Boy, do we ever need silver linings and a dose of the positives. In these grey, worrying days, optimism is in short supply, so we look for it, craving cheerfulness. Where is it, you ask? Well, I’m so glad you asked. It can be found in what appears to be a dumb, fish-out-of-water comedy about an American know-nothing who goes to Britain to coach a floundering soccer team.
Ted Lasso (streams on AppleTV+) is far from dumb and has recently emerged as a touchstone of optimism, a favourite binge-watch for anyone in need of reassurance and idealism. One recent review in the United States called it, “the warm hug we all need this year.” True.
On the show, one Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) is an American football coach from Kansas City hired to take over a London soccer team despite knowing nothing much about soccer. He’s been hired by the owner of AFC Richmond, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), who got control of the club in a divorce settlement with her estranged husband, a man she loathes. As viewers soon become aware, Ted is supposed to fail, part of Rebecca’s nasty plan.
But Ted is neither fool nor pawn. He’s relentlessly optimistic, cheerful and sees the good in everyone and everything. He’s called “wanker” many times by the team’s dismayed supporters and the egomaniac players, but it just rolls off him. He believes that he can forge a winning team of people just by behaving better and, you know, acting on positive thoughts. Sample dialogue: Rebecca: “Oh, do you believe in ghosts, Ted?” Ted: “I do. But more importantly, I believe they need to believe in themselves.”
You don’t need to know much about soccer to savour Ted Lasso. Besides, Ted is pretty ignorant of the game. What you latch onto is the way Ted disarms the cynics and the scoffers with his adorable warmth and everyman guile. In any case there are so many moments of gentle hilarity as the series mocks the clichés, not just of English soccer, but of big-business sports.
The series has unique origins that, in part, explain its very special charm. You can search online and find out the Ted Lasso character was created for a promotional campaign by NBC Sports when it acquired the rights to English Premier League soccer. The idea was to have a gormless American try to grasp the rules and texture of the game, and through him, introduce American viewers to it.
It was an attention-getting campaign. But no mere advertising stunt. The entire conceit is rooted in a quirk of the evolution of soccer culture in the United States. For decades the U.S. men’s national team qualified for World Cup tournaments and did well, to the surprise of other countries. Yet scorn was heaped on U.S. soccer fans, especially by the English media. (This was always over the top; soccer is firmly established in the United States and the women’s team is the best in the world.) But a strange thing happened. Instead of being offended or ignoring the scorn, a good portion of U.S. soccer fans embraced it. They presented themselves as cheerfully ignorant, as a retort, and enjoyed it.
This in turn is part of the strange but benign allowances that are part of the wider soccer culture, especially at big tournaments. The atmosphere allows supporters to embody hackneyed stereotypes about where they come from. The Germans turn up in lederhosen, the French come wearing a beret and carrying a plastic baguette, the Irish arrive as an army of leprechauns dressed in green. Somehow, it’s all allowable. The Americans present themselves as yokels mingling with soccer royalty, they wear their alleged insecurity proudly, as if it’s hip to be square about soccer.
Ted Lasso (developed by Sudeikis with Bill Lawrence and Joe Kelly) captures all of this with a beguiling sweetness. And it mocks English soccer with cheerful disregard for the pieties of the game there. Among the players Ted encounters at AFC Richmond is Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), an angry bruiser with a fierce temper. He’s clearly based on the real Roy Keane, the former captain of Manchester United. Then there’s Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), a genius with the ball, an airhead and proud of his girlfriend Keeley (Juno Temple, who is brilliant here). Jamie could be any number of young, selfish soccer stars. Keeley is the very embodiment of the WAG (wives and girlfriends) phenomenon in English soccer. She’s brash, brazen and admits she’s “famous for being famous” and not much else.
Into this world comes the much-disdained American, Ted. He responds to the derision with big-hearted positivism and rock-solid belief in the innate decency of all people. No matter how much the tabloid press (who are mocked with abandon here) ridicule him, his conviviality is infectious and you, the viewer, feel it, too. Ted Lasso has already been renewed for two more seasons, and little wonder – it’s the embodiment of heart-warming happiness and, yes, the warm hug we desperately need now.
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