A Fractured Coach: Ted Lasso‘s Humbling Take on Anxiety Hits Home

TV Features Ted Lasso
A Fractured Coach: Ted Lasso‘s Humbling Take on Anxiety Hits Home

The kindness and positivity of Ted Lasso, and of its title character, shot the series into cultural consciousness as a critical and commercial triumph during a time when TV-watchers wanted an interruption from the surrounding sickness and death. A show baked in corny jokes, witty humor, and a mustachioed American football coach managing a Premier League team in AFC Richmond, the Apple TV+ comedy came into Season 2 with heightened expectations from an enormous, expanding fan base, and a lead in Jason Sudeikis that seems to become more popular by the day. The love for the show—and some of the subsequent, more recent backlash—comes from its willingness to be happy, loving, and unabashedly tender, leaning into tropes with glee.

Ted Lasso finds impact in goodwill, but gains relatability in Lasso’s darker moments, those that only increase as the episodes continue. Lasso, despite being the cheeriest character in the series outside of striker Dani Rojas (a wonderful Cristo Fernández), has become completely breakable after 16 episodes. The first real crack in his jolly armor came in Season 1, Episode 7 during a karaoke scene, an activity seen as one of life’s most uncomplicated delights. Karaoke was a must for AFC Richmond after beating Everton for the first time in 60 years—a complete and total celebration. But there was an impending fracture for Lasso, one stemming from his divorce, his team’s possible relegation, and his inability to fix everything. Lasso, the team, and audiences might be fooled into thinking otherwise, but he’s not a superhero. He’s a coach.

While club president Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham, belting “Let It Go”) sings as a way of opening herself back up to the world and regaining her confidence, Lasso starts to lose focus. His hands get tingly. He flexes them over and over, trying to get feeling back. Sounds become muddled and a sharp ringing fills his ears. Feeling trapped, he rushes outside, passing dancing, morphed bodies and into the coolness of fresh air, sliding onto the ground while attempting to breathe. Rebecca finds him hyperventilating and unable to get a good, full breath. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he says. “I’m sorry… Am I going crazy?”

And that’s how it feels, especially the first time. When I moved to New York City a little over three years ago, I felt like good-natured Ted Lasso, settling into a new place with a new gig and a reset button already pressed. Sure, stress and humidity filled my head and lungs, but like all people and with all things, I assumed it’d just take time to adjust. And so, I stayed positive. I went out and met people, made friends, tried to create a sense of normalcy and community. I did the things that you’re supposed to do, and though I wasn’t dealing with an unrequited marriage like Coach Lasso, I could feel a tangible distance between myself and those I loved. And so, like Lasso, I had a panic attack, not outside of a karaoke bar, but in a subway car heading to the East Village.

Season 2 shifts for Lasso, as his status as “Fixer” now belongs to Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles, playing a doctor once again), a team psychologist brought in to help players deal with their inner demons. Measured and calm, Fieldstone becomes the coach’s foil, a woman who won’t buy into Lasso’s schtick, recognizing it as his way of interacting, yes, but also of coping and deflecting. She sees through him to a certain degree, even if he’s able to (somewhat) win her over through the first half of the season.

He can’t please everyone, and his aversion to therapy and psychology become more apparent as time goes on—especially as we remember him mentioning in Season 1, Episode 5 that he and his ex-wife tried couples counseling to no avail. This is when Ted Lasso and Sudeikis shine, when Lasso is forced to show his brokenness, his inability to always overcome, his positive shell splitting apart in overwhelming situations (of which there are plenty at AFC Richmond), despite the show’s sprightly demeanor.

The sophomore season effort from creators Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Joe Kelly, and Brendan Hunt (who also plays Coach Beard) focuses on internal conflict, examining Lasso and the supporting characters’ personal lives. There’s no threat of relegation, no sabotaging owner, no paparazzi photos, and no forthcoming divorce. The fallout remains from those events, coupled with further inspection of the players’ and coaches’ insecurities, with Coach Nate (Nick Mohammed) and Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh) receiving more of the spotlight. But externally, for the most part, times at AFC Richmond are upbeat, positive, and familial, as seen in the somewhat-maligned Christmas episode—a glob of clichés and saccharine sweetness that worked only if you’re ready for holiday joy in the middle of August.

Lasso’s issues with Fieldstone (and therapy, in general) remain ever-present through the most recent episode, “The Signal.” As AFC Richmond—which initially struggled with its Championship schedule—play Tottenham in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, Lasso’s hands again go numb with 10 minutes left and Richmond up 1-0 against a soccer powerhouse. With the crowd shouting and the game in the balance, he sticks his hands in his pockets and waddles off the pitch. Another panic attack brought on by overwhelming anxiety causes him to leave his team in a moment of necessity. His jacket, crumpled on the locker room, gives no sense of his whereabouts until the final shot of the episode, which shows Lasso in the fetal position on the couch in Fieldstone’s office. He’s finally ready to make an appointment.

Lasso’s adult-onset anxiety, a breach in his perceived constant happiness, humanizes him even further, and is a central selling point to watch Season 2. He’s still the same mentor from the show’s initial episodes, but he’s dealing with more—or in this case, unable to deal with all of the rest of life’s emotions and complications. Somewhat shell-shocked, Sudeikis’s well-meaning coach doesn’t know what to do, and so he turns to therapy to start on the right path.

I know that therapy isn’t the end-all be-all, and might not be for everyone, but the show’s inclination remains towards bettering ourselves. That’s what makes it such essential television amongst a sea of murder mysteries, rich retreats, and period dramas. At its best, Ted Lasso brings warmth to its audience through character improvement—seeing someone turn from selfish to giving, from scared to confident, from half-hearted to passionate.

And seeing Ted Lasso, a seemingly impenetrable force of positivity, struggle with anxiety and therapeutic reluctance has been cathartic. Other TV series and movies certainly do a more complete job of exploring the effects that anxiety can have on a person’s life, but Ted Lasso has hit me like a wrecking ball on this subject. Like Lasso, I didn’t seek out therapy after my panic attack. I trudged forward, noting it as an anomaly, a perfect storm that likely won’t happen again. We were both wrong.

So, I started going to therapy, an experience encouraged by family members and past girlfriends and best friends and some of the most important people in my life. And it might sound trite, but seeing Lasso—one of the few TV characters in recent years that has made me cheer and shout and smile and cry—even recognize therapy as a possibility reassured me. It can make you feel silly to allow TV to have that power and influence over you, but sometimes TV can be a reflection of what we want to see, what we think we need, or the lessons we want to learn.

Watching Ted Lasso hasn’t been an objective experience; it’s interactive in how it changes my perception or shifts my mood. The show’s depiction of Lasso’s anxiety has felt tailor-made, a storyline that feels necessary to its protagonist’s wholeness, or lack thereof. It’s recent adherence to internal, unresolved conflict makes the show more than just a light-hearted comedy. And with Lasso starting therapy in the next episode, it is sure to only dig deeper, allowing the space for the show to focus on progressing and processing, rather than a dismissal of feelings, anxiety, depression, or the essential act of trying to become a healthier adult.

Brooklyn-based film and TV journalist Michael Frank contributes to several outlets including The Film Stage, RogerEbert, AwardsWatch, and now Paste. He believes Juliette Binoche deserved an Oscar for Dan in Real Life. You can find him on Twitter.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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