Auf Wiedersehen, Ted Lasso

Ted Lasso went home, back to Kansas. Much like Dorothy, and Bernie Taupin, he realized his future lies beyond the yellow brick road. But he didn’t leave Richmond and its A.F.C., or us, unchanged. Much as he was Dorothy, he was a Mary Poppins figure, too – who flew into London to save the family, and left when he felt his time had come, and they were good without him.

Starting out as a seemingly simple fish-out-of-water comedy about an American football coach being hired to coach a Premier League football club (actual football, not handball football), it was soon clear that the show was anything but. And over its three-season run, it evolved from half-hour comedy into dramedy and eventually, into a full hour drama, something only possible in the age of streaming. And since it was the show that put Apple TV+ on the map, winning countless awards over its first two years (and likely adding to them over the coming months), it may have not been all too hard of a fight to convince Apple and Warner to shell out the budget needed to do so.

For a show named after its titular character, it really wasn’t ever so much about him rather than what he stood for (again something he has in common with the magical nanny). Ted Lasso’s mission was to make his players the best possible version of themselves, on and off the field. What that entailed were grand scale lessons of belief, kindness, accountability, and forgiveness, for these players, but also every other character – and crucially, for the show’s audience. Along the way, the series interrogated masculinity and mental health in such profound ways that its cast ended up being invited to the White House to advocate for the importance of seeking help and treatment for mental illness. A quite curious feat for something based on ads for NBC Sports that co-creators Jason Sudeikis, Brendan Hunt and Joe Kelly had written and starred in a decade earlier (for the final show, they were joined by veteran showrunner Bill Lawrence).

The success of Ted Lasso, as hard as these things are often to pinpoint, is ultimately owned to a variety of things: first of all, there is of course the absolutely brilliant writing and cast, a mix of a few familiar faces with a large swath of scene stealing newcomers – some of which were since propelled to stardom. (Brett Goldstein is perhaps the biggest success story out of the bunch, now also co-creator of Shrinking, perfecting his comedy set I expect to soon be a Netflix special, and starring as MCU’s Hercules). But it is also the timing: Ted arrived in our lives when perhaps so many of us needed him the most, another Poppins-esque feat nobody could have planned for. The first season filmed before the pandemic broke out, but it didn’t premiere until summer 2020, when we were all in the thick of it. Not only was everyone starved for some great television to watch during those months of on-and-off lockdown and remote work, but its humor, big heart and profound message of kindness fell on especially fertile ground.

By the time the third season arrived in March 2023, the hype had grown to the show regularly trending on Twitter, fans getting tattoos (guilty as charged), a slew of merchandise being released,  a boost to men’s football’s popularity across the pond, and actual Premier League sponsorship on screen. But the once critical darling suddenly was faced with more and more naysayers, with voices on social media and from journalists alike growing louder and uglier by the week. In many ways, it was perhaps always primed to experience this backlash. While season 1 was the little show that could, a word-of-mouth sensation everyone loved to recommend and perhaps pretend they had discovered, season 2 had already been met with more mixed opinions – ”too dark”, “too woke”, being the more predictable, if frustratingly inaccurate ones. But by season 3 it had reached that level of popularity that could only mean the tables had to turn in a climate of media discourse that’s sometimes barely above that of middle-school girls – if something’s too popular, it’s just uncool to like it. And especially if it’s in any way close to corny. (Which the show never really was, but that is certainly the perspective people who never even watched it seem to have of it.)

The truth is, that Ted Lasso is smart, maybe too smart for its own good, and its humor incredibly broad. It effortlessly pulls off Dad jokes, references to Nora Ephron, casual conversations about pegging and liberal use of the f-word, all within minutes. The right-wing complaints about “wokeness” of course don’t come from nothing, either: it revealed three of its main characters as queer in the third season (after planting seeds long before), addressed systemic racism in professional football, and the sexualization and mistreatment of women in the workplace and beyond – just to name a few things. Somehow, it managed to wrap all of this up in the happy marriage of a sports film and a rom-com in Nora Ephron’s “Jewish tradition”: at its heart, it’s about overcoming internal obstacles. It’s a story about personal growth.

And as such, every characters tells it: Ted (Sudeikis) goes from a man who runs from his failing marriage and young son, and most crucially, his own traumatic past to someone who finally faces both. Coach Beard (Hunt), the one character most steadfast and until the very end least changed, finally realizes his own place and what to do with his second chance on life he was given. Roy Kent (Goldstein), footballer at the end of his career, riddled by depression and self-hate, becomes a coach and learns to love others, and most importantly, himself. Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), an arrogant striker, leaves the shadow of his abusive father behind, and turns into a team player, key to Richmond’s success. Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), the club’s owner, lets go of wanting revenge on her ex-husband and figures out who she is, and what she wants, without him. Keeley Jones (Juno Temple) turns from model and C-list celebrity defined by dating footballers into an independent woman who runs her own PR-firm. Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh) learns how to bring his Nigerian roots to his racist London present. And then there‘s Nate Shelley (Nick Mohammed), who goes through the perhaps most crucial arc of them all, the prodigal son returned. Promoted by him from kitman to assistant coach, he betrays Ted, and his team, by the end of Season 2, only to go on a long road of redemption that isn‘t necessarily completed where we left off – but he’s back where he started, and better for it.

It is a feat to work with such a big ensemble and yet give all of their characters life, and that’s not even mentioning all the recurring guest stars such as James Lance (who plays Trent Crimm), Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift), Cristo Fernández (Dani Rojas), Kola Bokinni (Isaac McAdoo), Billy Harris (Colin Hughes), Charlie J. Hiscock (Will Kitman), who all got more time to shine as the show went on, with everyone delivering stellar performances. Or the villains, Anthony Head’s Rupert Mannion and Sam Richardson’s Edwin Akufo, who regularly showed up to chew scenery.  It’s impossible to list everyone here, but it truly was an embarrassment of riches. Brett Goldstein said in interviews that he believes the show has magic – and looking at perfect hours of television such as Season 2’s “Rainbow” or Season 3’ “Sunflowers”, it’s really hard to argue with that.

On a more personal, final, note, I can say, without hyperbole, that the show saved my life (and I know I am not alone with that). It was around for what perhaps were the hardest three years of my 33, and not only did it give me a community, because of friends I found online in its fandom, it also made me feel seen. I saw myself in Ted’s panic attacks and struggles with depression, in Roy standing in his own way, in Nate’s fraught relationship with his parents, in Jamie’s ego, in Keeley’s tendency to jump from one relationship to the next, in Rebecca’s inability to move on from past abuse. But if I could see myself in their worst moments, I learned – I am still learning – to also see myself in their best. In Ted’s unwavering ability forgiveness, Roy’s talent to only give a fuck only when it counts, Nate’s brilliant mind, Jamie’s belief in himself… I could go on forever.

And that is the true gift of Ted Lasso: it gave us all tools to do better, to be better. The show has taught me, has taught us, so much, of what I think can be summed up as the “ABCs” of Ted Lasso: Accountability, Belief, Community, Chances, and Change. And given that change is never truly, completed, it feels fitting yet again that it ends just when we still feel like we need it the most. It has given all of us a second chance. What we make of it now is up to us. So, thank you, creators, cast and crew of Ted Lasso, for this gift you have given us. And fuck you, for wrapping it (up) already.

P.S.: If there’s a season 4 or a spin-off… well, I said auf Wiedersehen, not goodbye, didn’t I?