The Subtle Gamble of Ted Lasso
If aliens came to earth, what television show would you make them watch to learn about us?
You could show them The Bachelor, but then they’d be wondering why our mating rituals include presenting a plant. The Queen’s Gambit could make them believe that all drugs leave you seeing game pieces on the ceiling. Two episodes of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist may have them on tenterhooks waiting for a spontaneous song and dance.
I’d show them Ted Lasso.
This choice has nothing to do with the actors, the concept, the sport, the characters, the cinematography, or the scenery. It has everything to do with Jason Sudakis’s philosophy about the show.
Although Sudakis sometimes stumbles his way to coherence (the internet lost its mind over his rambling Golden Globe acceptance speech), he was alert enough in this late-night interview with Seth Myers to impart advice every modern creative should hear.
Seth wanted to know — Why is the show so good? Why does it feel deeper than most comedies? What makes it stand out?
To this, Jason remembered a few words that a former teacher once told him:
Treat your audience like poets and geniuses, and they will rise to the occasion.
That’s the kind of quote that you’d see on a poster in art class. It rarely manifests in our entertainment.
Modern comedic thinking is that you dumb down dialog, water down plots, and simplify jokes so that everybody gets a good laugh and either nobody gets offended (New Girl) or everybody does (South Park). Producers are hyper-focused on demographics, forcing directors to extreme niches in pursuit of guaranteed profits. Add that to the constant attempts to quantify humans through algorithms (a reductionist act at best), and you wind up with a swill of carefully measured yet completely meaningless television.
Lasso is different.
One example crops up in episode 6 of the show’s first season. Ted says the word “plan” 10 times in 11 seconds. He gets tripped up because the word begins to sound weird. A gag like this has been used before, but the soccer show goes a step further.
Ted crosses the building, saying “plan” over and over until he reaches the coaching room.
“Word become a sound?” asks one of his assistant coaches.
“Yeah,” says Lasso. “What’s that called again?”
“Semantic satiation.” answers the coach.
With this exchange, an otherwise average moment of relatable humor gets an upgrade. You laugh because you’ve been there, but you also get new vocabulary to explain the phenomenon.
Good shows teach you.
The lessons continue throughout the plot. One of the players — Roy Kent — is late in his soccer career. Naturally, his age is the butt of several jokes throughout the series. However, in the last episode, one fan calls him an “octogenarian.” It’s a new way to express the same joke, which keeps the gag fresh while also teaching you new words (or at least making you feel smart for knowing big ones).
The kicker comes in during the last scene of the last episode. When the credits roll, you hear Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rein. Without spoiling anything, this is a perfect song to select as an extension of the show’s Season 1 conclusion.
Could they have played any song? Sure.
Could they have continued to call the aging soccer player “granddad,” getting louder and making sillier faces each time? Of course.
Could the writers have skipped the detour that gave us the words for a unique phenomenon of the human language? Yes.
They didn’t though. Like all great cinema, Ted Lasso takes every opportunity to be outstanding.
Which leads us to an important question: Who cares?
Does it matter, really, if some dude with a funny mustache makes a good show?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Made-up stories change our brains. What we consume alters how we think. Every page flipped in a book leads to new ideas, every minute of video to new mindsets.
Because of this, culture and art are a two-way street. Director Bong Joon-ho starts thinking about wealth inequality, which spurs him to make a film about it (Parasite). Those who see the film can’t help but consider the consequences of a widening divide between the rich and poor.
Most of us are consuming more fiction than reality today. Our beliefs about the world are more influenced by the small screen than we’d care to admit.
If you are a creative, the gravity of that truth is tough to swallow. It means your work has to be about meaning, not just eyeballs. This too is a gamble because of how heavily the internet incentivizes attention (even if they don’t mean to). Well-meaning writers get sucked into publishing work they don’t particularly like or care about because they know it works.
Well, it works to get attention, anyway.
We forget attention only matters if you direct that attention somewhere meaningful. In the case of Ted Lasso, your attention is redirected to a powerful idea: humankind is better than you think.
The show says that through the dialogue, but it also speaks through the character of Ted himself. In a world of hyper-polarized opinions, both politically and socially, here we have a mustache-wearing, BBQ-eating, tea-hating, America-loving, former football coach who flouts the usual jock portrayals and spends most of his time preaching that there are values other than victory, and that petty personal differences should be set aside to pursue a greater purpose.
Such a high-minded show feels unlikely to succeed. Now, rightfully, the show is swamped with awards and renewed for a second season
All of this is a reminder. Television can be more than a time sink. Shows can be more than a distraction. Art can send a message. That is, if the creator dares to leave the hollow rewards of shallow work and dives into the deep end.