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Ted Lasso Makes Us Believe Even When We Don’t Want To

When you hate yourself, Ted Lasso is a real challenge to watch. Not in the moment, of course: it’s too funny and surprising and giddy, too firmly rooted in beautiful examples of masculinity and Bechdel-proof female friendships for you to acknowledge much else. It’s adept enough at world building that you can be forgiven for not realizing AFC Richmond isn’t an actual Premier League team. It’s got ample season-long character arcs with uplifting payoffs that somehow sidestep sentimentality. And it’s packed in so many blink-punishing callbacks, a re-watch is as foregone a conclusion as a second plate of Thanksgiving dinner.

Above all, Ted Lasso has a completely infectious vibe. And that all starts with the man himself. Ted choosing to believe, his refusal to break character despite the incredulity and/or scorn of literally every single character who didn’t know him before he came to London, is what in turn makes believers out of the show’s audience. After spending ten episodes with Ted and his team, you can’t help but want to root for them, beat Rupert in a dart board showdown, get your very own roast from Nate. Ted Lasso would have been a hit even without a pandemic keeping the world on the lookout for ever more things to feel good about. Its approach to storytelling is so curiously full of heart that it can make you forget, for a little while, how empty your own is.

Being too depressed to function means an inability to maintain anything like belief that things will ever be better. But self-hating depression is its own special, sinister self-fulfilling prophecy. The depression restrains you, anchors your movements and expressions so that you appear sullen and immobile, a boulder without a Sisyphus. Inside, though, the perfect loathing you keep for yourself is very much alive. The lifetime of bullying you’ve given yourself, all the trauma of repeated mistakes and the verbal abuse they prompt, the punches to the head when no one’s looking, the delicious insults you whisper when you’re in a crowd, the low steady scorn you chant like a prayer sometimes as you’re falling asleep — when that poison rises in your blood, everything you ever did or thought or touched becomes exactly as worthless as you are, just as unworthy of love, just as unworthy of life.

And you wouldn’t dare tell someone. Not that there’s any point in talking about it. That would only be a waste of time. Nothing you say matters. You don’t matter. You can’t explain this; a fish can’t explain gills to a fisherman. No one in a position to help could understand, would possibly care.

Which is, in a nutshell, the perfect conundrum of Ted Lasso. Its promise elevates you before bed; in the morning, its example keeps an impossible distance. And you can’t just lose that promise, that intoxicating vibe, as you go about your day. Like the very best, most worthwhile art, this show stays with you when you’re no longer in its presence. The divine offering of this particular artwork is the very simple notion that belief is all a person needs.

But when you hate yourself so much that the slightest movement – a shallow breath, a shift in your chair, a sweep of your eyes from one side of the room to the other – becomes a referendum on how everything you do is wrong, and how much of a failure you are… in those moments, there’s room for belief the same way there’s still heat in the Monday cinders at a weekend campsite. Something will have to come along and create it. No fire without external force.

Ted Lasso the character is, clearly and purely, such a force. In TV terms, he’s heavily reminiscent of Parks and Recreation’s legendary Leslie Knope. Both are unflappable natural disasters for good. They’re driven by decency and generosity; they’ll do anything for their respective teams. The key difference between the two, though, is that Leslie is not above a little scrapping and yelling. She has enemies (Eagleton, Tammys One and Two, calzones) and she takes bait. In the immediate sense of the word, Leslie is a fighter – maybe not with fists, but definitely with words, always with a strategy, and always with the intention of winning.

Ted Lasso turns away from fights. For most of Season One, he isn’t even interested in winning on the pitch. The only winning Ted cares about is getting his players, his staff, and his team’s supporters to buy in to his philosophy, the one taped up on the wall above his office door.

There is perhaps no simpler idea in all of relationships than “Believe.” And it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Ted’s defining characteristic – the thing that makes him a bizarre hybrid of Leslie Knope and Christopher Nolan’s Joker – is his single-mindedness. He wants, above all and with the feverish glee of a clown blowing up a hospital, for the people around him to believe. In themselves and in each other, yes, but mostly in belief for its own sake.

We know this because in every episode of Ted Lasso, there is at least one scene in which Ted either says something too feel-good and hokey and clichéd for any normal human being to say or suffers a public indignity beyond what any normal human should be expected to absorb.

