Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist, historian and senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies and chair of the Department of Religion and culture at Virginia Tech. They are the co-authors of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” The views expressed here are the authors’ own. Read more opinion on CNN. NOTE: This commentary contains spoilers for season 2 of “Ted Lasso.”
The breakout show of the pandemic has been Apple+’s “Ted Lasso,” now just finished with its second season. The titular character, an American college football coach who improbably finds himself coaching the fictional English football club AFC Richmond, seems to exude kindness and optimism. He comes across as a folksy rube at the beginning – the worst kind of stereotype of Americans abroad – but during the first season manages to win just about everyone over to his side even in the face of betrayal and disaster. The second season seemed to continue this trajectory, as Ted and those around him confront their inner demons.
But although the show’s superficial focus over the first two seasons has been on Ted as a “nice guy,” that’s not really what the show is about. It isn’t a happy-go-lucky dramatization of optimism, but about the work and necessity of building communities in which we draw strength from one another. The show’s tension and success stem not from its oft-touted emphasis on kindness, but from its ability to embody something that in the past would have been called caritas.
The Latin word caritas is most often translated as “charity,” but a better meaning is “love” – a certain kind of love, though, one that’s selfless, that puts others first. The “love” of the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 (that it is “patient,” “kind,” etc.), the staple of so many Christian weddings, for example, is translated from caritas in the Latin. This is a type of love that thinks more about others than oneself. As the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas explained, it’s simply to “wish good to someone.”
Although early Christians were proponents of this ideal of caritas, it’s not an exclusively religious one. As we explain in our forthcoming book, “The Bright Ages,” the ancient and medieval worlds were filled with dangers that couldn’t be navigated alone, and so the societies around the Mediterranean built structures to support the poor, the sick and others.
As historians, we’ve spent the past 18 months of the pandemic not only watching “Ted Lasso” but also thinking deeply about the values communities need to weather difficult times. In the midst of a pandemic, when so many of us feel fundamentally alone, we see glimmers of this in our own world when we remember that we wear masks not just for ourselves but for everyone else too.
“Ted Lasso” reminds us that there’s a world possible in which people can count on one another. As Ted says to his demoralized team at the very end of the last episode of season 1, “I want you to be grateful that you’re going through this sad moment with all these other folks. Because I promise you, there is something worse out there than being sad, and that is being alone and being sad. Ain’t nobody in this room alone.”
This fully blossoms throughout season 2, even if it’s not a lesson everyone learns by the end.
Perhaps the ideal of caritas is most fully on display in episode 8 of season 2, which culminates in the aftermath of another searing loss for Richmond. The father of Jamie Tartt, the flamboyant young prodigy, bursts in uninvited to the locker room to humiliate his son. They trade blows and Jamie is clearly broken by the encounter, but Roy Kent, the gruff veteran player who has feuded with Jamie since the pilot episode, steps in to comfort Jamie with a hug.
The camera lingers on Tartt and Kent, but you can still see the faces of the rest of the team, silent, but slowly beginning to understand what they owe to each other. Two episodes later, in episode 10, the entire team attends the funeral for the father of their boss, Rebecca, and does so out of a genuine effort to support her in her loss.
Two episodes beyond that, in the season 2 finale, Ted apologizes to his team for not being honest about his mental health struggles – not just because he lied, but because in so doing he didn’t give himself a chance to build further trust within his community. The team immediately rallies to him, though, continuing the pattern that apology is part of restoring community, but the person who has done wrong must ask for forgiveness for that process to begin. They all are wishing good to each other.
Certainly, this ethos is put to the test throughout season 2. Rebecca is still damaged by her ex-husband as well as her father but has allowed others to care for her and so becomes stronger. Viewers learn quickly this season that as much as Ted himself tries to create a community of care, he lacks one himself. Divorced, absent from his son back in Kansas and carrying, we learn, a history of family tragedy, he begins to understand that he too needs people to care for him. He opens up to his team of coaches and even more to his therapist, only to have that vulnerability betrayed by Nate, a man whose potential Ted saw, supported, nurtured and thought he had fully included in his chosen family.
Nate cannot see the community. He remains damaged, feels abandoned by his father and hence by Ted. His final speech to Ted is that of a villain, still blaming others for his own choices and creating false justifications that cast him as a victim, rather than being accountable for his actions.
Meanwhile, Sam, a young Nigerian player who this season has emerged as a star both on the field and off, scoring lots of goals, raising awareness about oil spills in Nigeria, as well as having a torrid love affair with his boss, Rebecca, and being courted to leave the team by an African billionaire, is the opposite of Nate. He has a supportive family – which helps, but as Jamie shows isn’t necessary if you’re willing to do the work – and so embraces the care of the whole Richmond team. He stays in the community by learning to rely on himself.
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All of these story lines are about the need for caritas, the work it takes to get there, and how easy it is to lose your way.
It’s just a TV show based around a character, Ted Lasso, that was initially created for an ad campaign, but it’s maybe not surprising that there was an odd backlash in the middle of the season against it. The story of the pandemic has been about the vast majority of our communities choosing to come together, but with a tiny loud minority of bad actors pulling us all down. That’s the story of “Ted Lasso” too; one in which a community built on care, communication and Rick Astley songs can help us make it through the dark winter to come.