Ted Lasso’s Endearing 'Idiot'
Among 2020's myriad oddities, a television show based entirely on a nearly decade-old promotional stunt barely qualifies as strange. What is perhaps a bit more surprising is that this show, Ted Lasso, is an island of peace and joy in the midst of chaos, a welcome breath of fresh air. Available on Apple TV Plus, Ted Lasso is about soccer, about change, and—most of all—about authentic friendship.
The titular Ted (Jason Sudeikis) is an American college football coach who is hired to coach a British football (that is, soccer) team. Ted is a wide-eyed, enthusiastic fish out of water. He readily admits, to a packed press conference, that he knows nothing about soccer or British culture. He asks the very players he coaches for clarification about basic rules and strategies. He greets every person he meets—from the driver who greets him at the airport to the football club's towel boy to his players to those cannibalistic reporters to his boss—with arms open, both literally and metaphorically.
Everyone (even I, I confess) at first thinks Ted is an idiot. But Ted shows himself quickly to be an idiot in the mold of Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin. Ted is sharp, incredibly intelligent, and deeply thoughtful. He simply refuses to be cruel, cold, or cynical. His generosity and openness are born not of naivete, but a deep well of love. This is a difficult balancing act, but Sudeikis captures Ted’s “aw shucks” demeanor with wit and charm. He’s impossible not to like.
Nearly every other character in Ted Lasso (with the notable exception of Brendan Hunt’s Coach Beard, Ted's longtime assistant and bestie for life) follows a similar trajectory as the viewer: dismissive condescension deepens into dislike, which softens into suspicious pity, before being dragged through unwilling affection straight into earnest love.
We've long read Prince Myshkin as a Jesus figure, and I humbly submit one Ted Lasso for a similar consideration. It's not just that Ted's fish-out-of-water journey imitates Jesus' journey of incarnation. Again and again, scripture affirms that God is "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love." This is Ted. He leads with his vulnerabilities, opening himself to his players, his staff, and even his enemies (such as journalists and loyal football fans). Ted meets condescension with cheer, insults with inquisitiveness.
We've long read Prince Myshkin as a Jesus figure, and I humbly submit one Ted Lasso for a similar consideration.
In an early episode, Ted grants a combative journalist an exclusive interview. During the interview, Ted freely admits he knows nothing about British football and has no real interest in winning. His only concern is that he do whatever he can to help his players grow into the best versions of themselves. No doubt noticing the reporter salivating, Ted insists they go to dinner. They visit the Indian restaurant run by the father of the man who drove Ted from the airport when he first arrived in London. Ted greets the driver, who also works as a server, and orders a spice level "just like what you do at home." The incredulous reporter asks Ted if he likes Indian food, which provokes a confession: Ted has never had it. He just promised the driver he would come.
The food arrives so spicy the reporter refuses to eat it. Ted insists they have to "put a good dent" in the food to show their respect and shoves mouthful after mouthful into his ever-reddening face. The reporter stares in awe as Ted affirms to the server that it's the best he's ever had. What should have been a scathing interview ends up with the reporter signing off by writing, "I can't help but root for Ted Lasso."
Ted is not dumb. He is not naive. He is also not susceptible to manipulation. He just comes across that way to our jaded, cynical culture. The truth is: Ted has no agenda beyond being fully present to those in his life. His only goal is to enable them to succeed—and for Ted, success only coincidentally, and occasionally, means winning. He stands up to bullies (in the kindest way possible). He challenges toxic behavior. He readily accepts help when he is vulnerable. And he rushes to forgive when he is wronged.
In our cynical, litigious world, we've become convinced that nice guys finish last. Ted reminds us that winning isn't everything. That, in fact, winning might not even be that good. After all, what does it profit me to gain the whole world if it costs me my humanity? Instead, Ted invites us to consider if Jesus' way might be a better way to be human.
At every turn, Ted embodies Jesus' gentle, kind, and insistent way of love. Though he is much maligned, Ted offers the kind of radical kindness that, as Paul reminds us, can lead to real change. Don't be surprised when you finish laughing with Ted Lasso to find yourself reflecting on how you, too, might be a little more like Jesus tomorrow.