Ted Lasso

Ted Lasso and the Rehabilitation of the American Idiot Abroad

Dept. of Americans Abroad


Ted Lasso is, objectively speaking, the best thing on television right now. It is also something of an anachronism. A 30 minute sitcom, that’s based on a series of NBC Sports ads about a fish-out-of-water American football coach, that’s basically a riff on the American idiot abroad stereotype, seems anathema to the kind of content that is usually embraced by audiences today. It isn’t edgy or cynical. It’s proudly old-fashioned. It’s also unapologetically American.

So why then are we drawn to a show about a 40-year-old white man from Kansas who is, at least on the face of it, tragically unqualified for the leadership position he’s been asked to assume? Why are we so in love with a character who, in our real world, would be at best, a punchline on Twitter, and at worst, the poster boy for white privilege? What is it about Ted Lasso that makes him so universally appealing?

Ted Lasso Begins

Ted Lasso

One part of that answer has to do with how the character was reframed for the TV series. The Ted Lasso of 2013 was something of an oaf. He was over-confident but inept. He had unshakeable self-belief but zero self-awareness. He was your prototypical know-it-all, overbearing yank. A symbol of how much of the world viewed Americans.

Ted Lasso was birthed at a very unique time in the American experiment. The country was patting itself on the back for having re-elected a Black man as President. They were slowly but surely clawing back some of their respectability on the world stage. And the self-deprecating nature of this creation seemed very much in line with how America was re-ingratiating themselves with the rest of the world.

In a behind the scenes interview with Spurs TV, Jason Sudeikis explains his character as “an American football coach who’s come over to Tottenham to implement American football things, styles and ways into soccer, into European football… unsuccessfully.” He adds, “Comedically, hopefully, but definitely unsuccessfully.”

The comedy of those original shorts stemmed from Ted’s idiocy and was rooted in America’s need to peddle its brand of exceptionalism across the world. In those ads, America and Americans were laughing along with the rest of us at their own inadequacies. And it worked. For the time.

Seven years on, however, having lived with the dangerous buffoonery of Donald Trump, that version of the character wouldn’t have resonated in quite the same way with an American audience. Let alone a global one. American arrogance had a very real cost and finding the funny in that would be a lot harder than it once was.

Which is why the Ted Lasso we got on Apple TV+ is so different. This is a version of the character that feels a lot more suited to a post-Trump America.

Ted Lasso Returns

Ted Lasso

Back in 2016, on a Wednesday in July at the Democratic National Convention, then President Barack Obama tried to reframe the concept of American exceptionalism. The original idea, as first proffered by Alexis de Tocqueville, was often expressed with an air of superiority. America, which was different by virtue of its national credo, multiculturalism, and revolutionary history, was also the richest, smartest, most powerful, and most deserving country in the world.

Obama tried to move away from that false sense of purpose and perfection, framing it instead into something honorable and aspirational:

My grandparents explained that they didn’t like show-offs. They didn’t admire braggarts or bullies. They didn’t respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, they valued traits like honesty and hard work. Kindness and courtesy. Humility; responsibility; helping each other out.

That’s what they believed in. True things. Things that last. The things we try to teach our kids. 

And what my grandparents understood was that these values weren’t limited to Kansas. They weren’t limited to small towns. These values could travel to Hawaii; even the other side of the world…”

President Barack Obama, Democratic National Convention 2016

It is a sentiment that we see echoed in the transformation of Ted Lasso from an advertising punchline to a powerful symbol of hope, and charm, and decency.

Ted Lasso Rises

Ted Lasso

The incarnation of Ted that we meet in the series is immediately endearing. He carries his own bags. He is apologetic about his shortcomings. He channels Walt Whitman by being curious and not judgmental. But most of all, he is ready and willing to learn. (Which in itself is starkly different to how Sudeikis described Lasso back in 2013.)

He is more than just a “nice guy.” He is vulnerable and shows it. Which allows for those around him to be vulnerable too. He is driven by principle. Which allows him to lead with a quiet wisdom. All of this makes him both sympathetic and inspirational.

Consider this one fleeting moment from the second episode of the first season. Throughout the episode, Ted gives out these little plastic army men to everyone around him as a gesture to those he feels require a little extra care. He gives one to Sam Obisanya on his birthday, who appreciates the gift, but returns it because he doesn’t quite share Ted’s fondness for the American military. It’s a quiet few seconds that are played for laughs, but one that cleverly acknowledges the darker moments of American history, highlights differences in character and ideology, while celebrating their ability to still get along.

Or in the way Ted gently nurtures everyone around him, from the players he coaches, to Hannah Waddingham’s Rebecca – who is struggling with her divorce from a man who was both controlling and humiliating. Or even in the nobility of his decision to take on this job, thousands of miles away from his family, in order to give his wife the space that she’s asked him for.

On one level, it is an absolute triumph in how to write a character. On another, it has also singlehandedly created the perfect vision of an American abroad.

Ted Lasso encapsulates how the world would like a superpower to behave. With courage, ingenuity, and optimism. With decency and generosity. Constantly striving to be better – to do better. All the while laced with a little bit of that folksy charm.

Ted Lasso is how America wants the world to see her right now. Not as a necessary evil, but an indispensable good. And while the truth might be somewhere in between, it nevertheless remains a brand of exceptionalism that we can at least all get behind. Now if that isn’t the ultimate expression of American soft power, I don’t know what is.

Season 2 of Ted Lasso is now streaming on Apple TV+. Click here to check out our review of Season 2 on The Goggler Podcast.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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