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Opinion Thank God for Ted Lasso, the man America needs right now

From left, Brendan Hunt, Cristo Fernández and Jason Sudeikis in a scene from “Ted Lasso.” (Colin Hutton/Apple TV Plus/AP)

Thank God for “Ted Lasso.”

When the Apple TV Plus comedy about an American college football coach moving to England to head a Premier League soccer team debuted last summer as the pandemic raged, it gave viewers the empathetic, uproarious company they badly needed.

While that accident of timing certainly helped make “Ted Lasso” a cultural phenomenon, the specific nature of the show’s kindness is as important as its fundamental decency. Men in pop culture — and reality — just don’t seem to be doing very well right now. The mustachioed, endlessly quotable titular football coach, who returns in a new season Friday, models a more appealing way to be a man.

Certainly, the “Ted Lasso” philosophy seems to have more to offer than some other recent counterexamples.

Guy Ritchie’s mournful “Wrath of Man” and the most recent “Fast & Furious” movie both feature a lot of — admittedly entertaining — destruction that might have been avoided with a little therapy and clear communication. Norse god of mischief Loki has been reduced to a traumatized sad sack in the Marvel television show that bears his name. The 45th president of the United States is making desperate bids for attention. His replacement seems like a healthier individual, though he still sometimes sounds as if he’s challenging opponents to meet him outside the malt shop and put up their dukes. And that doesn’t even begin to touch men’s lower life expectancy, declining rates of college enrollment and worse health outcomes.

But Ted Lasso — both the show and the character — represents something different: a boundless faith that men in general, and in particular the men he coaches, can be “the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”

For Ted, that “best version” encompasses both self-confidence and a drive to self-improve; openness that stops short of self-pity; mutual support that’s made possible by deep inner reserves; and a dedication to righting wrongs with a keen sense of how not to foster victimhood. Ted is undeniably masculine, but he regards women and feminine skills with curiosity rather than contempt or confusion. He’s like Ron Swanson, the meat-loving libertarian from “Parks and Recreation,” if Ron knew how to bake and was slightly less attached to a self-destructive pursuit of manly stoicism.

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At core, “Ted Lasso” argues that Ted’s vision of how to be a man is good for him and the men he mentors, not merely a doctrine of reformation intended to make men less damaging to women. In the forthcoming season of the show, Ted’s example gives one of his former players the skills to deepen a romantic relationship (including through an all-time hilarious sex scene) and find a new career; inspires a rising star to embrace activism; and persuades a third player to stop treating self-destruction as a means to independence.

Part of Ted’s appeal is that he embodies the journey to self-actualization, rather than the destination. He seems as though he’d make someone a terrific husband, but his first marriage failed. Ted has panic attacks, and while he’s able to accept help from friends, he’s resistant to therapy in a way he knows is not entirely rational. He’s not so perfect as to be intimidating; it’s his steadfast dedication to doing things the right way and getting better in the process that seems worth emulating.

That sense of commitment is especially striking in contrast with “Roadrunner,” Morgan Neville’s new documentary about Anthony Bourdain. The chef, author and travel show host became an inspiration to his many fans. But “Roadrunner” chronicles a painful period in Bourdain’s life when he seemed to use that power as a way to hurt people. He fired longtime collaborators and told his friend, the chef David Chang, that Chang “would never be a good dad.” Even if Bourdain’s late cruelties were an expression of his own fears about himself, they still wounded their targets. Taken together, “Roadrunner” and “Ted Lasso” are a reminder of how crucial it is to support people who are striving for more — and how scarce that steadfastness is.

“Ted Lasso” isn’t doing the work of male self-improvement alone, of course.

Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian” became a hit for the streaming service by inverting the antihero framework. Rather than follow the show’s protagonist on a moral descent, “The Mandalorian” mined its drama out of a man’s discovery of his conscience and heroic fight to live in accordance with it. Lil Nas X has become a major pop star on the strength of his puckish approach to the culture wars, and the obvious delight and sense of exploration he brings to his evolving identity as a Black, queer man.

But it’s the utter un-edginess and friendliness “Ted Lasso” uses to make its case that gives the series its power both as comedy and argument. If someone as optimistic and dedicated as Ted believes in your capacity to be your best self, it’s hard to resist agreeing with him.

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