Why Ted Lasso’s Radical Kindness Is the Perfect Balm for Right Now
I have attempted to do many things with my time over the past year — keep an apartment with two young children at a tolerable level of cleanliness, stay politically involved, earn money — but the primary thing I have actually accomplished during the past twelve months is to watch an Olympian amount of television. In that time, I have gone through many phases, many brief bursts of enthusiasm: for Japanese crime thrillers on the Criterion Channel, for political docuseries like City So Real and epic-length documentaries like Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, for series that blend scuzzy realism and flights of fancy like Teenage Bounty Hunters, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, and The Boys. But what I have craved most of all, in everything I’ve watched, has been kindness.
The last year was many things, but perhaps chief among them has been a rolling tutorial in the varieties of cruelty. These displays have ranged from the people outside my front door who patently refuse to put on masks and keep others from getting sick, to the despicable malcontents assaulting and murdering Asian-Americans and other vulnerable minorities, to the political leaders spreading lies and misinformation and putting Americans’ health and democracy at risk. 2020–2021 has been dispiriting and enervating for more reasons than I have space to enumerate, but no small part of it has been seeing just how cruel and unkind Americans can be to each other when given encouragement to do so. All of which is a roundabout way of bringing me to my primary subject: Ted Lasso.
Now, the relationship between an unprecedented national, political, and public-health crisis and a show on that streaming platform you don’t have yet about a clueless American soccer coach in Britain may feel tenuous. But of all the movies and series I’ve watched since March of last year, the one that has stayed most firmly rooted in my head has been the one about the mustachioed guy with the irrepressible smile and the depthless hatred of tea.
I was deeply skeptical of any TV show whose roots were in some farcical commercials made by an obscure sports channel to convince sports fans to give English Premier League soccer a chance, but Ted Lasso wildly exceeded my modest expectations. Ted (Jason Sudeikis), an American football coach, is hired to run a floundering EPL team by a scheming owner in the hopes of completely tanking their chances. And while Ted knows absolutely nothing about soccer — a recurring joke has him unable to grasp the complexities of the offsides rule — he slowly wins over his team, and even the team’s irascible owner, with his small displays of kindness.
Ted supplies the team’s owner with a steady stream of homemade baked goods; he transforms the team’s ballboy into its chief strategist; he serves as a surrogate father to players in need of a gentle touch. Ted is less a football manager than a combined motivational speaker, friend, movie-night planner, amateur baker, and encounter-group leader. He is never rattled, and always good-humored, even as he wrestles with a sport he does not know, a team he cannot reach, or a marriage he cannot fix.
Art is not required to be kind or polite; much of what embodies the best of the American arts in the past two decades, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, is about amoral sociopaths. There is still no shortage of such work, and I have still enjoyed much of it. (Promising Young Woman is a great movie!) But our addiction to stories of antiheroes has had real-world consequences. James Poniewozik’s brilliant study of television history, Audience of One, cogently argues for Donald Trump as a real-world embodiment of the likes of Tony Soprano and Walter White. Our inability to look away from telegenic, narcissistic jerks led us into the morass of Trumpism. Would it be too much to argue that Ted Lasso is a first step out?
Ted Lasso’s antihero Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) might be the protagonist of another, inferior show. He is a brilliant player and an anemic teammate, a poor boyfriend with an endless array of arm-candy companions, the guy who scores the big goal rather than pass to his teammate. He is, unambiguously, the biggest talent on the flailing AFC Richmond team, but in the pointed world of Ted Lasso, Jamie celebrates alone when he scores on a penalty kick in the episode “Tan Lines.” Ted pulls Jamie from the game after his big goal because of his refusal to make the extra pass, to the bafflement of Jamie and the all-around confusion of the crowd.
Ted gives a halftime motivational speech that can double as a prescription for Americans in this nightmare year. “We’re broken. We need to change,” he tells the team, before offering a proposed new model: “Embracing change. Being brave. Doing whatever you have to so everyone in your life can move forward with theirs.” Ted eventually loses the thread of his motivational talk and wanders into his own marital troubles, requiring some mumbled reference to “Lady Football” (“Nice save,” says Ted’s sidekick and aide-de-camp, Brendan Hunt’s Coach Beard), but the moment lingers. The man in the beige chinos is insistent that we all make the extra pass, that we favor our teammates over ourselves, that we stop obsessing over our own needs and desires and think about others for a moment.
Our news coverage, our social-media feeds, our lives are filled end-to-end with examples of people who weaponize their surging sense of self-importance and their profound disinterest in other human beings and transform it into success. I want more stories that offer us lessons, to borrow a phrase from Heather Havrilesky, in how to be a person in the world. Ted, a man with a ludicrous mustache, a colorful array of Kansas City-themed T-shirts, and a floundering personal life, is a paragon of the new masculinity for his optimism, his unflagging concern for others, and his insistence — sometimes at the expense of his own self-interest — in demanding kindness of others.
There was a time, I suppose, where the idea of living out a lawless life beyond the reach of law or decorum was an appealing fantasy, but after a year of heartache and death and absence, all of my fantasies now revolve around acts of decency. Ted loses his wife. He loses the big match. His team is relegated to the second division of the league. But Ted never loses sight of the ways in which kindness can alleviate sadness — others’, and our own as well. “I want you to be grateful that you are going through this sad moment with all these other folks,” Ted tells the team after the game. “Because I promise you that there is something worse than being sad, and that is being alone and sad. Ain’t nobody in this room alone.” Ted’s team has been humiliated by his onetime player and constant headache Jamie Tartt, and yet Ted’s impulse after the game is to send Jamie a handwritten note: “WAY TO MAKE THAT EXTRA PASS- TED.” May we all, in our own collective sad moment, learn how to make that extra pass.