Who would have guessed you could make great television about being good? Short answer: the creators of “Ted Lasso,” the extraordinary Apple TV Plus show whose second season starts in July. And extraordinary it is, for in “Ted Lasso” we get a deeply sensitive portrait of a good man who both suffers and flourishes in a world that needs virtue more than it knows.
“Ted Lasso” tells the story of a football coach from Wichita brought to West London to coach a Premier League team. As we all know (and Coach Lasso knows as well as any), American football is not British football. This incongruent displacement drives the show’s comedy. But it also drives its focus on goodness. For in the face of all the unfamiliarity, Ted doubles down on the one thing (maybe the only thing) he really knows: virtue.
Of course, the show doesn’t call it virtue. The show calls it “The Lasso Way.” The phrase first pops up when a cynical sports reporter says aloud what everyone has been thinking since Ted arrived in London: “Is this a fucking joke?” But moved by Ted’s transparent authenticity and consummate decency, the reporter soon warms to Ted. In time, so does nearly everyone else.
They too come to root for “The Lasso Way.” But just what exactly is it? It certainly includes Ted’s evident optimism and niceness. Yet Ted’s optimism and niceness are really just epiphenomenal to something more foundational: a commitment to living life in accord with standards different from those of so many people in his world.
And this is where things start getting interesting. The connection between virtue and sport is, after all, so common as to be hackneyed; there’s hardly a film or show made about sports that doesn’t at some point celebrate the virtues of courage and grit and self-command—the virtues of the ring, the pitch, the battlefield. But these virtues aren’t Ted’s virtues. Ted instead is committed to a different set of virtues with a different provenance.
Perhaps the most prominent virtue in the show is faith. Ted has faith in others—even and especially when they have little faith in themselves. One of the show’s best sub-plots involves Ted’s faith in Nate, the team’s kit man. A target for both the jerseys and the jokes the players hurl at him in the locker room, Nate’s self-esteem is in the tank when we first meet him. But to Ted, who guilelessly subverts hierarchies simply by treating everyone with dignity, Nate is “Nate the Great.” And largely thanks to Ted’s simple recognition of him, Nate grows into that label. I won’t give away Nate’s fate, but the causal process here at work—Ted believes in Nate, Nate believes in himself, others believe in Nate—is testimony to one side of faith’s power.
A second virtue on display in the show is hope. It seems out of place here: Ted has been brought in to coach the hapless (and fictional) AFC Richmond, a losing team whose still-loyal fans are preparing themselves for the seemingly inevitable and awful fate of end-of-season relegation to the lower division. Most of Richmond’s fans, in an effort to preserve some semblance of sanity, have long since given up on hope. In the words of the barmaid at the pub, “It’s the hope that kills you.”
Ted disagrees. His folksy response: “It’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you.” The writing here admittedly doesn’t quite reach the level of Shawshank Redemption, but no matter. Ted’s sympathy for the pain felt by the hopeless comes through, as Ted knows why they’re hopeless: hopelessness is an effective short-term psychological defense mechanism, one thing we, living in a cold world, can control. But Ted knows that regardless of whether hope kills you in the end, to give up on hope is to die early, and by one’s own hand.
This leads to a third virtue powerfully depicted in “Ted Lasso.” Love finds its way into the show in ways both expected and unexpected. Of course we get the romantic narratives we expect from TV: husbands and wives break up, girlfriends and boyfriends get together. So too we see parents’ love for children, and the love of friends for each other. But less expected is the show’s focus on two other types of love.
One is the players’ love for Ted. Ted is not loved when he arrives at Richmond; indeed, early on the only thing the team’s rival factions agree on is that Ted is loathsome. Undeterred, Ted does little things that convey concern. Emblematic is his treatment of a homesick young player, himself newly arrived in Britain. Seeing teenage Sam struggling, Ted throws him a birthday party, complete with cake and presents. It’s a small gesture, and the cynics think it kid’s play. The kid himself sees it differently. A few episodes later, when Ted calls the players together at practice and asks them to do him a favor, it’s Sam who jogs up and announces: “We’d die for you, coach.” As they say, there’s no greater love than this.
Not only is Ted loved by others, Ted loves them—even and especially the ones who hate him the most. In the show’s first episodes, almost everyone we meet despises Ted—from the team’s new owner, who treats him as a pawn in her own game, to the press and the townspeople, who deride him in print and online and in the pub. All of this reaches its peak when the crowd at Ted’s home stadium ritually and univocally derides him.
Throughout all of this, Ted himself feels no hate toward those who hate him. And this, more than anything else, is what makes him so remarkable. With hate surrounding him everywhere, Ted resists giving in to it. In fact, this makes possible his signature move: returning hate with love.
Two examples. First, having seen the error of her ways, the team’s owner confesses to Ted that she hired him not to succeed but to fail. His simple response: “I forgive you.” Second, the team’s brash young star—the player who resents Ted the most—gets traded, for which he publicly and unjustly blames Ted. Ted’s response is to write the player a private note congratulating him on his play. What does it mean to love your enemies? That’s what it means; Ted is what it looks like.
As all of this suggests, “Ted Lasso” gives the religious something to think about. But ultimately it isn’t a religious show; its few explicit mentions of religion may even irk some believers. It’s instead a show about sports, and indeed sports in the most elemental sense: winners and losers, heroes and goats, the champions and the relegated. And ultimately this is what makes it so remarkable. Put simply, Ted brings faith, hope, and love to a world that runs on very different values, and in so doing makes that world better than it was.
That a show about sports can demonstrate this to us seems to me remarkable. When I was a child, I read lots of books about sports. From those books I learned that in sports nice guys finish last and that winning is the only thing. “Ted Lasso” of course wants us to reconsider all that. Along the way, it challenges us not only to rethink the sports world, but to rethink the assumptions of our political world.
Not to put too fine a point on it: our political world is now, more than ever, cast in the mold of the sports world. In politics, too, winning has become the only thing—and this is worrisome. The problem isn’t that politicians care about winning and losing; that’s foundational to democratic electoral politics and hardly a bad thing in itself. The problem is that the obsession with winning and losing is leading us to forget what we’re playing for.
“Ted Lasso” helps us see the degree to which we’ve recast our world in these terms, and challenges us, as we play our games, to think about what may matter more than wins and losses. It helps us see that in this world, even as it stands, there is yet a place, and indeed a redemptive place, for the good and the decent and the virtuous.
There is, of course, an obvious objection to all this: “Ted Lasso” is just a television show. Ted’s life is a storyline, and his own wins and losses are just fictions sprung from writers’ heads. This is undeniable. But equally undeniable is that Ted’s virtues have charmed not only his fellow fictional characters, but also a strikingly broad real-world public, at least if IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are anything to go by. Maybe the love of virtue isn’t dead yet.
Ryan Patrick Hanley, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a professor of political science at Boston College. His most recent books are The Political Philosophy of Fénelon (2020) and a companion translation volume, Fénelon: Moral and Political Writings (2020).
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe