Consider this possibility: Maybe he is not really it’s nice anyway. Maybe it’s just about results.
The first season of Apple TV +’s coach-out-of-water comedy Ted Lasso was rightly praised as a tonic of humanity and cross-cultural understanding during last year’s tumult. Jason Sudeikis’ title character is an American college football coach from Kansas who, for a number of unlikely reasons, finds himself coaching AFC Richmond, a struggling Premier League team, without knowing the basic fundamentals of his newly adopted sport. Over the course of the season’s 10-episode arc, Lasso overcomes his players’ reasonable skepticism, ownership guilt guilt, and his own failing marriage to bring the team to the brink of redemption. Lasso’s greatest gift as a trainer is a kind of weapon optimism, an empathy that is so hard-wired that it breaks down even the most cynical of his antagonists. It’s a lot of fun and very moving to see him unite his rag-tag crew member of cast players and connected assistants into a unified and cohesive whole – he’s a Pangloss on the field.
But there are times during the season when it is also possible to feel something different for Lasso. Faced with alienation from his wife and his child at home, he drinks heavily and experiences panic attacks – moments that largely suggest that relentless kindness may in part benefit from holding something back. And then in the last scene of the first season, we get an authentic glimpse behind the curtain into Ted Lasso’s psyche.
After losing their last game in a heartbreaking way, Lasso meets AFC Richmond’s owner Rebecca Welton, whom he has fought with and eventually won over by sheer personality. Nevertheless, he assumes that his term of office is over, and gives his resignation, which Welton surprises him by refusing. She then explains the challenge that lies ahead of him: After being relegated to a lower division, AFC Richmond must first regain its Premier League status and then resume competition with the best clubs in England. Something like anger flashes in his eyes. He then delivers the following monologue:
“So next year we will get a promotion that looks good on any resume. Then we return to this league, and … we do something that no one thinks we could ever do: win the whole hell. “
It seems like an uncharacteristic moment, but it should not be so shocking. Throughout the season, the implication has been that there is all its sweetness something off about Lasso. Now suddenly it becomes transparent. Like so many successful coaches, he is completely obsessed with winning. Driven by a sense of being underestimated and misunderstood – a mindset alongside rage – he has maneuvered himself into a position where he has never been considered less likely to succeed. Perhaps Lasso’s kindness at all costs has been quite tactical, the most effective way for a hungry competitor to move forward. It’s a psychological swing that feels both well-deserved and a little cool. As we approach the premiere of season 2, we remain in Lasso’s goofball thrall, but the series has cleverly sown the carnival atmosphere with an undercurrent of coercion and even sports-addled madness.
Sports fans are very aware of the kind-hearted archetype known as the players’ coach. In the ’70s and’ 80s, George “Sparky” Anderson won championships with both the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers, while speaking almost exclusively in aphorisms such as “it doesn’t cost a dime to be good to anyone.” Anderson was considered something of a rube by many of his baseball peers – infinitely sympathetic but feckless when it came to strategy. But this was an idea he was actively trying to pursue: In a fascinating 1993 Sports Illustrated profile of Steve Rushin, towards the end of his long tenure as Tigers’ manager, Anderson goes to great lengths to promote his hay seed image and perhaps even give the impression of senility, even though he was only 59 at the time. Anderson appears to have been a really nice man, but between the lines of Rushin’s profile there are some odd blows. He thrilled for a long time when he was informed of an 18-minute beanball-inspired fight the previous night between the Anaheim Angels and Toronto Blue Jays. “They said it was great! And that was Ball Night, and the fans threw the baseballs at them! It is also revealed that he had taken 17 days off in the 1989 season for “personal reasons.” Anderson loved to be underestimated, as only a grown man who agrees to be called “Sparky” can be. His 2,194 victories as manager rank sixth all-time, and he remains one of only two skippers to win the World Series with teams from both the U.S. and National leagues. In his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2000, he said the following: “I got good players, kept out of the way, let them win a lot and just hung around for 26 years.” Even as Cooperstown claimed his performance, Anderson remained reluctant to admit he had been more than a passive observer on a quarter-century hot streak.
The sinister Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs won three 10-year Super Bowls with the Washington Football Team in the 1980s and 90s, while exhibiting an endless array of public self-immolation – and also a punishing self-destructive work ethic. Gibbs was a soft-spoken North Carolina native who learned under Don “Air” Coryell, and was an offensive visionary whose team won a championship in his second season and set an NFL record for scoring in his third. He saw the future of football, but was determined not to let you know. At previous press conferences, Gibbs fell over himself and described how formidable he perceived his future opponents and what little chance he gave his own team. When his team more often than not breaks down their opponents, he reacted with big eyes surprise and wonder. Over time, his relentless sandbagging became a kind of meta-joke. In the 1992 NFC Championship, Washington was a huge favorite over the Detroit Lions, which they had beaten 45-0 earlier in the season. Far from being arrogant, Gibbs admitted he was a mental wreck: “When you get so close, you get so nervous you can hardly rest or sleep,” he told reporters. “You are a little excited. You want to work and think. It’s a little hard to concentrate on things. “The game was never close – Washington won 41-10 – but at the time, Gibbs was turning his back on how big the Buffalo Bills team was, which they would crush in the Super Bowl two weeks later.
When Gibbs retired from coaching for the first time, his physical and mental health were in steep decline; he had apparently not slept for years. Ted Lasso subtly suggests that its protagonist may be on a similar trajectory. There is formidable competition for the most heartwarming scene in season 1, but there is an ongoing winner in terms of the most nervous. Halfway through episode 7, Lasso is drunk to the point of war and lets himself be separated over the divorce papers, which his future ex-wife insists he sign. As he stares calmly into a mirror, you wonder if he has hit a new lichen. Then his loyal assistant Nate appears at the door and delivers pieces and ideas for the next day’s game that he had been asked to do. Lasso breaks him cruelly and unnecessarily, but in the light of day less than 24 hours later, he apologizes violently. The mental whiplash is brutal. Ahead of the team’s next match, Lasso asks an ever-emotional Nate to give the pregame speech, which he continues to do with the unnoticed discomfort of a gentle soul experiencing the aftermath of a trauma. As Nate detonates a brutal (and accurate) critique after the next on the shell-shocked locker room, Lasso nods cheerfully along. He has managed to manipulate his underling to say all the terrible things he knows his team needs to hear but prefers not to say himself. Sparky Anderson and Joe Gibbs would be proud.
Ceaseless optimism defines Ted Lasso. But roller coaster mood storms, manic reverence and seemingly deliberate main play also defines Ted Lasso, the players’ coach, and makes him one of the best and most layered characters in the top TV era. He is a man who presents himself as two-dimensional, but who actually plays three-dimensional chess. We welcome his pranks, marinate in his offensive charm, and celebrate his offbeat approach to winning the whole hell. But at all times, there is a small concern, one that pops up behind our minds, about what he might be willing to do to make it happen.
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, DC-based journalist, television writer and singer-songwriter in the garage punk band Paranoid Style.