Television

Ted Lasso’s Big Revelation Is an Origin Story He Doesn’t Need

Rooting Ted’s optimism in a tragic backstory undermines his iconic kindness.

Sarah Niles and Jason Sudeikis on Ted Lasso.
Sarah Niles and Jason Sudeikis on Ted Lasso. Apple TV+

This article contains spoilers from the eighth episode of Ted Lasso Season 2, “Man City”

When a show has a perfect first season, I get nervous. So as much as I’ve enjoyed recent episodes of Ted Lasso—the sports show that’s not a sports show, but rather an astonishingly assured comedy about kindness, masculinity, and relationships—I’ve felt uneasy. The instant Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, the unflappable sports psychologist hired to tune up AFC Richmond’s players, arrived on the scene with her open-door policy, I knew Ted would walk through it. And I dreaded that moment.

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It’s not that I didn’t want to learn more about Ted. But not this way, barreling toward the Lasso version of the “It’s not your fault” scene in Good Will Hunting. I’ve been worried Ted’s kindness—the backbone of the show, the premise it’s all built on—would be explained away as a coping mechanism for his tragic backstory, which would undermine so much of what makes this show great. Ted’s relentless goodness is a boundary-pushing choice for TV after decades of anti-heroes from Tony Soprano to Don Draper to Logan Roy. And now the show’s writers are in danger of taking this astonishing thing they’ve created—this paragon of compassion, this unicorn of positivity—and turning it into just another TV cliché.

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For a season and a half, the show has flirted with the idea of something painful in Ted’s past. When Ted thrashes Rupert, the former owner of the club, at darts, he reveals that he used to play with his dad until his death when Ted was 16. Ted’s divorce is devastating to him, but an older trauma seems to be at play when he has a panic attack soon after. And during the recent Christmas episode when Ted is watching It’s a Wonderful Life, he tears up as George Bailey contemplates jumping off the Bedford Falls bridge.

In “Man City,” all this foreshadowing comes to a head. Ted calls Dr. Fieldstone and tells her that his father died by suicide. It’s an unfathomable loss, and it does not feel unearned or out of nowhere in the universe of the show. As far as on-screen shrinks go, Dr. Fieldstone is about as believable and competent as it gets; I can understand why Ted opened up to her. What I dread, though, is that this storyline is going to dig into the why behind Ted’s kindness, serving up some big moment of catharsis where Ted realizes he focuses so much on others because it’s a way to avoid his own pain.

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The decision to be a good person doesn’t come from an absence of pain, so in some ways this revelation deepens our understanding of his character. Ted has always said he doesn’t quit on things, and that takes on more resonance now that we know his father took his own life. Fathers, whether in their absence or presence, are the connective tissue of Ted Lasso—the “Man City” of this episode isn’t just a football club—and we can admire Ted all the more for knowing that he chooses to be the way he is even after losing his dad in such a devastating way.

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But what does not need to happen, what should not happen, is for Ted’s empathy to be linked to his painful origin story, suggesting that it is a coping mechanism forged out of trauma, a deflection tactic to cover up a loss he never fully processed. This would cheapen Ted’s superpower, making it compensatory rather than the courageous core principle it is. Sometimes wrapping more words around an idea doesn’t make it clearer or stronger, it just diminishes it. Ted’s kindness is the engine of this show. Let it be who he is. Don’t weaken it by attaching an asterisk.

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If the show feels the need to mix things up in its second season, there are all sorts of situations we haven’t seen Ted in yet. We haven’t seen him date (his post-divorce one night stand with his boss’s best friend doesn’t count). We haven’t seen how he coaches a consistently winning team. We haven’t seen him get angry. (Interestingly, Dr. Fieldstone is the only character he’s come close to laying into.) The show hasn’t really explored how Ted is handling the fact that he lives 4,000 miles away from his son, becoming an absent father even though family is the most important thing to him.

The last omission is surprising since Ted Lasso is in every other respect so deft in its character development. The arc for Roy and Jamie this year built steadily towards the moment in “Man City” when, after watching Jamie’s father emotionally abuse him after they lose a gut-wrenching match, Roy hugs Jamie as he weeps. The moment is astonishing and completely earned. Not since Buffy and Spike has a blood feud more believably softened into mutual respect.

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A show as good, and as smart, as Ted Lasso may be able to walk the tightrope of exploring Ted’s past without attaching a side of dimestore psychology. Perhaps Dr. Fieldstone will help Ted work through his father’s death and unlock an even deeper level of goodness, actualizing his power like Thor’s in Ragnorak. Fathers are, after all, one of the central themes of the show—not just absent fathers but surrogate fathers (Ted to his players; Roy to his niece Phoebe), flawed fathers (Jamie’s abusive dad, Nate’s withholding one), and loving fathers (Sam’s dad, and the transcendent Higgins). We don’t yet know why the voices that Ted hears during his second major panic attack are Jamie’s father yelling at him, and his own son speaking Jamie’s name worshipfully, but I have my theories, and we can be sure Dr. Fieldstone will be on the case.

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But I still worry that Ted Lasso, while remaining a wonderful, entertaining show, is losing the spark that made it great. Too often on prestige TV, compassion is associated with weakness—the lack of killer instinct that gets Ned beheaded on Game of Thrones, the way Logan ruthlessly exploits his son’s love for him on Succession—when in fact it’s the opposite. It takes nothing to put someone down in order to salve whatever emptiness is inside you. It takes nothing to go for the kill instead of trying to help others. But it does take courage—true, radical courage—to make the choice to be a good person every day.

This is the thesis Ted Lasso built its entire brilliant first season around. It doesn’t need complicating. Sometimes in storytelling, the most powerful thing you can do is stop talking.

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