“Ted Lasso” Is Still Good

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By the time you read this, the finale of Ted Lasso’s second season will be available for you to watch. This may not matter much to you because by the time you read this, you may have already written off the show in the aftermath of the oddly outsize backlash it received at the start of the season. There was plenty of discourse about how the show lost its spark, or why Ted himself is actually the problem, or, heck, why you shouldn’t have found it funny in the first place.

You should tune out the noise and make it to the finale of the second season — because at the end of what was certainly a less taut season than its first, Lasso is more certain of its own raison d’être. Season 2 started off more wobbly. The writing was on occasion less crisp than the first season, and the jokes more forced. But by the time its arc concludes, it’s clear that Lasso never forgot its own assignment: to take sizable risks in story and in character, and make a complicated show about empathy and forgiveness.

Lasso follows the adventures of the titular character, played by Jason Sudeikis, who is also the co-creator of the show. Ted is an American football coach who finds himself coaching an English soccer team. If this sounds hokey, it’s because it kind of is: The character was born as part of NBC’s 2013 promotional push after acquiring the TV rights to the Premier League. Basically, the original Ted Lasso spots made mildly amusing jokes about the fact that even though both sports are called football, they are quite different.

Look beyond the heightened expectations of fans and the jaded eye of critics, and you’ll find Lasso is one of the best shows on TV right now.

When translating the skit to a full-scale TV show for Apple TV+, Sudeikis and company fudged around with the commercial version of Ted, and instead made him a lovable oaf, whose overwhelming optimism is both cringeworthy and transformative. His sunniness was the vehicle that carried the debut season first to word-of-mouth success, then, surprisingly, to smashing critical success. People fell in love with Ted. And how could they not? The show debuted six months into an exhausting global pandemic, and three months before one of the divisive elections in American history. A show about kindness was just what the doctor ordered.

Aided by a weekly episodic release, Lasso slowly became a phenomenon. When people recommended it to friends, they did it with broad smiles and full hearts. Soon, the love from critics followed. It was nominated for a Golden Globe. Then it won a Peabody. Then the floodgates opened: By the time the first season was done racking up accolades, it had 20 Emmy nominations — the most for a debut comedy in the award show's history. That’s bonkers. It won seven, including the big one, the award for outstanding comedy series.

It’s the kind of rapturous reception that, inevitably, invites examination. As it should. Yes, the first season flew under the radar into the hearts of the masses, but its second season would not go so unnoticed. So the reviews for the first eight episodes of the season — made available early for critics — rolled out, and they were, well, critical. A New Yorker piece on the show’s second season, with the relatively mild headline “Ted Lasso Can’t Save Us,” became, perhaps involuntarily, the avatar of critiques of the second Lasso offering.

This is where things got a little wild. In the normal world, readers might disagree with critics and keep it moving. That’s the normal circle of life. But Lasso was different: Its fans felt the need to organize a defense. Criticism of its earnestness felt like an attack on the necessity of earnestness itself.

The tension was already brewing at the launch of the second season, but reached a fever pitch — or as Vulture put it, became “supercharged” — after the fourth episode, the Christmas episode. For Lasso detractors, the overly sentimental episode exposed the limits of the show’s sunny outlook (“so indulgently saccharine that it made me feel paranoid,” wrote the New Yorker). For the show’s defenders, it’s exactly what’s right with the show: It’s unafraid to double down on schmaltz, during a deficit of sweetness.

The trouble is: The heightened internet Discourse around the validity of Lasso’s sweetness took up all the air in the room, and left little space to fairly evaluate a solid second season that quietly went about subverting some long-standing TV tropes and methodically challenging the thesis of its first season while delivering fully fleshed out, complicated characters. Look beyond the binary reception of its second season, beyond the heightened expectations of fans and the jaded eye of critics, and you’ll find Lasso is one of the best shows on TV right now.

The second season of Ted Lasso takes a moment to get going. This is a trap of the writers’ own making: By the end of the first season, its most identifiable villains — club owner Rebecca Welton, played brilliantly by Hannah Waddingham, and star player Jamie Tartt — have been fully humanized, each one won over by the Lasso approach to life. It’s a nice conclusion that leaves us with no obvious source of tension to drag the show forward.

