February is often brutal, but this one’s off the charts. Americans are collectively hitting the pandemic wall and just endured the terrifying and deflating impeachment trial, while residents of multiple states are facing spine-cracking temperatures and ravaging winter storms.
But there’s a bright light in all this darkness: “Ted Lasso.” Flip it on and, like one of those light-therapy sun lamps, feel your winter angst melting away.
The Apple TV sitcom, which arrived last summer, is a mental health stealth bomb. Dressed up as a sports comedy, it espouses a philosophy that’s hilariously antithetical to that genre: The notion that being a decent person, and treating other people with respect, is more important than who scored the most goals. The show, created by star Jason Sudeikis, along with Bill Lawrence, Joe Kelly and Brendan Hunt, features a small-time football coach who – despite having no experience with the sport – gets hired to coach a professional soccer team in England.
“Ted Lasso” came out with relatively minimal fanfare in August. It picked up steam a couple of months later, as word of mouth began to spread. That talk has continued apace, turning the show into a sleeper hit a la “Schitt’s Creek.” (A quick Twitter search yields countless viewers either stunned by how much they loved it or bemoaning the long wait until a second season.) Its recent Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild nominations don’t hurt either.
If you, like me, are finding this February hard to take, I implore you to give “Ted Lasso” a try, even if it means subscribing to one more damned app.
Like “Schitt’s Creek,” the series is sort of a slow burn. I started off expecting the Sudeikis character from a 2013 NBC ad campaign to promote its broadcast of Premier League games. In the four-minute spot, the comic is a cocky, clueless American football coach who (like in the series) is inexplicably hired to head a British soccer team. His struggle to understand the rules made the spot a globally viral sensation.
You’d be forgiven for anticipating a mildly amusing if probably too-long version of that gag. Instead, each episode of “Ted Lasso” feels like a heartwarming British indie, like “The Full Monty” or “Blinded By the Light” (albeit with glaring Apple product placement). Each member of its ensemble cast gets their own moments to shine, and there’s nary a truly unlikeable character - with the exception of the team owner’s rarely seen ex-husband, a sneering mogul played by Anthony Head. And even he seems to hold potential for some kind of redemption in season two.
Ted still doesn’t have much of a handle on soccer, but he’s learning, and seemingly unfazed by the locals’ vulgar nickname for him. He brims with positivity, optimism and Dad jokes (“Do you believe in ghosts?” the team owner asks Lasso. “I do,” he says, “but more importantly, I believe they need to believe in themselves.”) The easily recognizable types around him – an arrogant team superstar and his model girlfriend, the hotheaded captain, Ted’s chilly boss, her bumbling aide – are all revealed to be more nuanced than you’d think. Ted’s journey is a comedy, sure, but it also unexpectedly leans into feelings. All the feelings. Bet you tear up at least once.
Some initial reviewers, prepared for more of a straight-up sitcom, grumbled about the show’s lack of laughs per minute. One dismissed it as “determinedly cornball” and gave an eye roll to its being about “just a nice guy whose life is complicated by an embittered, scheming woman (the club owner) and a wishy-washy, unappreciative woman (his wife).”
What that reviewer fails to acknowledge is that neither of these women (played by Hannah Waddingham and Andrea Anders, respectively) are painted as antagonists. Each is coping with real pain, which is something Sudeikis’ character seems to understand, and empathize with, more than this critic does.
Hunt, one of Sudeikis’s co-creators, plays his sidekick, the laconic Coach Beard. The two actors are friends from their early improv days, and gave some surprising insight into the show’s origins when they talked to Brene Brown, self-help author and “Ted Lasso” superfan, on her podcast. The comics both cut their teeth at Amsterdam’s Boom Chicago, and Hunt spoke about “Ted Lasso” being infused with the spirit of Gezelligheid – an untranslatable Dutch term with myriad meanings, one of them being, Hunt said, “don’t be a bummer to each other.”
While the character of Ted presents as unapologetically square, his origins are a little trippy: the show, Sudeikis has said, “grew from conversations he and Hunt had walking the streets of Amsterdam on mushrooms.” The experience stuck with Sudeikis, who name-checked the Michael Pollan book “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” on Brown’s podcast. He and Hunt started writing the pilot shortly after Pollan’s book came out. “Ted is, in a … way, like mushrooms,” said Sudeikis. “He is egoless.” The duo likes to think of Ted as a connector of those around him, a facilitator for better relationships.
How timely and delightful that, as the world of medicine debates making psychedelics legal treatment for trauma, depression and anxiety (challenges with which so many of us are now struggling to cope), Ted turns out to be a therapeutic drug in sitcom form.
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Credit Ted for that little hit of joy you get from this show – expecting a prickly exchange between two characters, maybe, and instead watching one of them gradually open up to another perspective. That frisson of faith in humanity. Feels radical, doesn’t it?
I’m not saying it’s realistic, or even advisable, to “be like a goldfish” with a seconds-long memory, as Ted likes to advise, and forget all of the toxicity in our culture. But “Ted Lasso” offers a window of possibility that we might learn to incrementally become more forgiving of others – and of ourselves. Now, more than ever, Americans need a big dose of Gezelligheid.