Why We Love Ted Lasso: The Reason Isn’t as Sweet and Harmless as Ted Himself

ted lasso

Ted Lasso is feel-good TV at its finest, but feel-good for who, and why?

Shortly after Ted Lasso dropped on Apple TV+ in 2020, it became a cultural phenomenon. The show brought a surge of new subscribers to Apple TV+ and ranked as the network’s top comedy in 50 countries, according to Radio Times. The critics also loved the first season of Ted Lasso, which centers on a clueless football coach from Kansas City (played by Jason Sudeikis) who’s enlisted to bring a British soccer team to victory — it broke Glee’s record for most Emmy nominations ever for a new comedy. The show’s popularity spread faster than Ted’s positivity did among his players. 

Why do we love Ted Lasso

Mainly because the protagonist is so endearing: He’s a kind-hearted, bumbling fish out of water determined to improve the lives of those around him.

While the show has dipped its toes into deeper territories — namely divorce and mental health (especially in season 2) — it’s an overall pleasant watch. Its effect on viewers mirrors Ted’s goal for his team: To create an experience that enriches. It’s spreading joy. Just like Ted.

But the reasoning behind why it makes people feel good — and who it makes feel good — may not be as innocent as the show itself. 

Ted makes some people happy

If you watch Ted Lasso, there’s a strong chance that’s because it uplifts you. “Inspiring media can help us to feel optimistic and encouraged in our own lives,” says Elaine Paravati Harrigan, Ph.D., a visiting associate professor of psychology at Hamilton College.

“My research team and I have found that narratives that include characters who are resilient and on a positive trajectory are exactly the type of stories that people enjoy engaging with,” she says. “People find it inspiring, uplifting, and hopeful to watch the Ted Lasso characters on their journeys toward a better future.”

Christopher H. Smith, Ph.D., clinical professor and co-director of the Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship program at USC Annenberg, and television and online media expert, agrees. “I do think that human beings gravitate to content that makes us feel good,” he says.

But our choice of programming isn’t that simple. “When we say feel-good TV, we need to ask, feel-good how? Feel good for who?” Dr. Smith says. 

There’s no denying the fact that Ted Lasso is extremely…white. There are a handful of cast members of color on the team. But only one of the leads, Nick Mohammed (who plays Nathan), is not white. 

“You could argue that there’s a certain kind of mythology of whiteness with Ted Lasso,” Dr. Smith points out. “And that’s not to say that there’s an agenda there. But here’s this guy from middle America who just comes with this golly-gee-willikers approach and makes things better.”

Ted is also a fairly average, working middle-class guy. He’s going through a divorce and can’t seem to win, literally. It’s easy to relate to him, and if we see ourselves in a respectable guy like Ted, we can end up feeling pretty good about ourselves. “There’s a part of our mainstream culture that wants to feel like we’re OK, and we bring goodness into the world,” Dr. Smith says. “When any of us look at the mirror, don’t we want to feel good about what we see?”

Ted Lasso has “white male magic”

Dr. Smith believes that right now, there’s “a market” in our culture for a little “white male magic.” 

“I think in terms of the vehicles and catalysts for feeling good in Ted Lasso, it’s this notion of how white masculinity could be naïve, yet knowing and wise at the same time. When you think about the way in which people use ‘white men’ as an epithet nowadays, I think there’s real currency in Lasso’s childlike characterization,” Dr. Smith says. “That white male magic is in Ted Lasso, for sure.” 

J.D. Connor, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the division of cinema and media studies at USC, agrees. “I think there’s a real desire for ‘some guys being dudes’ TV shows,” he says. While some networks might hesitate to do a show about a team of young, male athletes right now, given the current conversations surrounding toxic masculinity, Connor thinks Ted Lasso’s characters allowed viewers to feel better about men in general.

“I think it’s undeniable and inescapable how reprehensible male behavior has been, and the reckoning has only been partial and temporary,” says Connor. “But when we don’t want to cast aside that entire gender, we want to say that the reason that we’re not going to do that is because there’s a real dynamic in there somewhere that could be redeemable.” He continues, “Just like we want to redeem this hapless middle-aged white guy who has managerial skills — we also want to redeem this band of young athletes who live in a world where their physical performance and appearance, and their profession make them entitled to riches and bad behavior.” He concludes, “if we can redeem them, surely maybe we can redeem the worst in the world right now.” 

