ENJOY THE GAME
IT WOULD’VE BEEN A GOAL HAD IT GONE BETWEEN THE POSTS
August 25, 2021
Ted Lasso is a sitcom about a small-time midwestern football coach coming to London to manage the AFC Richmond, a fictional English Premier League football (soccer) club. Its first season was nominated for a record twenty Emmys. Is it an instant comedy classic? Not so fast.
We didn’t underestimate them. They were just a lot better than we thought.
—Sir Bobby Robson
Apple TV+ should be congratulated for its new comedy series Ted Lasso. Less for the show itself, which has its ups and downs (more on that in the second half), than for the simple fact that it, perhaps unknowingly, promotes the sport of European football in the United States with a lot of accuracy and enthusiasm. It garnered a cult following during the COVID-19 lockdown in the summer of 2020 and became a favorite of many US viewers. In Topeka, Lasso beat six real coaches for the Kansas Coach of the Year award. The Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, lauded Lasso’s unwavering optimism and ability to bring people together in his last State of the Commonwealth address. Will the next stop for Lasso, who is played by former Saturday Night Live actor Jason Sudeikis, be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Amusingly, Sudeikis used to portray (then vice president) Joe Biden on SNL as a macho war hawk, more Rumsfeld than Obama—an interesting counter to the image that Biden has since created for himself.
Theodore Lasso appointed manager of AFC Richmond
Now that season 2 is launching, it seems time to take a closer look—a close-up VAR inspection if you will. (For those who do not speak football, VAR is the much-hated video assistant referee.)
The fictional AFC Richmond is a small Premier League club in the far west of London that has bounced around the topflight of English football and the Championship League (the second division) for decades. For those in the know, one cannot help but be reminded of another West London club, FC Fulham, which has been likewise yo-yoing between topflight and second tier since it was founded in 1896. Given that Lasso is a former American football coach, it might be worth mentioning that Craven Cottage, Fulham’s home ground, was also used in the early 1980s by Fulham RLFC, a rugby club that has since then been renamed the London Broncos with their new home being The Rock in the suburban district of Roehampton (the borough of Wandsworth, to be precise). Soccer, football, and rugby are all undeniably related; the three species crawled out of the primordial English soil ages ago but are now merely distant cousins. That AFC Richmond is based in West London is a deliberate decision by the writers, as it offers an idyllic background for the series, including dreamy shots of the Thames. This London is unspoiled and blissful—clean, affluent, friendly, safe. No council housing in sight, no homelessness or crime. It’s a fairy tale that could just as well be Stamford in Lincolnshire, with its picturesque houses and alleys, rather than the often grimy and gritty UK capital.
Leafy Street in Stamford, Lincolnshire
The backstory is quickly recapped. Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) has, as part of a divorce settlement, become the owner of AFC Richmond. Still angry at her cheating ex (“My ex-husband truly loved this club and Ted Lasso is going to help me burn it to the ground”), she decides to ruin it by hiring the head coach of the Wichita State Shockers, who has not the faintest idea about the rules of soccer, to run it. It is rumored that Lasso’s character is loosely based on Terry Smith, a former gridiron football coach who took over Chester City FC as a manger in 1999. Due to Smith’s lack of experience with soccer, Chester City soon descended into near obscurity and was finally dissolved in 2010. But worry not—this is not what will happen to Lasso or AFC Richmond.
The American Dream: Terry Smith at Chester City FC in 1999
Lasso is mostly a caricature—a folksy, mild-mannered, friendly, indeed toxically optimistic midwesterner, with a tinge of naivete for good measure. As someone in the show observes, Lasso is like “a warm hug of nice.” Instead of carrying the mysterious or combative aura of other Premier League coaches like Pep Guardiola or Brendan Rodgers, he reminds us of the aura-less Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, perpetually wearing a frozen, annoying grin, trying to not stir the pot and demanding to make the world a better place.
Initially Rebecca throws Lasso under the proverbial bus. The media, the fans, and the players rip Lasso apart. He is in over his head. Yet with the help of Nathan Shelley, aka Nate the Great (played by the fabulous Nick Mohammed), the club’s former kit manager (clubhouse attendant) who has been promoted to assistant coach, Lasso and his team manage to win several games but are still always on the verge of being relegated to the Championship League. This fate will eventually befall the club after a 1-0 loss on the final day of the season against no other than Manchester City (one of England’s most successful clubs and 2021 Premier League runaway champions). This of course presages what season 2 will be about, namely rebound and promotion back into the topflight, where AFC Richmond (this is season 3) will win the Premier League crown.
