INTERVIEW

"Ted Lasso" creators Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt want you to know it's OK not to be OK

Salon talks to the comedy's co-creators about how America sees itself versus the truth other nations see in us

By Melanie McFarland
Published August 7, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)
Jason Sudeikis and Sarah Niles in "Ted Lasso" (Apple TV+)
Jason Sudeikis and Sarah Niles in "Ted Lasso" (Apple TV+)

"Ted Lasso" debuted nearly a year ago on Apple TV+ during summer's dog days. If that timeline seems off, that is because it didn't find its audience until mid-autumn. Actually, it's more accurate to say it took a few months and a contentious, stressful presidential election and its ugly aftermath, for its people to flock to it – out of curiosity, yes, but also out of an intense need.

Putting the outpouring of love aside, though, series co-creator Brendan Hunt demonstratively managed his expectations going into Season 2. "I certainly hope, at least, that 'because the world was on fire' isn't the only reason people like the show," he told Salon in a recent interview. "I hope people would have thought it was good no matter when it came out."

Multiple Emmy nominations, bubbly social media valentines and the effusive emoting that erupts when one person mention the show's title to another should have assuaged Hunt's concerns by now. Maybe not, though. Hunt, like his character Coach Beard, is the resident soccer nut among the American side of the writers room. He's the one who introduced the phrase "the hope that kills you" into the show's narrative.

This was his way of drawing a contrast between British stoicism and the title character's American "we can do anything" optimism, an attitude captured in phrase that describes the America sports fanatic's outlook: "Do you believe in miracles?" This sets up the first season's finale nail-biter in which Ted and Beard's underdog football (i.e. soccer) team AFC Richmond is relegated from being a Premier League team to Championship level. Through that defeat Hunt sought to prove something else. If "Ted Lasso" followed the setup on a usual sports movie the title character's guiding mantra, "Believe," would be enough. But it wasn't. Now what?

"Ted Lasso" was introduced as a the story of a out-of-place Kansas yokel in Britain, with Jason Sudeikis playing Ted as the kind of man aware of the assumptions people will make about him. He knows people see his gigantic mustache, hear his cornpone accent and predilection for bombarding everyone with folksy figures of speech, and underestimate him. He's a fascinating player in the American story, part of the reason the show nestled into our hearts so suddenly, if later than expected.

Ted's singular means of seduction, like the show, resembles the figurative photograph mainstream America carries around in its psychological wallet. We all have some version of it – that family photo showcasing us in our Sunday best, all smiles. Such pictures make us look like friendly, helpful, upbeat engines of ingenuity. Good guys.

Aspiration is the cornerstone of this show, a siren call drawing an audience at a time when the world was exhausted. To address Hunt's concern, that would have been the case under any circumstances, but given how badly off we were in late 2020 it felt particularly salubrious.

But if every meaningful TV show tells us something about who we are, Season 2 challenges our longstanding narrative that defines our goodness as being an extension of our greatness, and of only showcasing the positive while hiding our darker truths, by introducing sports psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sharon Niles). Dr. Sharon, as Ted calls her, arrives to counsel players through whatever psychological blocks may be holding them back. Her purpose in these new episodes is quite specific, particularly to the main characters' arcs. Her arrival brings out a nervous energy in Ted for reasons that aren't immediately clear.

Sudeikis, in a separate interview, explains that in adding Dr. Sharon to the AFC Richmond team, he wanted to show people that "sometimes, the best way to help others is to help yourself."

Dr. Sharon represents something else too: a challenge to the narrative Americans tell ourselves about ourselves. She doesn't believe in exceptionalism. In fact she suspects that Ted's American charm offensive is, to use a favorite termof President Joe Biden's, utter malarkey.

Dr. Sharon doesn't smile easily – certainly not at Ted's jokes or his bending over backwards to be liked. He tries to win her over by offering her a box of cookies meant for his boss Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham); she hands them back, but only after questioning why he's so devoted to disarming new people with over-the-top humor. Her entire manner throws Ted off his game.

That's because the doctor is an astute observer of behavior. First season viewers know that Ted has panic attacks. although he's managed to hide them from everyone at AFC Richmond except Rebecca. But Dr. Sharon is also playing out some version of the skeptical perspective the rest of the world may hold about America after the last five years . . . and the many decades before it, extending all the way back to the end of World War II.

Hunt describes it by recalling the time in his life when he, Sudeikis and their fellow executive producer Joe Kelly were doing comedy in Amsterdam. "That was a time when we started to see America from the outside, and the way that other people were looking at America," he said. "The main way they looked at us was as this very big fat people. But, you know, another difference is this, you know, niceness… this friendliness, which, you know, a lot of people in Britain find to be false."

Ted is genuinely friendly, which throws off everyone in the football club and the U.K. in general. His kindness is infectious enough to transform a fractured team into a bonded family unit, from the kit man all the way to the top of management.

Dr. Sharon accepts that, Hunt explains. "I don't think she questions the authenticity of it. I think she questions the reasons of it. She questions what's going on inside that would make him want to disarm everyone, and make him want to charm people instead of talking about himself."

Hunt said the current season's therapy arc is meant to inspire everyone watching Ted and the rest of AFC Richmond fight their interior battles as they struggle on the field to realize that we could all benefit from talk therapy.

Its larger metaphor underscores the necessity of taking a long hard look at the culture in which we live, and maybe reconsidering our place in an interconnected world as part of that. The pandemic doesn't exist in the world of "Ted Lasso." This is intentional, part of its strategy to allow the story to play on a field of idealism and emphasize its loftier messages of both knowing yourself and "to thine own self, be true."

"Sometimes that feels a little selfish," Sudeikis admitted. "On a global scale, and even more recently in the political realm, we've seen that if we believe the only way to survive is to be selfish, we lose touch with the need to heal within. To love yourself and allow that to spill over and to find a place within your own home, within your community, your country, the world, is really the one thing you absolutely have control over."

Hunt agreed. "The fact that Americans do have this ingrained optimism, even against a lot of actual information about how things work, is not that bad of a quality. You know, I think it is one of our better qualities."

At the same time, he added, "We all should be taking a good, long, hard look at ourselves and figuring out what we are and how we got the way we are. And make damn well sure that we're doing at least something to make what's going on inside a little bit of a better situation."

Hunt was referring to each of us as individuals. But that's also sound coaching for the nation.

New episodes of "Ted Lasso" stream Fridays on Apple TV+.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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