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What Lies Beneath Ted Lasso

Optimism defines TV’s favorite football coach, but so do mood swings, manic reveries, and a deep hunger to win

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

Consider this possibility: Maybe he’s not really that nice after all. Maybe it’s all about results.

The first season of Apple TV+’s coach-out-of-water comedy Ted Lasso was justifiably praised as a tonic of humanity and cross-cultural understanding during last year’s tumult. Jason Sudeikis’s title character is an American college football coach from Kansas, who for a variety of barely plausible reasons finds himself coaching AFC Richmond, a struggling Premier League team, without knowing even the basic rudiments of his newly adopted sport. During the season’s 10-episode arc, Lasso overcomes his players’ reasonable skepticism, ownership’s skulduggery, and his own failing marriage to bring the team to the brink of redemption. Lasso’s major gift as a coach is a kind of weaponized optimism, an empathy so hardwired that it wears down even the most cynical of his antagonists. It’s very funny, and very moving, to see him unite his ragtag crew of cast-off players and befuddled assistants into a unified and cohesive whole—he is a Pangloss of the pitch.

But there are times during the season when it’s possible to sense something else to Lasso as well. Facing estrangement from his wife and child back home, he drinks heavily and experiences panic attacks—moments that broadly hint that relentless kindness may be partially in service of holding something back. And then, in the final scene of the first season, we get an authentic glimpse behind the curtain of Ted Lasso’s psyche.

Having lost their last game in heartbreaking fashion, Lasso meets with AFC Richmond’s owner Rebecca Welton, whom he has feuded with and finally won over by sheer force of personality. Nevertheless, he assumes his tenure is over and proffers his resignation, which Welton surprises him by refusing. She then explains the challenge that lies before him: Having been relegated to a lower division, AFC Richmond must first regain its Premiership status and then resume competing against the best clubs in England. Something like anger flashes in his eyes. Then he delivers the following monologue:

“So then, next year we get ourselves a promotion, which looks good on any résumé. Then we come back to this league and … we do something that no one believes we could ever do: win the whole fucking thing.”

It seems like an uncharacteristic moment, but it shouldn’t be all that shocking. All season long the implication has been that, for all of his sweetness, there is something off about Lasso. Now, suddenly, it becomes transparent. Like so many successful coaches, he is utterly obsessed with winning. Driven by a sense of being underestimated and misunderstood—a mindset adjacent to rage—he has maneuvered himself into a position where he has never been considered less likely to succeed. Perhaps Lasso’s kindness-at-all-costs gambit has been entirely tactical, the most efficient way for a hungry competitor to get ahead. It’s a psychological swerve that feels both well-earned and a little bit chilling. As we approach the premiere of Season 2, we remain in Lasso’s goofball thrall, but the series has cleverly seeded the carnival atmosphere with an undercurrent of compulsion, and even sports-addled madness.

Sports fans are well aware of the kindhearted archetype known as the players’ coach. In the ’70s and ’80s, George “Sparky” Anderson won championships with both the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers while speaking almost entirely in aphorisms like “it don’t cost a dime to be nice to someone.” Anderson was considered something of a rube by many of his peers in baseball—endlessly likable, but feckless when it came to strategy. But this was an idea he actively sought to perpetuate: In a fascinating 1993 Sports Illustrated profile by Steve Rushin, toward the end of his long tenure as the Tigers’ manager, Anderson goes to great lengths to promote his hayseed image and perhaps even give the impression of senility, although he was only 59 at the time. Anderson seems to have been a genuinely nice man, but between the lines of Rushin’s profile, there are some odd beats. He enthuses at length when informed of an 18-minute beanball-inspired brawl the previous evening between the Anaheim Angels and Toronto Blue Jays. “They said it was great! And it was Ball Night, and the fans were throwin’ the baseballs at ‘em!” It’s also revealed that he had taken 17 days off during the 1989 season for “personal reasons.” Anderson loved being underestimated as only a grown man who agrees to be called “Sparky” can be. His 2,194 victories as a manager ranks sixth all time, and he remains one of only two skippers to win the World Series with teams from both the American and National leagues. At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2000, he said the following: “I got good players, stayed out of the way, let ‘em win a lot, and then just hung around for 26 years.” Even as Cooperstown feted his achievements, Anderson remained unwilling to concede that he had been more than a passive observer on a quarter-century-long hot streak.

The aw-shucksing Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls in 10 years with the Washington Football Team during the 1980s and ’90s, all the while exhibiting an unending string of public self-effacement—and also a punishingly self-destructive work ethic. A soft-spoken North Carolina native who apprenticed under Don “Air” Coryell, Gibbs was an offensive visionary whose teams won a championship in his second season and set an NFL record for scoring in his third. He saw the future of football but was utterly determined not to let you know it. In pregame press conferences, Gibbs fell all over himself describing how formidable he perceived his future adversaries to be and what little chance he gave his own team. When, more often than not, his team would demolish their opponents, he’d react with wide-eyed surprise and wonder. Over time, his relentless sandbagging became a kind of meta joke. In the 1992 NFC championship game, Washington was a huge favorite over the Detroit Lions, whom they had beaten 45-0 earlier in the season. Far from being overconfident, Gibbs admitted he was a psychic wreck: “When you get this close, you get so nervous, you can hardly rest or sleep,” he told reporters. “You’re kind of agitated. You’re wanting to work and think. It’s kind of hard to concentrate on things.” The game was never close—Washington won 41-10—but by then Gibbs had gone on to wringing his hands about how great the Buffalo Bills team was that they would crush in the Super Bowl two weeks later.

When Gibbs retired from coaching for the first time, his physical and psychological health was in steep decline; he seemingly hadn’t slept in years. Ted Lasso subtly suggests that its protagonist might be on a similar trajectory. There is formidable competition for the most heartwarming scene in Season 1, but there is a runaway winner as to the most unnerving. Midway through Episode 7, Lasso is drunk to the point of belligerence, poring over the divorce papers his soon-to-be ex-wife insists that he sign. As he stares dolefully into a mirror, you wonder if he’s hit a new low. Then his loyal assistant Nate appears at the door, delivering plays and ideas for the next day’s game as he had been instructed to do. Lasso upbraids him cruelly and needlessly, but in the light of day less than 24 hours later, he apologizes profusely. The psychic whiplash is brutal. Prior to the team’s next match, Lasso asks a still-emotional Nate to deliver the pregame speech, which he proceeds to do with the unvarnished nastiness of a gentle soul experiencing the aftermath of a trauma. As Nate detonates one brutal (and accurate) critique after the next on the shell-shocked locker room, Lasso nods along cheerfully. He’s managed to manipulate his underling into saying all of the terrible things he knows his team needs to hear, but prefers not to say himself. Sparky Anderson and Joe Gibbs would be proud.

Unceasing optimism defines Ted Lasso. But roller-coaster mood storms, manic reveries, and seemingly deliberate head games also define Ted Lasso, the players’ coach, and make him one of the best and most-layered characters of the peak TV era. He’s a man who presents himself as two-dimensional, but who might actually be playing three-dimensional chess. We delight in his antics, marinate in his charm offensive, and celebrate his offbeat approach to winning the whole fucking thing. But at all times, there’s a slight worry, one that crops up in the back of our minds, about what he might be willing to do to make it happen.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.