“Ted Lasso” may be the sweetest show on television, a celebration of healthy masculinity with a high quotient of laugh lines. But one of the central stories of its second season is a romance that feels increasingly sour — and that highlights how far conversations about sex and power in the workplace have to go.
After spending much of the first season struggling to get over her truly wretched ex-husband, Richmond AFC owner Rebecca Welton (newly minted Emmy winner Hannah Waddingham) has started dating again. She’s had a one-night stand with a cute hotel waiter and a few dates with a perfect-on-paper guy with whom she felt no tangible connection. But when Rebecca gets on a new dating app, she meets a fellow user who feels like her soul mate — and who turns out to be Sam Obisanya (an endearing and seductive Toheeb Jimoh), one of the Richmond players.
It’s a classic meet-cute, with obvious complications. Rebecca is older and more experienced than Sam. She signs his paychecks. And it’s clear from earlier developments in the series that Rebecca has a tendency to make decisions about the team that are driven more by her emotional needs than smart business calculations.
In the first season, Rebecca hired Ted Lasso (series co-creator Jason Sudeikis) to lead the team in the hopes that the American football coach would run Richmond into the ground, thereby driving her ex-husband crazy. And, earlier in this season, she blew off the team’s jersey sponsor after Sam developed ethical qualms about its parent company’s impact on the environment in his home country of Nigeria.
In the real world, that’s a choice that could cost a football club millions of pounds. On the show, the sponsor was replaced, with no consequences for the team’s finances or competitive prospects.
To a certain extent, the show’s inclination to see only the best in this courtship is in keeping with what’s most appealing about “Ted Lasso.” Sam is an appealing alternative to the selfish vision of masculinity embodied by Rebecca’s ex-husband: He’s principled, emotionally open and courtly. Rebecca’s arc has long been about freeing herself from the emotional damage inflicted by her marriage and reopening herself to authentic relationships. That pattern holds true even in the latest episode of “Ted Lasso,” in which Rebecca tells Sam they need to take a break so she can work on herself.
But the portrayal of the relationship also ducks another key “Ted Lasso” value: accountability.
The show’s cheerfully willful blindness has been even clearer since Rebecca and Sam started dating. The actors who play the characters have terrific chemistry, and the inclination to root for them to be happy is natural. But that doesn’t erase the possible consequences of their liaison — or the potential for abuse to occur within it.
Rebecca is a woman, but her gender doesn’t eliminate her power over Sam, or the possibility that her feelings for and about him might have a spillover effect on the club. What happens if they break up for good and Sam’s disappointment dents his performance — or Rebecca retaliates against him? And even if the relationship does work out, it puts everyone in an awful professional position: Ted, who might feel unable to bench Sam if he slumps; Sam, who won’t know if any opportunities he gets are truly earned; and Rebecca, whose decision-making about Sam’s future contract will inevitably be tainted.
The fact that the highest ranks of government and the corporate world are so thoroughly dominated by men, both in the United States and Britain, may lead some to think of sexual harassment and abuse of power as exclusively male problems. But it would show greater respect for Rebecca as a character, and as a businesswoman, to acknowledge the potential for her to do harm even while meaning well.
Neither does being a woman erase the differences of age, race and nationality at play in this relationship. Given the racist abuse Black soccer players experienced from English fans earlier this year, these factors could easily be explosive were Sam and Rebecca’s relationship to become public. The powers behind “Ted Lasso” are clearly aware of these dynamics: Sudeikis donned a shirt supporting the targeted British soccer players. The series has just chosen not to engage with the dynamics in any deep way.
The solution to this fastidiousness isn’t for “Ted Lasso” to become a dour, moralistic drama about the dangers of workplace relationships or the damage done by racism. Rather, it would be to do what our conversations about sex and the workplace need more of: to acknowledge that power dynamics are complicated, that we can consent enthusiastically to things that carry risks for us, and that good intentions may be no match for larger forces.
“Ted Lasso” may be sentimental, but at its best, it’s not blind. Both fans of the series, and Rebecca and Sam themselves, deserve to be treated like adults. If accountability is sexy, “Ted Lasso” should prove it.