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In every single one of those scenes, we wait for his veneer of impossible optimism to finally crack, for Ted to laugh and say “Just kidding” at the former or to demand satisfaction at the latter. And in every single one of those scenes, Ted refuses. He doesn’t explode at Jamie upon seeing the spoiled striker pulling a spoiled sarcastic wanker gesture in the mirror as Ted walks away. He meets Sam’s look of incredulity with an encouraging, immobile smile after telling the homesick Nigerian to “be a goldfish” and forget a mistake in practice. Ted’s response to Rebecca’s confession is neither a rant nor even a raised voice, but a simple “I forgive you.” A stadium full of AFC Richmond supporters chanting “wanker” in response to his mere presence is just another chance not to prove people wrong, but to win them over. Jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and thousands of miles away from a home he’s in danger of losing, what’s his response to his wife’s unspoken reminder that he took a job in England partly because she needed space away from the barrage of positive reinforcement that is Ted Lasso? Not frustration, not rage, not a retort – any of which would be completely understandable and warranted and well within the audience’s tolerance for bad behavior from a good guy. It is, instead, gentle: “And I’m giving you that space.”

Ted gives clichés fresh meaning simply by believing in them. There is no irony in Ted Lasso the character. This is why he gets so many strange looks from other characters before and even after they get to know him; this is why the article by Trent Crimm (of The Independent) is so effective, both as dramatic writing and character building. Every one of those characters expects some moment of self-awareness right after Ted delivers a cliché or ignores an insult. That it never comes means, to use Trent’s own words, Ted “really does believe” what he’s doing.

In this sense, Ted Lasso is a TV show attempting a theory of social engagement: “Here is what might be possible, given the right circumstances. After the episode ends, why don’t you go try it?” Among recent examples, Parks and Recreation is probably the best-known example in this genre; The Good Place is maybe its most literal practitioner. (It’s not a coincidence that Ted Lasso sometimes feels like a Michael Schur experiment.)

Aesthetics and senses of humor aside, the one thing that seems to set Ted Lasso apart is how daringly narrow its focus is. Leslie Knope is as ambitious as she is loving; The Good Place suggests what a better system of moral guidance might look like. Ted Lasso lives that system: Believe. Just believe. Believe in belief. Believe in the potential of the locker room. Believe in your own capacity to believe. Not to change. Not to improve. Those things can come later. Mere belief, frustrating and impossible, has to come first. You can’t do anything until you just Believe.

That shit is hard. You have to shed a lot to get there. If you’re a Roy Kent, you’ve got to set your cynicism to the side. If you’re a Jamie Tartt, you have to accept that something that feels as lame and cringeworthy as everything does when you’re as emotionally stunted as Jamie may nonetheless be worthwhile. If you’re Rebecca, you need to perform the double feat of letting yourself be vulnerable while also accepting that the revenge you think you want won’t sustain you, it will actually weaken you and then pick you up and set you down even farther away from the people you can depend on.

And if you’re Nate, you have to allow for the possibility of self-confidence.

It’s the hardest thing to do, when from early childhood you’ve been conditioned to respond to any uncertain interaction by pretending like you don’t care. When the people around Ted start to unlearn that, the dramatic stakes go way up.

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If you’re all in with the show, this is also the moment when your emotional investment goes way up. Ted Lasso has a huge and growing and wildly devoted following because it’s so unabashed in its embrace of hope. Hope, when you’re trying to give up on yourself, is as dangerous as a playground bully. It’s far, far easier to keep believing the awful things you’ve been telling yourself your whole life, the well-worn insults about how worthless and meaningless and stupid you are, some of them so old they feel tired even to you, you know you’re only saying them out of habit but that doesn’t stop you from reminding yourself, over and over, that you don’t deserve attention or affection or love – far easier to wear that rut down past your ability to climb out than to believe the opposite, and just Believe. In nothing more complicated than that. To believe that you might be OK. Not even that you are, just in the possibility that maybe you’ve not been completely honest with yourself, that you might not be quite as bad as you’ve led yourself to think.

This gets compounded when you start to write it all down. Any act of writing presumes an audience — and an audience, for a writer, means at least an awareness of performativity, if not the outright acceptance of it. Is it believable, the idea that a person might thrash and twist himself into mental anguish over the choice of whether to Believe in Ted Lasso’s cliché-proof belief, when it would be so much easier to just wither away unremembered and let the world get on with itself now that it’s finally rid of him? Is it all just too much to take seriously, keeping in mind that confessional displays such as this very paragraph right here overlap so much with the circle for Wailing Teenage Journal Entry on the other side of the Emotional Problem Venn Diagram that the two are very nearly one? Anyone willing to write such a thing after a crush of self-awareness such as that has to pray that his audience will likewise choose to believe in sincerity and good intentions instead of just rolling its collective eyes. And then looking away. A display of naked emotion is always an act of faith.

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Written By

John is a former academic and lifelong overthinker. He's written many short things and abandoned many long ones. He grew up in the Midwest, currently lives in the South, and would get lost in a different forest every day if he could. He is trying very hard.

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