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One of TV’s best new shows, HBO’s The White Lotus opens with a coffin being deposited on an airplane and flashes back for six episodes in which you’re bound at some point to want nearly every character to meet their end. The White Lotus is a show with a surprising amount of heart, but first it serves viewers a toxic cup of hemlock.
One of last year’s most acclaimed shows, Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso is designed as an antidote. In a TV landscape dominated by darkness and irony, Ted Lasso follows its protagonist’s example and enters every room with the thematic equivalent of a carefully wrapped box of homemade biscuits. It’s sweet, hopeful and obstinately corny — and it’s easy to see how, premiering in the middle of a global pandemic, the show struck a chord that nobody, including the good people at Apple TV+, possibly could have anticipated.
But speaking of anticipation, it’s nearly as easy to imagine how, with expectations raised by a heap of Emmy nominations, the second season of Ted Lasso might struggle to reproduce that stealthy charm. Maybe you can walk into a locker room with no understanding of the offsides rule and inspire a group of cynical professional athletes with inspirational mantras and folksy wisdom once — but what are the chances of doing it again?
Through two-thirds of the comedy’s 12-episode encore season, the returns are, like Ted Lasso himself, unreasonably positive. I can easily point to plotlines that have me wary, if not concerned, but the sophomore season of Ted Lasso thus far is an admirable mixture of repeating — and refining — the elements that resonated so well initially and expanding the show’s ensemble and tonal reach. Eight episodes and the smile rarely left my face, so Ted Lasso is clearly back.
When we left the boys of AFC Richmond, a heartbreaking loss had just cost them their place in the Premiership, but the players, Ted Lasso’s (Jason Sudeikis) coaching staff — Brendan Hunt’s Coach Beard and Nick Mohammed’s Nathan — and owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) were committed to a comeback for the ages.
Instead, AFC Richmond gets stuck on a string of ties, Ted’s least favorite result, and when their most confident player — Cristo Fernandez’s exuberant Dani Rojas — suffers a bout of uncertainty, the team hires sports psychologist Sharon (Sarah Niles), much to Ted’s chagrin. Meanwhile, newly retired Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) is struggling to figure out his next professional step, while navigating relationship waters with Keeley (Juno Temple), who’s taking on marketing duties for a new dating app that will prove integral to the season’s plot.
The Ted Lasso creative team, led by Sudeikis, Hunt, Bill Lawrence and Joe Kelly, built the first season around established underdog sports movie templates — including a near-duplication of the arc of Major League. This time around, Ted Lasso has been reconfigured as an homage to romantic comedies, with very specific references careening about, peaking in a fifth episode that’s a pure love letter to the genre.
Rom-coms and underdog sports stories are genres based on radical optimism and the conquering of cynicism, with audiences trained to set aside logic in the pursuit of a happy ending. Ted Lasso indeed is a series in which nearly every episode climaxes with the sort of emotional uplift most shows would save for a season finale. It’s so committed to audience swooning that a Christmas episode to end all Christmas episodes — basically 30+ minutes of tear-duct triggering and carols — comes four episodes into the season and somehow barely feels like a stunt at all.
Ted Lasso has swiftly become tremendous at identifying and playing to its strengths. The second season expands on Keeley and Roy’s adorably unlikely love story, taking full advantage of the glorious comic energy between the wonderful Temple and Waddingham, without ever overplaying the Keeley/Rebecca pairing.
There’s more of ultra-gruff Roy and tow-headed niece Phoebe (scene-stealing Elodie Blomfield), while more AFC Richmond players, including Toheeb Jimoh’s Sam and Kola Bokinni’s Isaac, get opportunities to shine. We get new sides to Nate, elevated from clubhouse attendant to assistant coach, and of Phil Dunster’s Jamie Tartt as the hotshot superstar who returns in a very amusing and different place.
All this means that even with episodes now routinely coming in at closer to 40 than 30 minutes, Ted Lasso is much less about, well, Ted Lasso. Sure, he still has in-jokes with Coach Beard and jovial banter with Rebecca, and he’s periodically perplexed by British terminology. But that’s happening less and less as Ted Lasso ceases to be primarily a fish-out-of-water comedy. And if you’ve wondered whether Ted’s pep might in some way be pathological? Well, that’s explored some, with an effective reminder that Sudeikis — watch Colossal if you haven’t already — has dramatic range. “Sometimes it’s good to bottle things up. That’s how we get pickles,” Ted says at some point, proving that he even has a folksy aphorism for emotional repression.
How much psychological depth is this series able to contend with? After eight episodes, it’s hard to tell, though Niles is an increasingly good addition as the season progresses. It’s also hard to tell if Ted Lasso has done enough foundation-building for a newly introduced romantic element that I don’t yet fully buy. The show’s capacity to handle seriousness is put into some doubt by an activism subplot that, despite countless ongoing examples of real-world athletic activism, comes across as artificial (though it’s introduced in an otherwise strong episode directed by, of all people, OJ: Made in America Oscar winner Ezra Edelman).
Most of my reservations about the new episodes stem from their attempts to expand the show’s range, which was always necessary for a premise lifted from a series of jokey NBC Sports shorts. Nothing has fully backfired yet, and these new installments are as packed with warm-fuzzies as before, and probably funnier, punchline-for-punchline, as well. Ted Lasso can’t sneak up on viewers again, but its worldview hasn’t lost any of its necessity.
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