There was no greater TV underdog story last year than “Ted Lasso,” the unassuming and not-particularly-ambitious soccer-world comedy that became one of 2020’s few word-of-mouth sensations.
Explaining “Ted Lasso’s” success isn’t hard. It’s got a talented cast — a whopping seven of whom were also nominated for Emmys, including Sudeikis — and a distinctive folksy humor that’s one-part updated dad jokes, one-part inspired silliness. (Asked whether he believes in ghosts, the ever-earnest Ted replies, “I do. But more importantly, I believe they need to believe in themselves.”) The show probably became such a slow-burn hit because it epitomized what so many of us craved in 2020: comfort TV.
“Ted Lasso” is a fantasy of decency, of nontoxic masculinity, of leadership through emotional intelligence. It is kindness porn a la “Schitt’s Creek,” “Brooklyn 99” and “Parks and Recreation” — shows with fervid fan bases that cherish, rather than question, those series’ credulity-straining tolerant settings.
Late in the debut season, Ted learns that he was originally offered his coaching job as part of a revenge scheme by the team’s owner, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham, best known as the shame nun on “Game of Thrones”). After receiving control of AFC Richmond as part of an acrimonious divorce settlement, Rebecca was determined to run the team into the ground as payback for her soccer-obsessed ex-husband’s (Anthony Head) philandering. But by that point, Ted had won over not just her, but her right-hand man Higgins (Jeremy Swift), model-turned-marketing-chief Keeley (Juno Temple), the infighting players, the sports media and most of AFC Richmond’s fans.
The Ted skeptics put up something of a fight. Star striker Jamie (Phil Dunster) initially had no interest in giving up the spotlight to become a team player, nor was he receptive at first to the notion of treating shy equipment manager Nate (Nick Mohammed) like anything but a punching bag. Team captain and snarling rage addict Roy (Brett Goldstein), too, scoffed at Ted’s efforts to be a Midwestern Mary Poppins, but he was quicker than most in observing the wisdom in the chatterbox coach’s many verbal detours. The only character able to darken Ted’s door for any extended period of time was his separated wife, Michelle (Andrea Anders), a longtime witness of how his cheerfulness and affability can also serve as a barrier to deeper honesty.
It is, of course, totally fine that “Ted Lasso” is a fantasy; most fictional series, and many nonfiction works for that matter, eschew verisimilitude or complicating realities. But it’s also wholly fair to not want what “Ted Lasso” is selling, which is where I often find myself while watching this lovingly crafted, impressively written and acted series.
Given the international makeup of AFC Richmond, I would’ve preferred a show about soccer culture in the U.K. that deals more directly with the racial dynamics within its fan base, for example — an issue that Sudeikis himself recently addressed off-screen. And while the mutually admiring friendship between Rebecca and Keeley was a highlight of Season 1, it made me wonder if the writers had the stomach to dig into the potential tensions between the very different women — especially as now employer and employee — for Season 2.
Based on the first eight episodes (out of 12), the answer is no. If you were a fan of the energetic wholesomeness of the first season, the follow-up offers much of the same. There’s some plot convolutions to bring back Jamie, who had been traded away from AFC Richmond, and Roy, who had aged out of the game. (If there’s one thing “Ted Lasso” isn’t optimistic about, it’s post-field life.) A canceled deal with a polluting corporate sponsor gives Rebecca a headache and will probably snowball into a central story line later in the season. And Ted launches a new charm offensive against another future convert of the Lasso school of thought, the team’s sports psychologist (Sarah Niles), who’s just as practiced as he is in the art of deflection.
As a series ethos, niceness is probably harder to make entertaining than nastiness, which may be why it’s rarer to come by. The “Ted Lasso” team excel at devising instances of creative kindness (often embodied by the kind of grand gestures we used to associate with romantic comedies), whether it be Ted organizing an exorcism of the team’s treatment room to boost morale or chivalrously elbowing Rebecca’s vituperative ex away from her with an impromptu dart duel.
It’s an undeniably enticing idea: that being relentlessly positive (at least in the Lasso way) doesn’t make you boring, but rather resourceful and visionary. And if all that has you feeling a bit grinchy, well, come join me under the bleachers.
Ted Lasso (Season 2) premieres Friday on Apple TV Plus. New episodes stream weekly.