Sometimes it’s difficult to be proud of your country. Americans especially seem to fluctuate between a state of religious fervor for their flag and one of apocalyptic remorse for a nation as divided as it is paramount. And when Americans — many of whom, justly so, especially those not born into the white, middle class, privileged world I was — feel disappointed in their country, it’s often conflated with hatred or anger, as if they are lesser countrymen.
What this narrow view misses is that this disappointment comes from a place of passion, not one of fear or hatred. I can feel it myself — my anger is an outlet for my passion. I struggled to be proud of this country as I saw friends terrified of harm because of how they looked, as every city I call home fell victim to mass violence, as Americans were murdered by their own government, and as I heard that a place I spent years of my life was stormed by extremists. Your relationship with your country is personal. And though it may change from one year to the next, you remember that bitterness. It sits in you and stays with you forever. It reminds you that these things matter, and that you care.
You care because you’re passionate about your country because of what you know makes it great: the people you care for. I’m fond of noting every Election Day or 4th of July that the best part of America is those you get to share it with, and I think deep down that’s why many people love their country, and why their favorite country happens to be the one they live in. For all its multiplicities, for all of its past atrocities, for its ups and downs — your country is you and the people you love. How could you not root for that?
I think that’s why world events like the Olympics often cause a withdrawal from the negative patriotism and partisanship of our time. Of course you’re rooting for the Americans, God damn it! It’s about fellow citizens and townspeople trying to be the best they can be, in a world of other great and talented people. I don’t much care for sports myself, but you’re lying to yourself if images like Black American athlete Jesse Owens standing for the gold above a Nazi backdrop in the 1936 Olympics, the Miracle on Ice in 1980, or just watching the United States’ athletes in the opening ceremonies don’t hit you right in the heart.
Little did I expect that a similar wave of emotion would strike as Division II American football coach Ted Lasso was hired last year to coach the AFC Richmond team, an English football club. Coach Lasso’s story opens on a transatlantic flight to England as the Kansan and his assistant coach, Coach Beard, face different levels of excitement about the prospect of coaching an English football — or, soccer, as he calls it — team. This is the premise of Ted Lasso, unfortunately a fictional comedy from Apple TV, wherein Lasso is portrayed by the chronically underrated, break-your-heart-how-nice-he-seems Jason Sudeikis.1Who really is from Overland Park, Kansas.
Lasso was hired by the recently-divorced Rebecca Welton (portrayed by Hannah Waddingham in an increasingly powerful performance) in her secret plot to hire the most incoherent and incompetent coach in order to devastate the football club, the one thing her ex-husband adores. So when the American football coach is hired, and Lasso — Sudeikis’ best Ned Flanders impression — arrives, the English sports media is abuzz, and transatlantic comedy ensues.
Though he’s denounced by the Richmond community (earning the nickname “wanker” throughout the town, especially by AFC Richmond fans), loses a match, and struggles to bring his team full of arrogant, often toxic, and at-odds personalities together, we also learn that he is personally struggling as his wife wants space in their relationship, which motivated him to move to take the opportunity in England away from her and his son. Despite it all, Lasso maintains his admirably folksy charm. Every morning he brings the very boss who is secretly conspiring against him biscuits; biscuits which she can’t help but fawn over, causing her to send her assistant Higgins (portrayed by Jeremy Swift) to attempt to track down where he’s been buying them. Early on in the season, as she concocts a plot to turn the media further against Lasso, the audience learns Lasso has been baking the biscuits for her himself, a heartwarming reveal that ends the episode.
And slowly but surely, Lasso’s folk wisdom from across the pond, his collegiate view that he’s there not necessarily to win, but to make these athletes the best people they can be (on and off the field) and his can-do attitude towards a sport he still barely understands begins to pay off. The team overcomes its class structure and toxicity, rallying around their kit man Nathan who Ted calls “Nate the Great” (Nick Mohammed), eventually accepting him as an assistant coach. Even in the aftermath of a great loss, they throw a birthday party for Sam (Toheeb Jimoh), the right back from Nigeria who speaks reminiscently of his home and feels out of place. And despite the hot-headed arrogance of their young star Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) clashing with the team’s captain, the aging Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), they find a way to work together despite not caring for each other — as Tartt used to have a poster of Kent growing up, and Kent acknowledges he’s an athlete at the end of his era.
All throughout it, Coach Lasso never talks down to the players, never demands they knock off their ill behavior, or enforces his authority over them. He leads by example, by helping the well-meaning advocate for themselves and for others — reminding the team to listen to and work with each other, that when “a teacher tells a bully not to pick on someone it just makes it worse.” It’s a lesson in leadership and management that starts to hint that the show runs a lot deeper than it appears on the surface.
That’s because the ultimate point of the show is that this unassuming, underappreciated, and underestimated American coach may not necessarily be the best person to turn them into a better team — but he can help them become better people.
