The sports show is generally trapped by the belief that whatever game is being played matters—as a display of skill, as a source of catharsis, and as a vehicle for tribalism that, however passionate, is at least theoretically harmless. It’s therefore caught in a dilemma: Its celebrations of athleticism, community and good sportsmanship are underwritten by an essentially antisocial impulse: aggression in the pursuit of victory. Inside Amy Schumer nailed this inherent contradiction years ago in a sketch called “Football Town Nights”—a parody of the good if sometimes sappy show Friday Night Lights about the arrival of a coach and his wife to a town whose social world, even for the adults, revolves around high school football. In the sketch, the new coach introduces an unorthodox “No Rape” policy. It is not well received: The kids don’t get it and the adults think it’s garbage. The sketch is riffing on the way coaches in American stories serve a really weird dual function: They typically act as moral guides and father figures to hormonal young men in need of guidance, but they’re also vicious cheerleaders who whip their charges into a frenzy of competitive lust at halftime. The message to young men is deeply mixed: Winning matters immensely and also doesn’t at all. If at one point you’re great and valued for exactly who you are, at other points you—yes, you in particular—are letting your entire team down.
This is what the gruff coach archetype in America has to balance: comparatively decent ethics and inspiring speeches in one second, and verbal abuse the next. Winning isn’t supposed to be all matters—other values are broadly gestured at, like effort and doing your best—but it basically is. By the end of Schumer’s sketch the coach’s team is losing; he’s hated by the town and even his wife—over increasingly gargantuan glasses of wine—begs him to reconsider his “no rape” policy. At halftime, his shouty locker room pep talk devolves into what it was always going to be: “How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape! It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want. Now you gotta get yourself into the mindset that you are GODS, that you are entitled to this! That other team, they aren’t just gonna lay down and give it to you! No, you gotta go out there and take it!”
Enter Ted Lasso, an absolute confection of a counterpoint to the coaching stories we’ve been watching for decades. It is not, and I’m putting this mildly, a show where the game matters. “Rainbow,” the fifth episode of Ted Lasso’s second season, confirms the hyper-referential comedy’s status as a non-sports-show sports show. The Apple TV original, which follows an irrepressibly cheery American college football coach (Jason Sudeikis) trying to coach a professional soccer team in England, is a pretty spectacular experiment in irreverent genre-mixing. It marries two modes whose arcs are similar but whose connotations are almost perfectly opposed: the sports show and the romantic comedy. That this mostly works shouldn’t be as surprising as it is. Both are both feel-good genres, after all; they ought to go together. But they usually don’t. The rom-com involves individual epiphanies about love and fate, whereas the sports show—which privileges effort—favors eruptions of collective feeling. And if the rom-com locates its suspense in whether or not a pair who hate each other at first will end up together, the sports show asks whether the good team will win and, if not, why that’s still victory of another kind. If one excavates the erotic energies beneath interpersonal aggression, the other tries to reroute aggression into a social good.
Ted Lasso features plenty of both, but the show—at least up until this point—has revolved around Ted’s coaching style, which prioritizes making better people over making a better team. His refusal to care whether the team wins or loses provided his players are being their best selves—a well-worn sports show trope—is so extreme that at one point in the first season his pal and colleague Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt) screams that he’s being selfish by prioritizing star player Roy Kent’s feelings over the team’s success. It’s honestly not a bad explanation of how the stakes of the rom-com differ from those of the sports show, and Ted’s mistake, per Coach Hunt, is this: if forced to choose, he’ll pick the individual epiphany every time. This is just true.
With “Rainbow,” the show has made Ted’s commitments even more explicit. Early in the episode, Ted addresses his downtrodden team by saying that he believes in “communism—ROMcommunism.” As he puts it: “Romcommunism is all about believing that everything is going to work out in the end.” Then, because this is a hyper-turbo-referential show, he provides some meta-analysis too: “Now these next few months might be tricky, but that’s just because we’re going through our dark forest. … Fairy tales do not start nor do they end in the dark forest.” He ends by saying, “Now it may not work out how you think it will, or how you hope it does, but believe me, it will all work out. Exactly as it’s supposed to. Our job is to have zero expectations and just let go.”
It’s a bizarre speech! Sure, it starts off in familiar Sports Coach Dialect—the sort we expect to swing between martial exhortations to superhuman effort and heartfelt but stern consolations. But in spirit and substance, Lasso’s speech is the opposite. “Just let go” is an argument about fate, not effort.
