“Guys have underestimated me my entire life”: Like the man himself, TED LASSO is easy to overlook but has surprising depth

Be curious, not judgmental.

-Walt Whitman

You got no time for the messenger
Got no regard for the thing that you don’t understand
You got no fear of the underdog
That’s why you will not survive

-Spoon, “The Underdog”

Ted Lasso might have seemed like an odd choice for a property to build a sitcom around. The Jason Sudeikis character was created for a series of promos in 2011 when NBC Sports acquired the rights to the Premier League; as The Ringer reminded me, the closest analogue in recent memory is probably Cavemen, the sitcom based around the Geico mascots of the time, although Lasso is even less culturally relevant than they were.

But, as with any creative work, it’s not what you start with that matters; it’s what you end up with. And Ted Lasso, with Sudeikis in front of the camera and Bill Lawrence (ScrubsCougar Town) behind it, ended up as a funny, uplifting sitcom / dramedy that manages to be warm and inspiring without becoming hokey or saccharine, with an unassuming lead who reveals himself to be of generous spirit and strong character.

In the show, Lasso is a successful American college football coach, having just led the Wichita State Shockers (who don’t actually have a football team anymore) to the Division II NCAA Championship. He finds himself as the new coach of the fictional Premier League team AFC Richmond for two reasons:

  • One, owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) has gained ownership of the club from her billionaire ex-husband (infidelity, his) and wants to Major League it (here, that means relegation) in order to get back at him.
  • Two, marital difficulties in the Lasso household have led Ted to decide to give his wife space in hopes they will reconcile. (Ted’s wife is played by Andrea Anders, making her the leading portrayer of romantic interests in Ted-based sitcoms.) Admittedly, I thought this plot would be an irritating excuse to have a melodramatic story in a sitcom, but in truth, like the rest of the show’s drama, it ends up working very well both on its own and in the overall narrative of the season.

Of course, Ted brings no real working knowledge of soccer* to the job, as Rebecca intended. What he does bring, though, is a gentle optimism, a generous spirit, a real love of people, and the subtlety and persistence of a gentle stream. Ted, coming from college football, sees his mission less as Xs and Os and more as molding the men under his charge into the best they can be both in the game and in life. His kindness and steadiness gradually win the people around him over, especially once the players start to realize how he’s influencing them to be better people and a better team. (It starts with little gestures, like bringing Rebecca cookies* every morning, but it’s not the gestures themselves, but his consistency and dependability, that ultimately win people over.)

(* – I’ll call a team a “club,” I’ll call a field a “pitch,” and I’ll call practice “training,” but I’m still calling the game “soccer” for this article’s purposes. And I’m on the fence as to whether to call cookies “biscuits.”)

The two main players in this regard are striker Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) and midfielder Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein). Tartt is the young hotshot on loan from Manchester City, whose natural talent both often carries the club and leads him to be a selfish prima donna both on and off the pitch.  Kent is the team’s captain, an aging veteran who is starting to lose a step and wondering if his playing days are nearing an end. Ted subtly challenges them– Jamie to be more of a team player; Roy to accept the responsibilities of leadership– and they grow through his influence as a result. (In Roy’s case, Ted gives him a copy of A Wrinkle in Time, a hilarious choice given Roy’s gruff demeanor and standoffishness.)  He knows the right buttons to push: When Roy comes to him about Jamie and his flunkies bullying clubhouse manager Nate (Nick Mohammed), Ted rightly grasps that he can’t say anything because “Teacher tells a bully not to pick on someone, it’s just gonna make it worse.” Without telling him to do so directly, he influences Roy to take the lead in the locker room in standing up for Nate. (Like a team captain should.)

