WARNING: The following review contains spoilers for Season 2 of Ted Lasso, including and up to the season finale, ‘Inverting the Pyramid of Success’.
Who would have thought that a dumb fish-out-of-water comedy on a niche streaming platform, based on a 2013 TV promo featuring a heavily accented American football coach, who hates tea and doesn’t understand the basics of the sport he is coaching, would become a must-see for its rich, character-driven depictions of masculinity, mental health, female friendships and the idea of redemption?
But this is what Apple TV+’s flagship series Ted Lasso starring Jason Sudeikis has achieved since its first season was released last year. It offered viewers an unmissable feel-good, heartwarming escape from the harsh realities of the pandemic-stricken outside world, complete with a soundtrack so fitting and recognisable that even India’s own Prateek Kuhad finds a place among Radiohead and the Rolling Stones.
The only reason I bothered to subscribe to Apple’s OTT platform, Ted Lasso became an instant online hit and its second season concluded Friday, as fictional London-based football club Richmond AFC were promoted back to the top division of English football in the show.
So did the finale stick the landing? The second season is a marked improvement on its predecessor as the writers have moved on from the cliched premise and taken more risks.
The bigger question though is that of all the streaming shows, why did Ted Lasso become so beloved to the point that it swept award shows like the Emmys, the Writers Guild of America and the Critics Choice Awards this year and remains in the minds of TV writers and fans alike? The short answer: In its 20 episodes so far, the show has offered something for everyone. Doesn’t matter if you like football or not.
‘Football is life’
Given the setting of the show, the first group Ted Lasso had to win over before achieving mainstream popularity was the global community of football fans.
And in doing so, it had to succeed where previous football-themed shows and movies had not — the Goal series felt more like a cheesy video game advertisement with shoe-horned cameos than coherent films. Mike Bassett: England Manager, The Damned United and Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona documentary are all excellent in their own right, but failed to attract anything more than niche, indie audiences outside the UK. Escape to Victory is now 40 years old, Bend it like Beckham is almost 20 and the less said about Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal the better.
Ted Lasso has intelligently interwoven the football-related content with solid plots and compelling, realistic character writing (save for the odd misstep), appealing to both football fans and viewers who are as clueless about the offside rule as Ted Lasso himself.
While English football references and celebrity cameos are a frequent occurrence on the show, they never appear just for Apple or the writers to flex their influence in the football industry, but they often play a crucial role in the story or in setting up a memorable sequence.
As a football fanatic, I not only appreciated the numerous appearances of English media personalities Jeff Stelling and Chris Kamara throughout the second season, but was also pleasantly surprised by the extended screen time that ex-footballers Gary Lineker and Thierry Henry had in the episode ‘Beard After Hours’.
But the writers have also been careful to ensure that the show is never reduced to being a series of random references and callbacks, nor does it ever really descend into the same-old rags-to-riches sports story. Instead, the on-field football results are secondary to the exploration of deeper issues that have really won over audiences.
“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field. And it ain’t always easy, but neither is growing up without someone believing in you,” Lasso says in an interview with fictional journalist and recurring character Trent Crimm, of The Independent.
Not just token episodes
The background sounds stop, everything is in slow motion, face freezes and fingers won’t stop trembling — Ted Lasso is having a panic attack. It is a common sight across both seasons of the show and has happened to him multiple times, be it at a team karaoke party after an unlikely win, during a crucial cup quarter-final or while getting ready to go to a funeral.
However, instead of over-dramatising the issue of mental health (looking at you,13 Reasons Why), the series not only creates a full character arc around Ted’s struggles, but also showcases those of the supporting characters’ and introduces a well-developed sports psychologist in the second season.
In contrast with episodic comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which crashed and burned in its final season, mental health in Ted Lasso isn’t just some hot-topic-of-the-week that’s quickly resolved and dispensed with in a lazy attempt at pandering for social brownie points. Instead, it’s been a point of focus for one-and-a-half seasons before coming to a head in Friday’s finale.
And the same applies to other topics depicted on the show, be it redemption, workplace abuse, masculinity, parental roles, and female friendships that don’t just revolve around men.
The players’ bullying of Richmond kit man Nate in season 1, Nate’s unrepentant verbally abusive behaviour and sexual assault incident after gaining a position of power in season 2, and assistant coach Beard’s toxic romantic relationship and alcoholism, are just some of the supporting character subplots that have served as powerful reminders of individuals I have met or situations I have witnessed in real life.
Simply put, there is no show on any streaming platform I have seen this year that uses the veneer of comedy to cause such an emotional impact week after week while remaining this accessible and unpretentious throughout.
But if you don’t care for football and are not particularly interested in going through a rollercoaster of laughing and crying every week, at least stay for the smaller joys Ted Lasso has to offer — its usually apt music choices and smorgasbord of pop culture references, such as an episode-long love letter to romantic comedies.
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