In Defense of Ted Lasso Season 2, a Risky Sequel Thats the Good Kind of Messy

For anyone paying close attention, Ted Lasso’s Season 2 breakdown was inevitable. Despite the soccer coach’s aggressively sunny demeanor, the writing was on the wall from his very first press conference in the show’s pilot episode, when he gets so overwhelmed by jet lag and the barrage of sneering attention that a high-pitched ringing creeps into the sound mix as his hands start their telltale twitch underneath the table. That time, he manages to shake it off. By the end of the first season, though, the true cost of Ted’s determination to be positive no matter what reveals itself, despite himself. In the seventh episode (“Make Rebecca Great Again”), at an otherwise celebratory peak, the melancholy undertone of Jason Sudeikis’ performance bursts into the open as Ted experiences a full-blown panic attack, a bewildered moment of vulnerability played to quietly devastating effect.

In spite of this arc, and the fact that Ted’s team ends up losing its most crucial match right at the tail end, the first season of Apple TV Plus’ breakaway hit is more or less as cheery as his mustachioed smile. It’s also tightly plotted, mimicking the 1989 sports comedy “Major League” to tell not just the story of Ted bringing his feel-good optimism to A.F.C. Richmond, but of the team’s seemingly icy new owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) thawing as she realizes the full extent of her heartbreak. Every episode fit together into the whole, a neat puzzle piece building to the final moments of the team becoming a family, Rebecca becoming a more honest version of herself, and Ted settling in to his new home for what seems like the long haul.

While the season twists some key conventions, such as Rebecca admitting her nefarious schemes only to have Ted immediately forgive her, it otherwise has an immediately understandable beginning, middle, and end for its characters and plotlines. And in its closing moments, as Ted and Rebecca try to process the fact that their club just got relegated to a lesser tier of British soccer, Ted even lays out what the rest of the series could look like. “So next year we get ourselves a promotion,” he says, “and then we come back to this league, and do something no one believes we could ever do: win the whole fucking thing.”

Here, a clear view to the end of “Ted Lasso” — or at least a defined trajectory for the series as a trilogy of sorts — was in sight. But the second season, which premiered a year and many months of hype after the first, immediately obscured the more obvious sports arc in favor of just about every character going through their own personal crises. Ditching the structure of the soccer season almost entirely, the second season of “Ted Lasso” wanders alongside its struggling characters on the way to urgent, deeply emotional revelations. Some viewers, now watching the show weekly for the first time, found themselves impatient for the season to get to “the point” already, annoyed by the episodes’ shaggier run times, and/or confused by “extra” episodes like “Carol of the Bells” and “Beard After Dark” that didn’t advance the plot at all. That both were added to accommodate Apple’s last minute season expansion order, and that the so-called “saccharine” Christmas episode falls right in line with the most classic of British TV traditions, didn’t especially matter. Because unlike the first season, the second seems to feel no pressure to keep things moving. Instead, it drills down into each character’s internal journeys, giving each ample room to feel their often overwhelming feelings in a way that scares them to death whether they want to admit it or not.

Rebecca asks herself what she truly wants in love and life for the first time in decades. The team’s former captain Roy (Brett Goldstein) tries to find his place in both retirement and a stable relationship with publicity manager Keeley (Juno Temple), who in turn is settling into a more adult version of her previous life. Sweet Sam (an ever-confident Toheeb Jimoh) learns how to stand up for what he believes in, while superstar footballer Jamie (Phil Dunster) finds himself humbled in the face of potential obscurity and his deadbeat dad. Even Ted’s assistant coaches are struggling, with Beard (Brendan Hunt) caught in a self-loathing loop and Nate (Nick Mohammad) at a toxic crossroads of insecurity and performative masculinity that seems on a clear collision course to disaster.

But it’s Ted’s inability to outrun his past, let alone smooth over his present with a meticulous smile, that deepens the bruise of Season 2. By the time he finally acquiesces to having a real therapy session with Dr. Sharon (Sarah Niles) in episode 10 (“No Weddings and a Funeral”), he’s a raw and exposed nerve shuddering at every flicker of contact. Their ensuing conversation, acted with precise skill by both Sudeikis and Niles, is the natural sequel to Ted’s Season 1 panic attack outside the karaoke bar, representing both an escalation and a cathartic sigh of relief. It’s incredible to think of the dopey NBC Sports promo Ted Lasso that first inspired the version now starring in his own show. It would’ve been so easy to keep him impenetrably jolly for the sheer comedy of it. Instead, “Ted Lasso” is having its ostensible hero confront the root of his people-pleasing by facing that fact that he is not, and rarely has been, okay at all.

It’s not altogether surprising that this introspective second season of “Ted Lasso” has been more controversial than its first, even aside from the fact that the show became such a phenomenon that some level of backlash and disappointment was as predictable as Ted’s preferred genre of references (which, in the words of Dr. Sharon, are always “something very specific to a 45 year-old white man from middle America”). Whereas the first season chugged along with clear purpose from the outset, the second is far more willing to take detours along the way. This impulse is evident in a literal sense when looking at the episode runtimes. The longest episode of the first season is its 35 minute finale; 10 episodes into the second, three chapters have already run 45 minutes long. And in its dedication to fleshing out every individual character, the second season of “Ted Lasso” has absolutely abandoned the plot machine of the club’s success that previously kept the show moving at such a steady clip.

In theory, this should annoy me to no end. The advent of streaming TV has by and large ushered in an era of blank checks and bloated seasons that seem to drift by with no regard for compelling pacing. With two episodes left to go in this second season of “Ted Lasso,” I’m still not sure where it might be going or if it’ll even land. And yet despite its supposed lack of plot, it’s clear to me that this season has nonetheless found plenty of conflict in its characters’ personal struggles — the foundations of which were, in fact, laid bare in the show’s more compact first season. (Also, not for nothing: the show’s focus on mental health in and around sports is an undeniably timely one, given recent discussions in tennis, the Olympics, and beyond.)

It’s not as if Season 2 ground everything to a halt in order to deal with problems that sprung up out of nowhere. It’s acknowledging the deep-seated pain each character has already hinted at and that, despite appearances and our best efforts, life doesn’t always move in a straight line. Things don’t always happen in the ways we expect, want, or need, and our brains don’t always cooperate to make our dreams come true. While Ted’s mantra to “be a goldfish” (i.e. only barely absorb a failure before forgetting it and moving on) was taken as an ultimately positive message in the first season, the second season exposes it for the wishful thinking that it is.

So, no, it’s not a shock that this second season of “Ted Lasso” isn’t as broadly popular as the first, nor that it clicking into a more contemplative gear has thrown those who loved — or even hated — what the show initially did for a loop. But its willingness to tackle its messier themes in messier fashion has nevertheless made for a far riskier season of television than not. Even as “Ted Lasso” made clear in the first season that it was interested in spilling its characters guts, the show could have easily settled into complacency, depended on its charismatic cast to deliver reliable laughs, and embraced the blind hope of its “be a goldfish” slogan. Instead, it challenged itself to dive deep below the surface and shine a harsh light on the twisted truths none of its characters wanted to see let alone resolve. The fallout might not be as viscerally satisfying as the first season’s cleaner story of a rise and fall, but if done with the kind of care and consideration “Ted Lasso” has shown in the past, it could prove to be something more extraordinary.

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