Ever spent much time in England? I have. Spring of 2012, it rained for a month. I don’t mean intermittently. The clouds opened on April 1, and they didn’t close until May. It was like living under a waterfall. Ever notice that rain makes people a tad grumpy? I began to suspect a connection between the miserable condition of living in England and the miserable English point of view, which is notable for its commitment to hostility. The damp gets in everywhere, turns the national outlook into a soaked sock and brings about trenchfoot of the soul. Ever been to southern California? Notably not grumpy.
The late Scot A. A. Gill called his book on England The Angry Island, which is fair enough, except England is the cheer captain of the British Isles. The Scots and Welsh are even grumpier, with an added layer of resentment. The Northern Irish are murderously grumpy and still have a wall running through the middle of their finest city to stop people from killing each other for being the wrong kind of Christian.
I bring all this up because it reminds me of a Nineties cab ride full of caustic young English (you could fit a lot of people in those old-timey cabs) in which everyone took his raucous turn insulting America as a dig at the sole American present. They expected me to respond in kind, but instead I just absorbed fire, laughed along with all of it. (It was funny stuff: They’re good at insult comedy, the English.) Why hit back? I knew they all wanted to live in New York or California, the poor sods. The more insults they lobbed at me, the more I pitied them. Right now, half of them are living in “the States,” and the other half are being rained on.
All of the above is the predicate for the spot-on effectiveness of a wonderful sitcom on Apple TV+, Ted Lasso, about an American college-football coach who refuses to be dragged down by the prevailing English mood when he gets an unexpected invitation to coach a Premier League soccer team in Richmond, London. The team’s unofficial slogan is “It’s the hope that kills you,” but the sentiment is pretty widely applicable in a country of permanently low expectations.
Into the Richmond locker room saunters Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso, the personification of sunny skies, open spaces, and optimistic apothegms. He’s shamelessly, unapologetically nice. With his hedgerow mustache and his Texas twang, he looks and sounds like a parody of an American football coach. Folksy, thoughtful, and upbeat, he says he doesn’t even care about winning and losing on the field but about winning and losing at life. At first the English can’t believe this guy. Then they insult him. Then they slowly start to get him. It’s beautiful to watch. As a fella who was almost as great as Ted once said, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then you win. I can’t think of another show that both nails the English way and shows why it’s so much better to be American.
The people around Ted Lasso — the spoiled young hotshot striker Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), the player’s model girlfriend Keeley (Juno Temple), the acerbic old veteran Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), and the cringing upper-class owner who hired Ted, Rebecca (Hannah Wadingham), are all dismissive of him in different ways, especially the owner, who is stunned by her new coach’s effrontery. He thinks he can just walk into her office unannounced to chat. Who is this gosh-darn hayseed?
Dumped by her billionaire playboy husband, Rebecca has never had any interest in soccer but inherited the club in a divorce settlement. As an act of revenge, she is determined to destroy the team, which her husband loves beyond measure. That’s why she hired this smiley-faced American yokel, whose last gig was coaching something called the Wichita State Shockers, to come over and coach Richmond. Her hope is that the team plays so badly it gets relegated — kicked out of the Premier League.
So Ted coaches the team to glory and proves them all wrong, right? From watching the pilot episode (the weakest of the first ten), you’d think you can see the entire arc of the season in front of you. But don’t be so sure, because this is only superficially a sports show. There’s very little on-field action; the game results are not the point. The point is right there in the title. Ted Lasso is not a guy’s name but an ethos. The meek little guy who picks up dirty towels in the locker room says he has ideas on how to coach the team: Well, just pull up a chair and give me an earful, partner. That’s doing a Ted Lasso. An Indian restaurant owner warns you that his food is pretty spicy? Now that you’ve thrown down, I guess I gotta have me some of that. That’s pulling a Ted Lasso. The mob of sportswriters who are even more pretentious than theater critics (another dead-on touch) think they’re going to laugh Ted into oblivion; instead, he makes them laugh. Rebecca, the owner, keeps sabotaging him, but Ted’s devastatingly effective comeback is in these words: “I forgive you.” Forgive? In England? The land of the surly, angry, and damp? There is no religious element to the show, but Ted might as well be a pastor in a land full of bitter heretics, preaching a gospel of kindness and understanding, and if not converting the masses, at least staving off execution for a surprisingly long time.
Which is why Ted Lasso is cunningly engineered for our peculiar cultural moment, right here on the best side of the Atlantic. It isn’t exactly a family show — there is a lot of R-rated language — but its wonderful first season makes for the kind of easygoing, big-hearted watch that constitutes ideal viewing among adults seeking something to watch with their parents, especially around the holidays when we’re all in need of something cheery that brings us together and steers clear of divisive stuff like explicit sex, gory violence, and politics. In this season of discord, disease, and dismay, Ted Lasso reminds us of a powerful unifying force: Thank God we’re not English.