So farewell for now Ted Lasso. The show’s second season, with a bumper pack of 12 episodes, concluded last week and much happened during those episodes. The other thing that happened was the backlash against the show.
In our cranky, conniptions-inducing times, petulance can break out unexpectedly, but attacking Ted Lasso (streams AppleTV+) seems outlandish. Still, it happened. There were complaints that there wasn’t enough conflict or friction; there was whining that the sports aspect of the show had been forgotten. There was the serious complaint by one critic that Ted is a construct, a mere “teaching tool” created as a fantasy figure for men.
Well, I say cobblers to all that. The idea that the show forgot it was about sports, and specifically about soccer, is both silly and a misreading of the series. The final, slightly shocking episode was called “Inverting the Pyramid of Success.” As anyone with any knowledge of writings about soccer will know, this is a play on the book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, by Jonathan Wilson.
A character is seen reading the book on the show. The book is about the evolution of soccer tactics, from the kick-and-run style anchored in the game’s roots in 19th-century England, to the contemporary idea of a team without strikers, one that’s an integrated unit. That’s the point of the episode – an integrated unit is undone by one rogue figure. As a show, Ted Lasso never forgets that it’s about soccer.
The suggestion that Ted, as a figure, is a false construct, came from my counterpart at Time magazine, Judy Berman, a fine critic. She wrote, “I’ve never seen another fictional character who seemed so deliberately constructed to teach other adult men how to behave in the world.” Her point is that Ted is a desperate attempt to present “the best man” and she writes, “He’s a role model, like Harry Potter or Mary Poppins or Superman.”
Essentially, the message is that Ted is too much. I disagree and would say the series has become less about Ted than about all the male figures on the series. Each has become a better person, sometimes because Ted is a role model but often because they actually apply the most meaningful elements of their sport to life.
The key characters have become open to reason, debate and change. And that change is always leading toward the style of play embodied by the most successful teams of the last half-century in soccer: the Dutch teams of the 1970s, and both Barcelona and Spain in the period between 2008 and 2015. The style is less about individual brilliance than it is about understanding the shared space that is the soccer field.
It would be unwise here to lecture anyone about soccer tactics but let’s just say that the ceaseless passing of the ball, and aiming to almost dance the ball into the net, is a rebuke of the traditional male method of attack. Instead, it’s about community effort. And what Spain and Barcelona did with that immensely successful tactic is itself based on the Dutch principle of “total football” in which players can take over the role of any other player in a team. Unity and adaptability are everything.
On the show, Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) has evolved from being an aggressively individualistic player and person to being someone who allows space for Keeley (Juno Temple) to grow personally and professionally. Even Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), that selfish monster from the first season, learns to pass the ball and even give the ball to Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernandez) for a penalty kick so that Dani can overcome a personal trauma. The late Johan Cruyff, who embodied “total football” as a player in the Netherlands and took it to Barcelona, would be proud of them all.
While soccer philosophy is deftly woven into Ted Lasso, on the surface it’s about Ted’s relentless optimism and niceness. That makes it hard for the show to follow the comedy format, and not following the format of setting up belly laughs is built into the criticism of the show. But, to that point, there is nothing wrong with a series that had Ted’s foil being the sports psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), who simply wants Ted to stop using niceness as a shield. It’s not laugh-aloud funny, but so what, if it leads to a storyline about mental health? Sometimes a smile of pleasure is as rewarding as a punchline that makes you guffaw.
Criticism of the series crystalized around the stand-alone Christmas episode, “Carol of the Bells,” which is undoubtedly a strange TV concoction. It’s more a series of vignettes than a plotted episode. There is absurdity in Roy Kent’s search for a dentist. And there was no conflict resolved, as usually happens on Christmas-themed episodes of a TV show.
The climax was the players, from all parts of the world, celebrating the occasion with the Higgins family. The point was that soccer is the world’s game, not an English game, and the world came together in the Higgins household. That’s not a failure of storytelling; it’s a statement about conviviality in polarized times. And complaining about it is cobblers.
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