I love Ted Lasso.
And I don’t just mean the comedy series from Apple TV. I mean, I love Ted Lasso the man.
I know Ted is the long-gestated vanity project of comedian Jason Sudeikis who started out as a clueless American coach in London for a series of sketch-length promos for NBC’s premier league coverage in 2013. But I don’t care. Ted feels real to me. And I love the guy.
And so, it seems, does everyone.
Caroline Framke from Variety wrote that Ted “chipped away at my scepticism until there was none left – just like the character himself does to everyone he meets.”
J. R. Forasteros says, “Ted has no agenda beyond being fully present to those in his life. His only goal is to enable them to succeed—and for Ted, success only coincidentally, and occasionally, means winning. He stands up to bullies (in the kindest way possible). He challenges toxic behavior. He readily accepts help when he is vulnerable. And he rushes to forgive when he is wronged.”
And writing for the New Yorker, Doreen St Felix concludes, “Ted seems to be not a character but a kind of powerful infection… Eventually, everyone is disarmed. That’s the viewer’s experience of the show as well: you’re resistant, worn down, and then, happily, you submit.”
Well, consider me infected. I find myself sighing affectionately, “Oh Ted,” after he’s just said something sweetly thoughtful.
The guy is just full of love.
Little wonder that some Christian commentators have held Ted up as what C. S. Lewis called “a little Jesus,” an exemplar of all that a Christian should aspire to be like. I’ve read articles comparing him to Dostoevsky’s Christ figure, Prince Mishkin. He’s been called a pure innocent, more hopeful than Pollyanna, kinder than a saint.
And I was on board with all that until the Christmas special in Season 2. Then a nagging concern I’d been feeling came to the surface.
To be sure, the Christmas special, titled “Carol of the Bells” was peak Lasso – unrelentingly cheerful and poignantly charming. It built to a triptych of touching yuletide scenes.
In the first, the perpetually put-upon Higgins and his family host an open house for players who don’t have family in town and so many turn up they have to create a makeshift banquet table. The day turns into a multicultural feast of epic proportions, full of love and grace, with the usually overlooked Higgins becoming a much-loved host.
In the second sequence, the normally gruff ex-player Roy Kent and his girlfriend Keeley, who had originally had a “sexy Christmas” planned, end up spending the night searching for a dentist to solve Roy’s little niece’s halitosis problem.
And thirdly, Ted, who has been separated from his son back in the US and was planning to just drink whisky and watch It’s a Wonderful Life, is recruited by the team owner Rebecca to help her deliver bags of gifts to disadvantaged children, something he does with great glee.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Santa’s birthday,” quips Ted.
And then it occurred to me. The whole episode epitomized everything Christ taught us. The banquet for the outsiders; the selfless search for medical care for a vulnerable child; the beauty of gift-giving. The show was a paeon to doing unto others what you’d have them do unto you. It was a series of snapshots of the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught. But it was Santa’s birthday.
And then when I thought back over the preceding episodes I realized that God never gets mentioned in Ted Lasso. That mightn’t be surprising in the cynical post-Christendom Londoners. But in Ted? Ted Lasso himself is a variation on an American archetype you don’t see much anymore: the innocent naïf, the pure-of-heart bumpkin, the uncultured savant. Think of Gomer Pyle or Gilligan or Kenneth from 30 Rock. And that kind of archetype is usually religious. In fact, their simple religious faith is often perceived as evidence of their naivete.
But not Ted. There doesn’t seem to be a religious bone in his body. His kindness, his thoughtfulness, his unremitting positivity springs apparently from somewhere deep within his American soul. He brings joy. He repairs relationships. He changes lives. All by himself.
And look at how he has converted all the other characters around him. The awkward Higgins becomes the life of the party. The bad-tempered Roy starts coaching a kids’ football team. And Rebecca, who began Season 1 as a cynical hard-as-nails business woman, has turned into a softy and gooey Mrs Claus.
Ted Lasso seems to suggest we can have all the things Jesus taught without having to bother with Jesus himself. But in the gospels, the birth narratives frontload the kingship of Jesus. Angels praise him, foreign astrologers honor him, simple men and women declare him to be the promised one. Even a local king attempts to assassinate him as a rival. The message is clear: a heavenly king has come to establish his kingdom on earth. And that kingdom will be characterized by joy, peace, healing, justice and deliverance from oppression. But the benfits of the kingdom are only possible in relationship with the king.
Some might say I’m nit-picking here. The show is made by Apple TV not TBN, after all. But I don’t expect Ted Lasso to start preaching the gospel. I’m just saying the complete lack of any reference to anything remotely religious or Christian seems glaring when the show itself is so, well, Christian. And that seemed all the more glaring in a Christmas special.
In his book Disappearing Church, Mark Sayers writes, “Today, we want the Kingdom without the King.”
In a recent interview, Sayers explains further, “Post-Christianity is ultimately the project of the West to move beyond Christianity whilst feasting on its fruit. Thus, it constantly offers us options and off ramps, in which we seemingly can have what we enjoy about faith, but without the sacrifices and commitments.”
Ted Lasso offers the promise of a Christless kind of Christianity — a world of repaired relationships, multiethic banquets, and renewed souls — with no reference to Christ himself. And in Sayers’ mind that makes it part of the insidious push in Western culture to use soft power to eat away at our commitments.
I still love Ted. But I’ll be watching the rest of Season 2 through a different lens.