Ted Lasso Head Coach AFC Richmond Jersey
Anyone who follows football, and in particular English football, knows well its supporters’ quasi-religious fervor. While the show is a comedy, football is no laughing matter. It provides pride, identity, tradition, and belonging to millions of fans. It is also serious business that brings billions of pounds into the clubs’ coffers. Neither these matters are touched upon much in the show. At the start of season 1, we see a couple of fans referring to Lasso as “wanker,” but this is family-friendly entertainment, not Alan Clarke’s The Firm (1988), a BBC kitchen-sink-style TV drama starring Gary Oldman as the ringleader of a hard-core circle of football hooligans ready to die for their club. In keeping with our times, politics and activism, albeit in naive fashion, feature in one episode of season 2 in which Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh), a Nigerian player on the team, is informed that Dubai Air, the team’s main sponsor, owns a company responsible for ecological destruction of the coastline of his home country. Obisanya decides to “cancel” Dubai Air by taping over their logo on his jersey, his teammates follow his lead, and a controversy erupts, at the end of which Welton decides to search for a new top sponsor more in line with the club’s ethics. Anti-corporate activism on a TV show produced by Apple TV+ seems ironic on the surface, but really the idea caters nicely to those watching the show on this premium channel. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Apple TV+ viewers typically hail from middle- to upper-middle class backgrounds, are college educated and largely white, and live in cities with more than two hundred thousand inhabitants—the same demographic associated with social (media) activism.
Say no to Dubai Air
Ted Lasso falls short compared to many other football movies and TV shows on several occasions. The Damned United (2009), about the rise and fall of legendary coach Brian Clough, who would later become one of England’s finest coaches with Nottingham Forest FC, is worth mentioning here. Clough is portraited by Michael Sheen, who gives a performance for the ages, and the portrayal of the cutthroat competitiveness, the bleak prospects for older players, the run-down English stadiums, and the daily grind of traveling up and down the country as a player in the 1970s are masterfully captured. This is not Lasso’s world, fair enough; Clough’s England was in the grips of the Thatcher administration, economic hardship, high unemployment, and racial tensions. But The Damned United still takes viewers out onto the pitch, to the mud, the blood, the sweat, and the tears like no other football movie.
The Damn United (2009), official trailer
In comparison to Sheen’s Clough, the character of Lasso is both flat and multidimensional—flat for his “Believe in Believing” philosophy yet multidimensional for how the writers have crafted a mid-forty-year-old white US male. He is positively woke on all fronts—anti-racist, feminist, a supporter of LGBTQ rights—and yet when he emerges from the airplane, having never been outside the United States, he sounds like a country hick telling his assistant coach, “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
The ongoing references to 1980s and 1990s pop culture—Star Wars, U2, Tom Cruise, Cheers (Ted Danson), the Spice Girls, Hugh Grant—are a curious recurring element and perhaps point to the audience Apple TV+ is looking to entice, namely not Gen Z or millennials, but Gen X and boomers. There is something anachronistic about Ted Lasso. It’s part workplace comedy (shades of The Office), part Friends, and part sports satire (Ballers), with the goal of uplifting us in these dystopian times in the way Remember the Titans (2000) or The Blind Side (2009) or 1990s rom-coms once did.
A reflection on Ted Lasso could easily veer into purely a think piece on the main character, who sticks out from rest of the cast like a sore thumb, and from there to an entire book on the current state of white masculinity. Yet in season 2, Lasso moves a bit into the background such that other characters have more time on the pitch. Enter Dr. Sharon Fieldstone a no-nonsense Black sports psychologist who comes on board to help the players with mental health issues. There is the aforementioned savvy owner, Welton. There is Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), a player in his mid-thirties who is angry about anything and everything, knowing that his best years are behind him, yet he has the support of the fans and the media, who call him a West London Legend. Keeley Jones (Juno Temple) starts out the prototype of a footballer’s wife or girlfriend. We meet her as the girlfriend of Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), a self-absorbed, cocky striker who shares traits with real-life Cristiano Ronaldo—attention loving and perfectly groomed, yet utterly professional during training and matches. Jones later starts dating Kent, who, to the surprise of everyone, breaks down in tears during a press conference announcing his retirement, finally showing some vulnerability. Two other notable and entertaining, albeit supporting, roles are director of sporting operations Higgins (Jeremy Swift), who effectively runs the joint and is the embodiment of blunt careerism, and Trent Crimm (James Lance), a journalist always the first to ask the hard questions and never forgetting to remark that he writes for The Independent.
Fan Favorite: Roy Kent
One last thought in overtime. Imagine a sitcom in which an English amateur football manager is hired to coach an NFL team. Would that be funny? Entertaining? Maybe, but mostly for English audiences who understand American football and American sports in general as the overly commercial behemoth they are, with inscrutable rules (baseball, anyone?). Football is something different, as star striker Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernández) says: “Football is life, football is death, but most of all, football is football.” Let’s give it a shot.
Cristo Fernandez on his real-life history with soccer, July 21 2021, CNN
Scott Hounslow, born in 1947 in Hull, Yorkshire, is a retired football player who spent his entire career with Brentford FC, aka The Bees, a third-division club during his time, but since 2020 newly promoted to the Premier League. In 1960 he met Rod Stewart, who came to the club for trials but was not taken on by the team. Rumor has it that Hounslow was the inspiration for Stewart’s hit song “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”