So the second season eases into a different tension: an inner one. Ted’s world is complicated by the arrival of Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), who takes a job as the team’s psychologist. Dr. Sharon is introduced as an able foil to Ted’s overwhelming positivity: Where he succeeded in the first season through a pep talk or positive reinforcement, Dr. Sharon has more success by exposing and acknowledging the wounds of others. Ted is forced to confront the limitations of his approach.

The absence of an immediate opposing force hurts the season’s start — it is a risky and audacious move to make the opposition of a TV show, simply, the weaknesses of the protagonist. It’s also, at the start, a bit boring. But as Lasso progresses, viewers are rewarded with a thorough study of the consequences of those mistakes.

It is a risky and audacious move to make the opposition of a TV show, simply, the weaknesses of the protagonist.

This is not to say the show is only interested in Ted’s failings. In these episodes, Lasso is particularly adept at fleshing out its ensemble cast and giving them depth, giving them greater purpose than only letting Ted see where he has failed. Jamie’s revelations about his father are heartbreaking. Ditto the way Nate’s anger builds, slowly and tragically at first until it turns unforgivable. The fan-favorite romance between Roy and Keeley hit all the right notes. Meanwhile, another romance was a notable misfire.

But every time the show returned to its titular hero, he was less enmeshed in the rich world around him, and more entangled in his own inner turmoil. Ted has panic attacks and has to leave the team he coaches; he repeatedly declines to ask for help; he is late to a funeral; he unthinkingly hurts the feelings of those around him, in recognizably careless ways. There is no malice here, Ted just has some demons to confront. The risk Lasso is taking is that even though these internal conflicts pale in comparison to the familiar cruelties of outward villains, they are enough to keep an audience. In order for this to work, Lasso must bet that viewers will become invested in the small stakes.

The central thesis of Lasso’s second season is that it is hard to be a good person, and sometimes it’s hard just to want to be a good person. At its core, the Lasso project is about empathy: its abundance, its dearth, the ways it can transform a person or a group, and what happens when you can’t access it. It’s a thesis that holds together through all of the episodes. All, except….

It’s a fair charge to say the Christmas episode did not serve the show.

Sigh. First: Consider, for a moment, that the episode that launched a thousand tweets was never supposed to exist at all. After Lasso’s writers room was done writing 10 episodes, Apple wanted more. Perhaps to seize on the runaway success of the first season, Apple requested two more episodes. So Sudeikis and company delivered two stand-alone episodes, which became episodes 4, the aforementioned Christmas episode, and 9, “Beard After Hours,” which follows the adventures of Lasso’s sidekick Coach Beard, played by Brendan Hunt, who is also one of the show’s creators.

It’s a fair charge to say the Christmas episode did not serve the show. It’s terribly lovely and undeniably sweet, but it pops up at a moment when things are going from bad to worse, and it takes the momentum out of the story. Some critics wondered if the show would recover from it. It somehow became a referendum on the quality of the show.

But if the episode was a misstep, it was a solution to a greater problem: the problem of expectations. That a TV show becomes synonymous with softness and comfort is not easy. That it does so during two of the most hellish years in collective memory is an even harder feat. Such labels create expectations for how the show will make you feel — perhaps expectations that Lasso itself never wanted. Then those expectations become more potent after you win awards.

The greatest error of Lasso’s second season was, even briefly, trying to meet those expectations. Without Episode 4 and the ensuing tangential debate on whether earnestness has a place on TV, Lasso’s second season stands on its own as a meaningful examination of the show’s first season and an argument for kindness not being enough.

By the time we arrive at the finale, Ted isn’t magically healed from his traumas, but he is better equipped to name them and confront their consequences. But the climax of the episode is built around whether an important character is able to accept love and forgiveness, and what happens when we are not. It’s an ending in keeping with Lasso’s deep dissection of empathy and its consequences.

So can a show succeed on just those grounds? Can the scene-to-scene writing be inconsistent while the sum of its parts succeeds in delivering its main thrust? The Lasso argument is yes. Distractions aside and surprisingly sharp outrage aside, in the second season, Lasso meets its own rubric for what the show has been trying to do from the start.●