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Return of the Gaffer

After ‘Ted Lasso’ won over the TV-viewing public in 2020, the show returns on Friday with a new challenge: living up to the ideals of compassion and accountability it laid out in Season 1

AppleTV+/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Ted Lasso’s first season arrived on Apple TV+ in August 2020, expectations were low—if there were any expectations at all for a show based on a series of NBC soccer promos. Oddly enough, the initial lack of enthusiasm was thematically appropriate: The audience’s journey reflected that of the skeptical footballers at fictional Premier League club AFC Richmond, who learned that their new coach (played by Jason Sudeikis) was a corny American with no prior experience in the sport. Ted Lasso won that locker room over, and 11 months, 20 Emmy nominations, and countless heartwarming testimonials later, there’s no denying that Ted Lasso won the world over, too.

A common sentiment among the Ted Lasso faithful is that it was a balm in an otherwise bleak 2020; its underlying message of empathy and seeing the best in other people was aspirational, even therapeutic. But for all the warranted focus on Ted Lasso being a beacon of light in a dark year, the show didn’t shy away from moments of gloom. Coach Lasso didn’t just have to win over an entire locker room full of inflated egos, he was unknowingly being undermined by team owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) who wanted to tank the club in an act of vengeance against her philandering, soccer-obsessed ex-husband. Meanwhile, Lasso’s decision to coach at Richmond was borne out of an impending divorce and the futile hope that giving his wife some space on another continent would, over time, bring them back together. Throw in the fact that the Premier League, unlike the top American sports leagues, features the threat of relegation—where the bottom three clubs are demoted to a lower, much less financially advantageous tier—and Ted Lasso had a level of depth and dramatic tension that belied its title character’s cheery analogies and folksy charms. While wholesomeness was baked into Ted Lasso’s DNA, it was brought to life in how the characters responded to adversity.

Lasso couldn’t stop Richmond from being relegated on the final matchday of the season, but he succeeded in leading the club’s culture change—from Rebecca on down, everyone heads into Season 2 as a better version of themselves. (A little side note, though: It’s probably not a great sign that Lasso asked one of the linesmen to explain the offside rule to him in the finale; he should work on that.) But every character jumping on the Lasso bandwagon is a double-edged sword: Where does Ted Lasso go next when everyone is metaphorically on the same team?

There are two versions of Ted Lasso on display in Season 2 that speak to the show’s larger priorities. On the one hand, there are the familiar feel-good moments that have no real bearing on the plot, where Ted Lasso is coasting purely on vibes. The pinnacle of the “just vibes” approach is a Christmas-themed episode that essentially boils down to the entire ensemble doing very nice things for each other over the holidays—it’s the TV-viewing equivalent of being wrapped in a warm hug. (It’s no surprise that Apple didn’t have any “do not reveal” notes for the episode, because what’s there to spoil about a full-on kindness offensive?) But it’s the other side of Ted Lasso slowly building over the course of the new season that perhaps draws more intrigue: the challenge of living up to the Lasso-ian ideals of compassion and accountability, day in and day out, within a cutthroat industry that seemingly demands ruthlessness and winning above all else.

This season, Richmond’s goal (no pun intended) is to get promoted back into the Premier League, which would lessen the strain on the club’s operation as an actual business and its relationship with the local community. (If you want to see what it’s like when a real Premier League club freefalls, check out the absolutely tragic Sunderland ’Til I Die docuseries on Netflix.) Unfortunately, Richmond begins Season 2 mired in a slump—seven draws on the bounce—compounded by one of its star players missing a crucial penalty. And so the club brings in a sports psychologist, Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), to help Richmond get back to its winning ways on the pitch.

Given Lasso’s boundless optimism and the joy he derives out of making everyone around him practice empathy, one would assume that he’d appreciate the presence of a therapist. Instead, there’s a fascinating friction between him and Sharon, whose perspective on Lasso isn’t affected by all the good things he achieved in Season 1. It’s a different tension than the one that existed between Ted and Rebecca—for starters, Ted didn’t even realize Rebecca was trying to undermine him until the end of the season. But beyond that, while Sharon isn’t outwardly antagonistic toward Ted, she isn’t charmed by him, either. She’s like an immovable object, and the more Sharon calmly brushes off Lasso’s schmoozing while unpacking his persona, the more desperate he gets to please her.

The dynamic with Sharon underscores Lasso’s own shortcomings—how he doles out kindness to others as a way to avoid addressing his own anxieties. (Lest we forget the character’s panic attack last season, unsubtly sprung by Rebecca’s karaoke rendition of “Let It Go.”) But the fact that Lasso is clearly deflecting some kind of emotional reckoning doesn’t make his outward philosophy a flawed one; the show is merely seeding a notion about the equal importance of self-care.

It’s refreshing to see Lasso continue to be portrayed as someone with noble intentions and flaws, just as the rest of the ensemble aren’t immune to the occasional stumble simply because their coach gave some soul-nourishing pep talks last season. Rebecca is afraid to dive into another meaningful relationship after her ex’s emotionally abusive behavior; former superstar Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) struggles to find a new calling in post-retirement life; kit manager turned assistant coach Nate (Nick Mohammed) goes from being overly timid to disconcertingly egotistical. On Ted Lasso, the journey of self-improvement is not unlike Richmond’s EFL Championship season: long and demanding, but ultimately rewarding.

Having soccer as the backdrop of the series’ uplifting ethos gives Ted Lasso some built-in dramatic stakes—arguably even more than other iconic sports shows like Friday Night Lights, given the stark financial realities of relegation and promotion. But while Ted Lasso became a worth-of-mouth sensation because it appeals to more than just soccer fanatics, the show doesn’t treat the sport as merely a vessel for its compassionate outlook. Through understated touches like last season’s introduction to human golden retriever Dani Rojas to the Season 2 premiere ending on a song that’s a touching tribute to the legendary Diego Maradona, Ted Lasso’s creators (Sudeikis, costar Brendan Hunt, Bill Lawrence, and Joe Kelly) intuitively understand how the patience and camaraderie that soccer demands aligns with, and emphasizes, the show’s broader themes. To paraphrase what seems to be the only thing Dani Rojas is capable of saying: football is life, in all its eccentricities.

It’s these essential little details, and the characters continuing to work through individual and team-wide hardships, that keeps Ted Lasso from being just a series of motivational posters. Make no mistake, Ted Lasso is still plenty uplifting and goes through long, enjoyable spells of wholesome vibing—as far as heartwarming sitcoms go, it’s taken up the baton from Schitt’s Creek and the Mike Schur Television Universe. But Ted Lasso stays winning in its second season because the show understands that, as is true to soccer, life is defined by peaks and valleys—and how you respond to them.