What is the mythic appeal of Ted Lasso? His origin story lies in 2013-14 TV promos meant to draw U.S. viewers into watching U.K. football, i.e., soccer. Ted was a fictional U.S. coach signed to “manage” an English team without knowing it was a totally different sport. (What? They don’t wear helmets? OK.)
Now he has a series on Apple TV, itself ready to challenge a mythic titan, Netflix. He’s done well. What’s his secret?
The critical consensus is that this is a new genre, “nice TV.” Schitt’s Creek is another example. “Nice is having a moment in TV comedy,” said the New York Times critic. The Globe’s Cathal Kelly said TV series sadly became “a race to the depressive bottom.” Ted represents “the power of decency.”
To each his own, but I think Ted draws on a different myth: the can-do American, unrooted in ancient traditions and prejudices and so able to offer hope to worn-out peoples in worn-out lands.
He’s the archetype who thinks positively because he lacks centuries of experience teaching you how hopeless any good outcome is. Americans left the Old World to shake off its crusts and return occasionally to inspire it with possibilities — like jazz! He’s genetically related to the We Can Do It! posters from the Second World War. The Yanks go back to clean up European messes. Canadians like Sidney Newman, who created Brit TV classics (The Avengers, Doctor Who) also draw from that well. They put on Greb Kodiak boots and lumberjack shirts, sometimes literally, to revive exhausted Europeans with hope and solutions.
They are Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, poking naively through the ancient ruins. Ted’s the latest. Of course it’s all crap, as Mark Twain knew better than any other American voice, from his first book to his last. That hardly dented the myth’s appeal: a new being unburdened by custom, class, history — freed to do what others couldn’t. That’s the American protagonist that much of the world wanted to believe in for over two centuries.
U.S. coaches have surprisingly approximated that myth. I don’t mean hardass Trump winning-is-all types like Knute Rockne or Vince Lombardi. I mean San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich, with a brilliant record, who tells players, “I don’t really know that much about basketball, but I am going to learn like you.” He was appalled by Trump. “I’m a rich white guy. And I’m sick to my stomach … I can’t imagine being a Muslim right now, or a woman, or an African-American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person.” He calls out his players but in a fair way, like Ted Lasso, who does it through the insights of his timid assistant, Nate, benefitting both Nate and the players.
Popovich gives them books, like Ted, who gives The Beautiful and the Damned to his ace scorer and A Wrinkle in Time to an aging star. Even a football coach, Buffalo Bills’ Marv Levy, was asked after losing three straight Super Bowls, if a fourth was a “must-win situation.” “World War Two,” he said, “was a must-win situation.” Wouldn’t you love playing for that guy? Sending this kind of coach abroad, as an innocent, is the brilliance of Ted Lasso.
Oddly, Joe Biden going to the White House is a bit like Ted arriving in London: here I am to save the day, I believe we can do this thing. He even looks a bit like Ted, aged beyond his coaching years. It makes some sense. Biden grew up in another era; he can mouth the lines with at least partial conviction: “This isn’t who we are” — at the same moment a voice in another compartment of his psyche is saying, “This is exactly who we are.”
In the realm of myth, reality matters little. You can dive into a situation you know nothing about (like coaching soccer) and cope because all people and situations are basically similar: from another planet or an anthill, humans surely look almost identical. Anyway, none of us has all history piled up inside us. Mythically, each birth is potentially a wholly new beginning. Ted even looks a bit like a newborn.
•Apologies, especially to my former Bible and theology profs, for confusing Jesus’s disciples Judas and Peter in last week’s column.
Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
Image credit: Eva Rinaldi/Flickr