One of the most breathtaking moments in HBO’s excellent Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? happens within, of all places, the walls of Congress. It’s 1969, and Fred Rogers is addressing a committee of seasoned, cynical politicians looking to cut PBS’s funding in half—you can tell just by looking at them that they’ve already made up their minds about doing it. But in six minutes, Mister Rogers took the chairman of the committee, John Pastore, from blithely disinterested to the verge of tears. In the end, PBS got the funding it needed. Throughout his time in the spotlight, there was a quiet confidence behind Mister Rogers’s warmth and empathy—that through his innate, unwavering kindness, he could get through to anyone. (Side note: Don’t watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? if there aren’t any tissues handy.)
Now, if last year I were to tell you that the television presence closest to Fred Rogers in 2020 would be an American football coach hired to manage a struggling soccer club in London—a character initially conceived for NBC commercials about the network’s acquisition of the television rights to the Premier League—then I’d be justifiably laughed out of the room. But that’s right where Ted Lasso wants you. It was easy to be cynical about Ted Lasso working as a TV series: For starters, the history of popular commercials transforming into sitcoms isn’t exactly covered in glory. Throw in the fact that the show was coming out on Apple TV+, a nascent streaming service that’s largely failed to gain as much traction as its competitors, and was advertised with an objectively underwhelming trailer, and it felt like the writing was on the wall. I was skeptical enough about Ted Lasso’s critical standing that I pitched a review of the show in the summer with the expectation that it would stink, and the lesson would be that Apple was so desperate to make a streaming hit that they resorted to milking old commercials for a creative spark.
My built-in cynicism concerning Ted Lasso mirrored the fictional Premier League club AFC Richmond’s reaction to bringing in a manager with no experience in the sport. Lasso’s hire, the viewer is quick to find out, is an intentional sabotage by club owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), who’s trying to get back at her philandering ex-husband by having his beloved AFC Richmond relegated through managerial incompetence. Given the circumstances, the players are pissed off, the media’s prepared to skewer Lasso, and the fans don’t mince words—on social media, “Ted Lasso” quickly becomes synonymous with “wanker.” There is perhaps no one angrier about Lasso’s hiring than the club’s captain, Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), a Premier League legend approaching the end of his storied career. “He thinks he’s mad now,” Lasso says to his assistant coach with a knowing look of contentment spread across his face, “wait till we win him over.” Lasso might as well be speaking to the audience.
As series cocreator and star Jason Sudeikis describes the title character he plays, Lasso’s a cross between Mister Rogers and John Wooden. To understand Lasso’s boundless optimism, I’ll present you with his completely earnest answer to whether he believes in ghosts: “I do, but more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves.” That quote essentially doubles as the Ted Lasso mission statement: While Rebecca thinks she brought in Lasso to destroy AFC Richmond from within, it’s the club that’s already in a state of disarray, from the ownership on down. Lasso comes in like a mustachioed therapist, thawing away the club’s collective cynicism and the individual characters’ insecurities, beginning with the simple act of sticking a poster with the word “BELIEVE” on a wall in the locker room.
If Ted Lasso sounds like it’s steeped in the world of sports clichés, that’s because, to an extent, it unapologetically is. Rebecca’s scheme is plucked right out of the 1989 comedy Major League, and it’s hard not to get Friday Night Lights vibes once the show becomes more invested in the club’s results on the pitch. But what’s made Ted Lasso such a delightful and refreshing watch is both nuanced and quite simple: The show isn’t just about believing in oneself, it’s about seeing the best in other people and doing right by them. You only need to look at the state of the world during a pandemic and at America’s institutional failures to understand why the unshakable optimism for humanity at the core of Ted Lasso feels like it was beamed in from a parallel universe.
Ted Lasso hammers home this endearing message by giving every character in its deep ensemble—minus Rebecca’s ex, though he’s played with a devilish charm by Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum Anthony Head—redemptive qualities that other sitcoms might dismiss or turn into easy punch lines. A lesser show would’ve portrayed Rebecca as an out-and-out villain for her constant efforts to undermine her own club, but we soon understand that her steely resolve and emotional inhibitions are their own tragic coping mechanisms. Roy’s short temper disguises the creeping anxiety about what his life will become when he’s no longer a footballer—he’s also the kind of secret softie who loves taking his niece out for ice cream and regularly attends a yoga class with older women. The arrogant, me-first attitude of the club’s superstar loanee Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) is toxic masculinity personified: a means to impress an absentee father who only values him for his contributions on the pitch.
Most importantly, Lasso himself isn’t exempt from the show’s introspective gaze: An impending divorce weighs on him so heavily that he has a panic attack at a karaoke bar in the seventh episode of the season. In fact, his existential crisis becomes one of Ted Lasso’s most moving sequences: It’s none other than Rebecca who goes out of her way to comfort Ted in spite of her ongoing desire to see him fail. Having the show’s title character succumb to his own personal challenges—one that requires the help of others to overcome—makes Lasso all the more human, rather than the physical embodiment of a wall of motivational quotes. We can try to be the best version of ourselves, but there’s no shame in asking for help if you’re struggling to get through the day.
The ingredients that make up Ted Lasso—the underdog sports story, the fish-out-of-water comedy, the differences between football and football, the uplifting reminder that we’re all capable of being better people—aren’t exactly going to change the way people think about television. But that doesn’t mean that the show isn’t subversive in its hopefulness. Consider (minor spoiler alert) the central tension of the first season: What happens when Ted finds out that Rebecca’s been sabotaging him every step of the way, and never had faith in him as a coach in the first place? Most shows—even sitcoms—would milk the drama of this inevitable confrontation for all its worth. But when Rebecca finally musters the courage to tell Ted the truth, he practices what he preaches: “I forgive you. Divorce is hard.” In less than a minute, conflict resolved.
Rebecca can’t help but embrace Ted; I couldn’t help but cry. There have been plenty of good shows this year, and most of my favorites (Better Call Saul, ZeroZeroZero, Gangs of London) don’t quite renew one’s faith in humanity—frankly, they feel like appropriate 2020 viewing all the more for it. But no series I’ve watched this year has been more rewarding, on an emotional level, than Ted Lasso. I mean this sincerely: The show has struck an optimistic chord in my increasingly cynical heart and made me want to be a better person. Making the pivot from “Oh my god, Apple is trying to turn a character from a couple of commercials into a sitcom” to “I will do right by you, Coach Lasso” sounds startling, but I assure you that it’s inevitable. Just give Ted Lasso’s first season a shot, and wait till he wins you over.