In a particularly emotional set of episodes, as Lasso faces down his own impending divorce with his wife, the moment this show really hits its peak is an episode playfully titled “Make Rebecca Great Again.” It centers around the team traveling to Liverpool to face an adversary that their club has not defeated in 60 years, which coincides with Lasso receiving his divorce papers and the anniversary of Rebecca and her former husband’s wedding anniversary. Lasso is — for the first time in the show — visibly upset and afraid, and he lashes out at the timid Nate. The next morning, Lasso goes out of his way to apologize to Nate, and encourages him to rouse the team in his own way. Sure enough, the team pulls off the improbable win and a celebratory night on the town ensues. The stereotypical “Wonderwall” performance at a karaoke bar feels as cliche as it does authentic and Rebecca, bolstered by her friend from out-of-town and the young model (and former girlfriend to the team’s star) Keeley (Juno Temple), shakes off her stoic, serious demeanor and takes to karaoke herself. The most affecting scene in the entire season is as a newly-confident Rebecca belches out Frozen’s “Let It Go” while Lasso, the most open and wholesome soul imaginable, has a panic attack and tears out of the bar. Panicked in the street, he opens his eyes to find Rebecca next to him, taking him through it, and telling him it’s okay.
That the show is a lot more emotional than it presents itself as is an understatement. When Rebecca finally confesses to him in a painful scene that she hired him in an attempt to destroy the club to get back at her ex and has been the one behind his misfortune, tears flood Ted’s face. She thought he would be incompetent, foolish, and she actively hurt him; but he hugs her. Through tears he accepts her apology and tells her “I forgive you. Divorce is hard,” as he has recently learned too. The core conflict of the show, the hidden drama only the audience is privy to, is resolved in seconds — because of friendship, apology, and forgiveness. Even the brightest souls have their darkest times, as an American in England reminds us all.
It’s in this open embrace of emotion and shunning of the traditionally staid American masculine persona that the show’s protagonist wins you over. You can’t help but root for this optimistic, whole-hearted American, and eventually everyone does. How you treat other people matters, and this Midwestern coach embodies what makes America great: not arrogance or raw power, but an impact for good, and a starry-eyed vision for how we can do better.
It’s what’s given this understated and quiet show, promoted with little advertising on a nascent streaming platform, an increasing appeal and pop culture presence weeks and months after it first aired in August of 2020. Kansas Democratic Governor Laura Kelly and Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker have both proclaimed the morality and decency of Ted Lasso. Its message of empathy has enchanted religious critics and conservative ones, and it’s been touted for its theme of “gentle international[ism]… in which American soft power still works and does good.”
But Ted Lasso is, in truth, refreshingly — and completely — apolitical. The closest it flirts to controversy is a one-off quip about the Westboro Baptist Church. Yes, the English laugh at him and underestimate him because he’s a naive American in sophisticated England, but they never question the errors of his country’s ways or the content of his character as one of integrity and honesty. Nor does he their’s, save for a running gag on their prediliction for tea, which he cannot stand. America’s deep and important political divisions aren’t at play, even as Sudeikis embodies this middle-American with what is kind of a Southern accent. He’s never bitter, he’s never obnoxious about his home country, he’s just a nice person, a good guy who believes everyone can be better people, himself included.
This optimism is possibly the starkest contrast with his new world in England, and the starkest point of comparison with the America I have at times shaken my head at. As the season comes to a conclusion over a match that will doom the team to relegation, the team and its community finds itself mired in forlorn misery. “It’s the hope that kills you,” becomes the mantra in Richmond. Before the match, Lasso confesses his antipathy to that sentiment, that he believes the lack of hope is more devastating. And after that harrowing loss just at the jaws of victory, some of the show’s final moments resolve with the locker room full of teammates trapped in their sorrow. “Look at everyone else in here,” Lasso tells them. “Be grateful you’re going through this sad moment with all these other folks… ain’t nobody in this room alone.”
No matter what happens in America — an election that doesn’t go the way you wanted, a city destroyed by climate change, an emptiness over loss of a loved one to gun or police or migratory violence — nobody in America is truly alone. What makes America great is each other. And yes, progress can be unforgivably slow in the United States. Its legacy on race, on reverence for those worse off, and on responsibility as but one nation among many are all complicated at best, and maleficent at worst. But America also changes. An advantage that liberal democracy has over authoritarian regimes is that it — a country, a society, a people — can make due for the mistakes of its past without ignoring them. It can address them head on and collectively say that we do not believe in this anymore and condemn it, in lieu of burying it or pretending it never happened. It can become a better nation because those inside of it care about each other, and because its friends on the outside can guide it when it needs help. That’s a reason to be hopeful.
For a show based on a 2013 promo for NBC Sports’ Premier League coverage, Ted Lasso imparts that sentiment stronger than any political drama or cultural mainstay could ever hope to. That Ted Lasso appeals across party lines and inspires fond sentiments for the good-hearted nature of the United States may even hint at a path towards being the best nation it can be. It’s okay if you’re not great, what matters is that you are good.
Season two of Ted Lasso airs on Apple TV starting July 23, 2021.