Spoiler Alert:This review contains some minor spoilers about the plot of Ted Lasso.

Content Alert: Ted Lasso contains adult themes, sexual content, and strong language.

 

I’ve read at least six articles and op/ed pieces in the NYT on the AppleTV+ hit series, Ted Lasso, in just the last two months, not to mention a quick glance at said publication’s weekly recap of each week’s episode (12 in total) of the show’s third and likely last season (although, there are enough ends left dangling to keep the press and public chasing that enticing “unlikely” fourth season). The op/ed pieces have covered Lasso and politics, Lasso and religion, Lasso and sneakers (a bit of Nike in the air!). 

One mainstream media publication’s numerous highlights of a television show can mean only one thing. The show has entered the pop culture royal priesthood. Ted Lasso (Emmy Award Winning Comedy) has become a divining rod for the undercurrents of the larger cultural milieu and its problems: toxic masculinity, political division, pandemic isolation, unfair double standards for women, human sexuality, the war in Ukraine, the reception of refugees, football super leagues (think LIV for golf and the new oil-rich-nation push for an equivalent football/soccer league) and the list goes on. 

I was an early adopter of the Lasso concept—before Ted became canonized—kindness as an antidote to meanness and empathy as medicine for the malaise and isolation of the pandemic. The soft side of humanity as seen through the lens of a fish-out-of-water, Ned Flanders-esque character (without the religious baggage), a wide-eyed American football coach transported to England to navigate both a sport (soccer, the real football, sorry North America, the Americans to the south know the truth!), and a world he knows little about was quite endearing. 

Unity: holding hands and praying together

The unfolding three seasons are Ted’s Homerian journey. He fights his own version of sea monster, mostly crafted from his own fear and pain, to get back to his Penelope (wife, Michelle, from whom he is recently divorced) and Telemachus (son, Henry) in their Ithaca home (Wichita, KS) with the hint that at the last turn of the third season that Michelle’s would-be-suitor (Dr. Jacob) might have been thrown to the wayside (a typical American who finds the beautiful game pedestrian and pedantic). 

The stage of Ted’s odyssey which the audience sees is what Franciscan Priest, Father Richard Rohr would call the second half of life, the place beyond one’s ego, in which the hero/heroine discovers truth through his/her own “sacred” wound and it changes them dramatically. The final stage of the hero’s journey is the return home (Ithaca or Wichita in this case). “The hero’s journey is always an experience of an excess of life, a surplus of energy, with plenty left over for others.” 

Ted Lasso is that and more. It is a psychological study of a man who displays a disproportionate amount of mercy and grace for others. Lasso takes unjust ridicule cheerfully, repays evil with good, and is quick to forgive and restore. 

But, why? 

One can’t overlook the nagging idea that much of his apparent kindness is because he has learned to put on a positive face since the death of his father as a child. His goodness is a mixture of survival instincts and avoidance of pain modeled for him by his mother, a coping mechanism in the wake of such devastating loss. Despite his wholesome surface, even Ted has demons to exorcize. He must seek the end to his redemptive journey. 

Regardless of what motivates Ted, we are all drawn to someone who pushes against the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, retributive justice that while limiting violence, destroys, nevertheless. The Messianic-like figures are the ones that intrigue many of us because they are so out of place in a world filled with sarcastic and sadistic retorts, wielding of the proverbial sword, and backstabbing for personal gain.

Why did so many of us who grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s love Fred Rogers? For some of the same reasons, I believe, Coach Lasso warms our hearts.

I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child. The way he could make a kid feel through a disembodied medium such as television was quite impressive, but I came to profoundly respect him as an adult after reading Tim Madigan’s book I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers. It gave me a look behind the curtain into the depth of character underneath the cardigan wearing, loafer clad, soft-spoken gentleman of the make believe neighborhood I had grown to love.

Madigan, a journalist with the Fort Worth Star Telegram, who profiled Fred Rogers over the course of two years in the mid 90s, found a fast friend in the ordained Presbyterian Pastor from Pittsburgh. He puts his finger on what he believes was behind Rogers’ greatness, 

Interior of church

“It was his unique capacity for relationship, what Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod once called, ‘a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy’…Fred wanted to know the truth of your life, the nature of your insides, and had enough room in his own spirit to embrace without judgment whatever that truth might be.”

For me that is what is compelling about Jason Sudeikis’s character, Ted Lasso, a willingness to push deeper into the heart and into relationships with others. While Fred’s character embodied a real world and Ted’s a make-believe one and the difference between them one of degree between inspirational and aspirational, fiction can still motivate the better spirits within us. Both the real and the fictional characters push for an intimacy among human beings and particularly between men. 

Recently, I met with a group of men over a month’s period of time. The subject of friendship between guys was the topic. The pressing question was why so few men find meaningful friendships with other men. There is a short list of men who have what Celtic spirituality calls an anam cara (soul friend), but they should.

Many men in the West were culturally conditioned to eschew such intimate friendships because of being perceived as soft, not masculine, or as emotionally dependent. The worst example to me of the kind of masculinity many Christian men, especially conservative ones, were socialized to adhere to is what Kristen Kobes Du Mez describes as militant masculinity, “an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad.” The John Wayne-type hero whose toughness and swagger fight for injustice and to save the damsel in distress while revealing no weakness, no Achilles heel. 

Curiously, one of the op/ed pieces I ran across was about the subject of Lasso and masculinity and the way it is portrayed on the show versus its experience in real life. The author’s conclusion is that the show’s greatest success is “making an alternative, soft masculinity seem possible and worth pursuing, even if it remains a fantasy.” Aww, that is too bad he isn’t a “believer”!

Unity: holding hands and praying together

While the author did not explicitly avow the same faith commitment that those of us at TPW share nor did he provide a critique of Protestant Evangelicalism and its models for masculine friendship, his understanding of masculinity in the larger context of our culture is indeed one that tends towards a go-it-alone isolationism, toughness as the gold standard among buddies even to the point of harm, what many of us grew up with both within and without the church. I remember a sweet friendship with a brother in college that was accompanied by a shared expression of emotion and vulnerability only to be labeled “gay” by the truly “masculine” rabble around us (and this at a Christian college may sadly come as no surprise to some of you).   

But why does our connection among brothers have to be a fantasy or an unattainable aspiration or the expression of vulnerability and emotion seen as something other than platonic?

Are not the examples of friendship between men within the scripture even more vulnerable and intimate than Ted’s initiation of the Diamond Dogs, a called meeting of the coaching staff and club leadership of the AFC Richmond Greyhounds to discuss the tough questions and concerns of another man’s heart and existential reality?

Unity: holding hands and praying together

The Hebrew Bible tells us that Jonathan loved David more than a brother and revealed both his heart and mind freely to his friend. Paul loved Timothy as a spiritual son and longed for his presence. Jesus loved his disciples with a sacrificial and vulnerable love. Why, O why can’t we do the same?

Ted Lasso may only be fiction, but what it answered for me, especially the last few episodes of season three which were heavy on the bro connections, is that many men long for the anam cara not to be a fantasy, for vulnerability not to be laughed at, asking for help to be okay, and moving below the silt on the surface to become a reality. 

Maybe, we can take the real life inspiration of Fred’s relationship with Tim Madigan and Ted’s make-believe aspiration for intimacy with others, especially brothers, and make it something more than a fiction. 

Certainly Christ calls us to do so.

Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.

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