Ted Lasso is clearly not a sports show coach. This is really very bad for a world where the game matters. And the game still has to; he got his team relegated at the end of Season 1. The thing he does excel at—being a sort of sunny group therapist to his players—has this season been taken over by a much more qualified sports psychologist, Dr. Fieldstone. Ted’s trapped. In Episode 3 he tried a conventionally aggressive “Led Tasso” alter-ego coaching strategy, but it doesn’t work either. The sitcom has shown signs from the very beginning that it understands Ted’s relentless positivity and anti-competitiveness to be a problem, but neither is it endorsing the opposite approach.
The team can’t win. And Ted can’t fix it.
Enter “Rainbow,” which is—and I can’t believe I’m typing this—a romantic comedy about marrying coaching styles. Ted and now-retired-star Roy Kent are the protagonists and their strategies are absolutely opposed. Roy believes in winning. Ted believes in fate. Whereas Ted’s guiding doctrine is that players should be like goldfish, forgetting their mistakes and defeats, Roy values memory. After the team of 6-year-olds he coaches loses, he tells them: “Remember this feeling. I want you to burn this moment into your brains.”
Here’s another way to think about it: Ted is the rom-com. Roy is the sports show. Of the two of them, who will win? (That’s a trick question.) You already know the answer if you watched last week’s treacly and weirdly plotless Christmas episode, because the tropes this show indulges to the hilt are not the sports ones. In “Rainbow,” romcommunism takes over. Ted hunts retired Roy down in his favorite kebab place to ask him to join the coaching staff and the references start flowing in earnest. “I’ll have what he’s having,” Ted says, quoting When Harry Met Sally. A reticent Roy counters in sports lingo: He rejects Ted’s proposal but agrees to help his former teammate Isaac get out of his head with a little street soccer and a profanity-laden speech that performs the funniest contradictions of Coach Dialect: “So fuck your feelings, fuck your overthinking, fuck all that bullshit, go back out there and have some fucking fun.”
But even if Roy does have a bit of a sports show moment, it’s quickly bookended by Ted’s emphatically consensual (“no rape”) model of human relations: “I’ve got zero interest—I’m sorry, nil interest—in making you do something that ain’t in your heart,” he says to Roy when he accuses him of trying to get him back.
Then poor Roy gets clobbered with a brutal combo of When Harry Met Sally and Jerry Maguire and Notting Hill and The Princess Bride. “I’m sorry Roy, but I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life coaching with somebody, you want the rest of your life to begin ASAP,” Ted says. “You complete our team. I’m also just a coach, standing in front of a boy, asking—” and then, when Roy storms off, “As you wish!”
It’s two clashing styles, flirting.
I’ve wondered whether those who were (understandably) irritated by last week’s saccharine Christmas episode would survive the rom-com deluge here, which I found much more successful because the references are deployed with a a winky dexterity that actually builds something out of all the tropes it juggles. Everyone is rom-comming: We see Mr. and Mrs. Higgins being sweet to each other for no particular reason. Team owner Rebecca is texting a mysterious dating-app correspondent, obviously echoing You’ve Got Mail. There are even nested love stories: the elderly couple breaking the fourth wall to describe their courtship to the camera is a clear homage to When Harry Met Sally, but the story they were telling about how they met turns out to have been another famous love story in disguise: the plot of Titanic. A two-fer! The team therapist, Dr. Fieldstone, shares a name with Dr. Marcia Fieldstone of Sleepless in Seattle. And at the end of the episode, Roy is doing the full-on traditional rom-com chase scene, racing across town, even injuring himself in the process, to join Ted on the sidelines. When Roy makes it to the pitch it’s hard to say which is most moving: the crowd screaming Roy Kent’s chant and welcoming him back into the fold he’d walked away from, or the moment when he reaches Ted and chooses to respond in Rom-Com rather than Sports. “Hello, Coach,” Ted says. “Shut up. Shut up,” Roy says. “You had me at Coach.”
It’s ridiculous, but I also found the combination of the screaming crowd and the Roy and Ted’s reunion—the sports show’s collective ecstasies getting hitched to the rom-com’s one-on-one bonding—deeply moving.
In “Rainbow,” Ted Lasso uses the rom-com to highlight the love stories that saturate sports—love for the team and for each other—without the aggression and competition that typically shield male bonding from any whiff of non-hetero intimacy. Because it’s a rom-com, it prioritizes the love story about the game over the story of the game. Ted Lasso is a sports show driven by the proposition that jocks don’t need to be jocks.
But there are limits to how well the rom-com can paper over the sports show’s issues, because the rom-com has narrative issues too—specifically, the “wedding” with which it usually ends. It’s no secret that marriages are harder than weddings, and Roy’s methods can’t co-exist with Ted’s without friction. It’ll be interesting to see Ted Lasso push past the rom-com (and Ted’s sunniness) into the conflicts that lurk underneath.