It’s not just about laughs

Dr. Smith believes comedies don’t become cross-cultural as easily as dramas. “Historically, other than a few exceptions, like maybe 30 Rock, comedies have been very divided,” he says. “What Black people watch and laugh at has generally been different. Back in the day when the Nielsens really mattered, people were always struck by how racially divided TV was.” 

That might explain why the audience watching Ted Lasso is 57.5 percent white, while only 12.2 percent are Hispanic, 8.1 percent are African American, and less than 3 percent are of Asian descent, according to streaming data company PeerLogix. (Although Apple TV Plus’ subscriber base is also predominantly white.) Compared to other extremely popular shows that aired in 2020 and 2021, like Mare of Easttown, Wandavision, and The Good Doctor, Ted Lasso has a higher percentage of white viewers, PeerLogix found. 

Dr. Smith isn’t sure the show would’ve been successful if Ted wasn’t white. “I don’t think we’ve yet reached the point in this culture and in society where feel-good TV can be LatinX, can be Black,” he says. “Achieving a ‘feel-good effect’ has always been more straightforward for shows with white lead characters than shows with leads of color. Programs featuring LatinX, Black, or Asian-American leads have a much more complex and entangled symbolic terrain to navigate in order to uplift the collective spirit of audiences.”

He adds, “This country is very bitterly divided on racial and ethnic lines. And we still have a long way to go for the average white American to find feeling good in a non-white person — beyond sports.” (He does acknowledge that This Is Us’ Sterling K. Brown is beginning to bridge the gap: “I do think he’s making some kind-of Black Jimmy Stewart breakthroughs. And that’s important.”)

Speaking of This Is Us, “feel-good” isn’t necessarily tied to laughs. It might be more about who the protagonist is. Ted Lasso’s protagonist is a white male — dare we say — savior whose folksy wisdom wins the day. And look at This Is Us: Jack Pearson, the heroic veteran, father, and husband who’s raising triplets (one of which is an adopted Black boy) and died after a house fire much too young, is the epitome of a feel-good protagonist, and he, too, has white male savior/fish-out-of-water qualities. In some ways, so does Johnny Rose of Schitt’s Creek and Phil Dunphy and Jay Pritchett of Modern Family, as well as Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights.

The timing was right 

Season 1 of Ted Lasso premiered on Apple TV+ August 14, 2020, in the middle of Covid-19’s peak, the contentious presidential campaign, and a long-overdue racial reckoning the country was facing. Many of us were ready for a little heartwarming comedic relief. 

“During the last 20, 30 years, [TV] was all about the antiheroes and getting deep into the darkness — the Tony Soprano, Shield on FX. It was about, ‘OK, let’s just look at the darkness there.’ And that became what cable TV hung its hat on — the Breaking Bads. This kind of complexity of dark and light,” Dr. Smith says. He thinks those sorts of stories became less appealing recently. “I think the pandemic coupled with the absolute depths of our political dysfunction, how much more anti-heroism can we take? When the anti-heroism is side-by-side with economic growth and electing politicians that make people feel hopeful, that’s one thing. But when you get anti-heroism side-by-side with a disputed election and a pandemic, I think people yearn for the antithesis of that.”

Now, says Dr. Smith, we need some time to decompress from what we’ve been through. 

“I think people want to fall back on that childlike naivete,” he says. “And I don’t blame people for that: We all want to take our foot off the gas pedal. I think, what people call ‘woke’ culture is a kind of like pedal to the metal awakeness. At a certain point, the cultural gears of effectiveness for that pedal to the floor, your gears are going to grind after that.” That also ties back to why, a few years into the #MeToo movement, some TV watchers might be in the market for some redeeming male characters. 

He thinks with what we’re going through now in this country, people might want to feel good in a “less radical way.”

“People want that naivete again, they want to believe in Santa Claus.” 

Or in an all-American goofball soccer coach with a passion for spreading smiles, one sweet biscuit at a time.