Ted wins over nearly everyone through his steadiness and genuine interest in people and finding the best in them– whether it’s his players, Nate, a famously difficult reporter from The Independent (always referred to as “Trent Crimm, The Independent“), Rebecca’s second-in-command Higgins, or eventually– and after a long season of her secretly running the franchise contrary to his goals– Rebecca herself. (Indeed, the scene where Rebecca comes clean to Ted is a great example of how drama can be powerful “not because it reveals something new but because it confirms something old.“) The one person he doesn’t win over is Rebecca’s ex-husband Rupert Mannion, played by Anthony Head with just the right amount of superficial charm (and a rich-asshole smirk somewhere between 80s James Spader and 80s Judge Reinhold) to mask his selfishness and malevolence. Aside, the following exchange occurred when I saw the credits for Rupert’s second appearance:

ME: Hey, Tony Head is in this!
MRS. C: Yeah, he plays Rupert.
ME: No, I know who he is, but who is he playing in this?

Anyway, Rupert crashes Rebecca’s fundraiser in the fourth episode, and Ted gets his measure immediately. (“If you could’ve texted Robbie Williams to ask him to come tonight, you could’ve probably just as easily asked him not to come.”) While it would be easy for someone like Ted to be in over his head– and he is, in quite a few ways– he shows more than once that he’s more savvy and has the measure of people better than he lets on, and he shows a backbone and resolve that many people in his path don’t expect. (Indeed, one consistent thing we see in Ted’s opposition– and, we suspect, he’s encountered throughout his life– is that they mistake his kindness for weakness and his optimism for naïveté.)

In the eighth episode, Rupert again shows up unexpectedly when Rebecca is meeting the minority shareholders, having bought those shares for his new girlfriend since he can’t legally own a piece of the team as part of the settlement. (His new girlfriend is also named Rebecca– even though she goes by “Bex,” he makes sure the press reports them as “Rebecca” and “Old Rebecca,” another sign of how knowingly petty he can be.) Ted shows that savvy and backbone in what may be the best scene of the season, a genuine triumph that isn’t just a moral victory for an underdog, but a moment of indisputable ownage. Ted knows exactly who he is:

Ted may not win over Rupert (and he doesn’t even try, of course), but he even eventually wins over most of the club’s fans, who have taken to simply referring to him as “Wanker” as though that’s his proper name.

I haven’t yet touched on two of my favorite performances of the show. Brendan Hunt (who developed the show alongside Sudeikis, Lawrence, and Joe Kelly) plays Coach Beard, Lasso’s assistant who comes with him from Wichita State, a taciturn man of few words and fewer expressions. (Which, of course, gives it all the more impact when he finally does express himself forcefully.) Hunt makes every word count with his deadpan delivery, often saying exactly what needs to be said or a funny and revealing detail.

Perhaps the highlight of the supporting cast is Juno Temple as Keeley Jones, a “sort-of famous for being sort-of famous” model who works for the team and is dating Jamie when the show begins. It would be easy for a character like this to be shallow, image- and status-obsessed, or mean-spirited, but as written and played, she’s smarter than she looks, really sweet and kind, and going through her own story of growing maturity and figuring out what she wants from her relationships (romantic, platonic, and in-between– which some of her comments on Rebecca may indicate is where she sees her).

Without spoiling it, the season ends with the right touch of bittersweet– our characters triumphant in some ways but defeated in others. And I found myself genuinely caught up in the game action in the finale. (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t join in in cheering “Roy Kent, Roy Kent, he’s here, he’s there, he’s every-fucking-where, Roy Kent, Roy Kent!”) The show is excellent at portraying both the thrill of live sports and the camaraderie a good team builds, on the pitch, in the locker room, and elsewhere. Combine that with some really good comedy, the dramatic weight that comes with characters moving into a new phase of their lives, and a lead character who realistically depicts the slow-and-steady benefits of optimism and kindness, and you’ve got a winning formula. The team’s got a long way to go (the season 2 renewal was announced five days after season 1 premiered), but, heck, Ted Lasso’s made me a believer in them– and in him.

Ted Lasso is now streaming on AppleTV+. Thank you to ZoeZ for letting me take her usual “Film on the Internet” spot with a “TV on the Internet” article this week.