After the underdog soccer team at the center of Apple TV Plus’ comedy Ted Lasso experiences a devastating loss against its biggest rival, player Sam Obisanya is interviewed about the failure. “We lost, very badly, but we tried,” he says. “We gave it everything we had, and for me that is OK, because what’s worse is not to try at all. To try is scary, because you can end up losing a lot. But you have to put your heart out there, otherwise what’s the point?”
That’s pretty much the mantra for the second season of the critically beloved series, where the writers are focusing on the importance of fighting complacency and accepting difficult challenges. Inspired by a series of NBC Sports commercials, the show became an unlikely hit last August, when its relentless optimism and kindness felt like a comforting blanket in the midst of a raging pandemic and civil unrest. But now the writers and characters are pushing into deeper territory, making the blanket feel more like a cocoon that provides the safety and security to let its audience experience personal growth.
At the beginning of season 2, the AFC Richmond team is stable, but in a rut. The team has tied its last six games, which is both frustrating and perplexing to Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis), the American football coach who’s still occasionally baffled by the rules of British association football. Individual characters are just as stuck. Ted hasn’t addressed the panic attack he experienced at the end of season 1, team owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) is dating a man who’s safe but boring, and former Richmond star player Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) is coasting through retirement, watching reality TV and drinking wine with yoga moms who don’t know he’s famous.
Ted Lasso’s season 1 conflict is pretty much cribbed from the 1989 Charlie Sheen movie Major League, with Rebecca bringing on an ignorant American to tank the team just to spite her ex-husband. But after Ted wins her over with his relentless charm and home-baked cookies, the show lacks an external threat. Instead, the focus has turned to characters helping each other confront their problems, no matter how challenging that can be.
The biggest catalyst for the introspection is sports psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), who helps players get through the yips and practice confidence-building mantras. She immediately sees through Ted’s dissembling non sequiturs, revealing that his perpetually perky attitude is covering up deep pain and anxiety. Her stern, matter-of-fact demeanor makes her a perfect foil for Ted, a rock for him to crash against in his perpetual quest to wear everyone down with humor and kindness.
Like in the real world, trying to change things in the show is rarely easy or painless. Warnings about toxic relationships go unheeded, and a taste of fame leads to abusive behavior. On the field, players fold under the burden of leadership, or lose their edge because they’re trying to avoid conflict. Yet the characters and the show’s writers perpetually argue that it’s worth telling the truth, fighting to be better, and uplifting those around you. It might be easy to just revel in the return to normalcy after 18 months of sacrifice and trauma, but Ted Lasso makes a case for always pushing to be better.
Having a strong theme and testing its characters strengthens the show, which can get a bit saccharine in low-conflict episodes like season 2’s tribute to Love Actually. The writers lampshade their use of rom-com tropes, with Ted quoting The Princess Bride and Jerry Maguire, and sometimes they lean too heavily on the genre’s tendency to have everything work out neatly. A plot involving Sam leading an on-field protest provides a strong lesson on how to be an empowering ally, but it also seems too breezy considering the actual consequences athletes who’ve taken political stances have faced, not to mention the racist abuse suffered by Black English soccer players.
Much like in Friday Night Lights, a team sport is what brings the characters together, but the on-field action is far less important than how the characters relate to the game and each other. While there’s plenty of actual romance in the show, the relationships being built are just as often platonic. Ted Lasso is a sort of antidote to toxic masculinity, a show where men aren’t afraid to hug and cry, but that doesn’t make them any less likely to stand up for themselves or the people they respect and love.
Perhaps the best embodiment of that model is Roy, who’s constantly cursing and growling, but also expresses beautiful tenderness with his niece, Phoebe (Elodie Blomfield) and girlfriend Keeley Jones (Juno Temple). Goldstein does fantastic physical work, always seeming to take up more space than his frame should allow. He’s able to shoot someone down with a withering stare, which makes it even more charming when he eagerly tries to share the plot of The Da Vinci Code with Keeley.
Sudeikis shines through silly material, like a riff on Miss Nelson is Missing! where he puts on a mean persona to try to motivate the team, and the more heart-wrenching stuff, like the simple pain of fielding a call from his son, who forgot his school lunch, and being an ocean away from doing anything to help. Watching Ted struggle with his mental health is agonizing, compelling, and powerfully relatable.
Wadingham is the third true star of the show, mastering both witty remarks and physical humor, in scenes like the one where she demonstrates how she psychs herself up for meetings by posing like a towering werewolf. She plays particularly well off Keeley, always having a good answer to even the crassest questions. The team’s director of operations, Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift), thrives with an increased role this season, as a humble but charming force of stability. Sharon taking over his office provides endless gags where he can pretty much pop up in any scene as part of his unending quest to find a place to work.
Ted Lasso’s emotional arcs are like a shot in a cup of hot chocolate — they provide a little bite that makes the whole experience warmer. The show’s lighthearted charm was exactly what many viewers needed last summer, but a more stable world is allowing the writers to take more risks and raise the stakes. True to their message, when they put their heart out there, they delivered a winning show.
Episode 1 of Ted Lasso’s second season is now streaming on Apple TV Plus. New episodes arrive on Fridays.