There’s a new show on Apple TV+, and if you get the free one-week trial, you can watch the whole thing. I know this because I did. (Note: Be sure to cancel the subscription before they automatically charge you. I know that because I didn’t.)
Ted Lasso is a sports TV show, which means I’d normally let it pass me by, like all those pitches I was advised to not swing at in Little League. But a friend showed me the first two episodes, and I was smitten. The next day was New Year’s Day, so I spent the whole thing watching the next eight episodes. And darn it if this sports show didn’t take me by surprise. It’s a three-in-one: I laughed, I cried, and I realized I was falling short of the man I want to be.
And that’s kinda what great fiction does, right?
The premise is simple: an American football coach (that’s Ted) is hired as the head coach of an English soccer team, Richmond AFC. The kicker is that he has no idea how soccer works. We wonder how he’ll figure out coaching soccer, which of course isn’t called that in England. Lasso learns practice isn’t called practice and that there are two halves, not four quarters, in the game. The lowest-hanging comedy fruit here is the offside rule, which Lasso (and every American watching), points out is just so confusing. This incongruity, between Lasso’s ignorance and the role he’s just occupied, establishes a compelling enough premise to propel most viewers through at least the first episode.
Out of that simple premise emerges the real stuff of the show, this time through second layer of incongruity: the contrast between Lasso’s resilient optimism and the consistent negativity of the world around him (his team, core relationships, and the sports community). The tension between those two emotional poles is what really keeps people watching past that first episode.
From day one on his new job, Lasso is confronted with a host of circumstances threatening his spirit. The team’s owner, Rachel Welton, is conniving, the team thinks Lasso will sink their career prospects, the press views him with disdain, and fans are enraged that their beloved hometown team is in the hands of such ineptitude.
That cast of foes is pretty standard sports TV fare. But Lasso feels different, because instead of a “invincible hero versus spiteful meanies” set-up, an undercurrent of sadness pervades every character’s life. This undercurrent transforms Lasso’s optimism away from glibness and into hopefulness, and it turns a soccer show into a tale about relationships. Most of the major characters, including Lasso, are undergoing a major life transition, and their respective arcs bump into and influence the direction of the others’ journeys. The series sets Lasso’s bright spirit against disappointments of all kinds and it asks: What effect can kindness and service have on the devastations of life?
In each 30 minute episode, Lasso gives its answer. Like Sisyphus and his rock, Lasso resolves to daily maintain his kindness: he bakes biscuits for Welton, gives personalized presents to his players, grants an full-day interview with a glowering reporter, and hangs out in the same bar as his team’s angry fans. In the midst of his own pain, he notices, plans for, and delivers gifts to the characters he’s around.
And so it was that during my New Year’s Day binge, I realized there was a third incongruity in the show, and it smacked me in the face: I noticed the gap between Lasso’s character and my own.
Somewhere in the latter third of the series, I saw how Lasso just kept seeing other people even though he had plenty of reasons to shut down and lick his own wounds. I thought about how I normally act when I’m in pain—withdrawn, waiting for others to notice me first.
Thus the show broke the fourth wall without any of the characters having to directly address the audience. This is the most usual form of fourth-wall breaks, and it’s the power of storytelling to do more than entertain, but to convict.
Back in the 1500s, there was a man named Philip Sidney. He’s a classic English Renaissance elite: writer, diplomat, soldier, wearer of puffy lace collars that seem to prevent his head from doing literally any normal movements. After he became a poet, he wrote an essay called In Defense of Poesy. Though he was tragically unaware of Ted Lasso, Sidney pretty much nailed why the show matters.
In short, Sidney said that the goal of knowledge and learning was “virtuous action” (meaning, you did not want to just know well, but to live well). He said that poets were the ones best suited to inspire people to right living.
Broaden the meaning of poetry to include all manner of art—particularly story-telling—and it’s clear how correct Sidney was. I was inspired to better living as I watched Lasso. Stories, more than propositional rule books, energize and awaken us. Ted Lasso reminded me again why fiction is a great use of our time, filling our imagination with goodness and, hopefully, letting what we intake spill out into lives of service, generosity, and kindness.