented to these writers, who had this, like, massive success from the first season—but I think it just felt a little bit like throwing spaghetti at the wall, you know? Masculinity. Fatherhood. Trauma. There are just so many different things happening, and I think because the topics are so serious, I would have loved to have seen the show just delve deeply into [a few of] those ideas. It just felt kind of frenetic and, at times, chaotic.

I think also there was something about the second season; to me, it moves away from the tone of the first season, in terms of sort of celebrating kindness and community. It suggested to me that the show is almost embarrassed that that had become the discourse about it, that kindness was not enough. [As if it were saying:] “Whoa, that’s not all we are! We’re so much more. We’re going to talk about trauma and all these other things.” And that’s great to do, to complicate things. But I also feel like it’d be nice if kindness were enough, right? It’s a very complicated idea that I think deserves a really complicated treatment. And the fact that the show seemed a little bit embarrassed about that was a little bit of a bummer for me.

Gilbert: I think it’s just a framing problem. If there was more of a sports narrative underneath things, if there was just slightly more structure to the season, I think it would be a big improvement. And I don’t think it’s nitpicking unnecessarily at a show that is otherwise very good and very entertaining … [but] the episodes are getting longer and baggier. It’s sort of prestige-TV-itis.

Sims: It’s tough for a show to find new drama. I think the show is maybe getting a bit of an unfair shake on that front. It is trying to expand in surprising directions. And we like the first season. And, you know, you can always go back and watch the first season if you like it so much.

In interviews, Sudeikis has repeated this line a lot, that, like, this season is the Empire Strikes Back season, that they’ve vaguely talked about Ted Lasso maybe just being a three-season show. And so this is the middle chapter, where the outer conflicts have been resolved and so now the inner conflicts come out. And that’s fine. But, you know, The Empire Strikes Back does still have light-saber battles and space wars.

And Ted Lasso does still have football footage, [but] I wonder if the show will be able to switch back into a more sporty narrative. Well, they kind of set it up at the end of Season 1, didn’t they? The second season is going to be about getting back into the Premier League, and then the third, if it happens, will be about winning the Premiership. Which is completely ludicrous, as any football fan would know, but it doesn’t matter.

Gilbert: Leicester!

Sims: I know Leicester, but then we would need a plotline where the team is suddenly bought by oil oligarchs or [gets] some other incredibly wealthy owner, which happens in Premier League football now, but that’s a separate rant … Sophie, what do Brits think of this show? Because, when it debuted, I’d assumed British people would hate it.

Gilbert: They love it.

Sims: As someone who grew up in Britain, that’s very surprising.

Gilbert: They absolutely love it. The Guardian loves it. All the reviews I’ve read have loved it. I watched it with my mom last night, who is English. She loved it. It does get England right, which makes sense, because there are English people on the writing team and production team. Brett Goldstein’s British.

I think English people love the idea of Americans coming to England and being put in their place, which to a certain extent, Ted Lasso is. But you give and take, and Ted obviously has a lot to give. The one thing that the show doesn’t get into because it’s a comedy—though it’s been getting into serious issues in Season 2—is there is a lot of toxicity around soccer fandom. And this show gets into it a little bit.

Sims: As someone who grew up in Britain, and was an American who had moved to Britain, it sort of blew my mind how much it was like, “Yeah, well, you know Millwall fans, they’re always fighting,” like that sort of thing where it was just sort of part of the sport. And it’s not like American sports fans don’t cause trouble, but there is this …

Gilbert: There is a particular violence ingrained in the culture of soccer that the show gets at a little bit with Jamie’s dad more than anything. The tribal aspect to it. The massive investment in whether a team wins or loses. That, particularly in this season, has been underplayed a lot.

Sims: And it’s tough for Ted Lasso to delve deeply into it, because it is not set in that frightening world. I mean, I have so many stories. As an Arsenal fan, I love my team, but it’s very strange because Arsenal’s rivals are Spurs and there’s a lot of sort of nastiness bound up in that. You know, Britain’s weird. Britain’s weird, Sophie! That’s the whole thing.

Gilbert: It is. (Laughs.)

Garber: (Laughs.)

Sims: Emotions are often expressed in very specific ways, and maybe that’s why Ted Lasso is a sort of oddly good avatar for things, because he’s also someone who can only express his emotions in very specific, bottled-up ways. It’s just that he’s an American optimist versus the typical British pessimist.

Gilbert: They’re similar, but they’re different. And the show lives in that space. It has a deep sort of love in its heart for both cultures.

Garber: Except for the tea.

Gilbert: Yes, except for the tea. Ted will have no stock in tea.

Sims: I do love that he hates tea. But to go back to that question Megan raised about the merits of American optimism … After two seasons, where do you think the show’s landing?

Garber: Season 2 has very successfully complicated the treatment of optimism from Season 1, which was endorsing this kind of bright-eyed, Believe, faith-based approach toward the world. And for those of us living in the nonfictional world, I think that can tip over into willful Pollyanna-ism.

And especially right now, if you’re not a little bit angry, if you’re not a little bit pessimistic, you’re probably not paying attention. So I think the second season is acknowledging that, and acknowledging that we’re not going to get through any of the many problems that face us with hopeful hashtags and nice little aphorisms. It’s going to take very much more.

And check out Megan’s pieces on Ted Lasso and on how comedy is reckoning with American decline.