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Language Is the Game in ‘Ted Lasso’

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Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles) and Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis), Ted Lasso, 2021

The surprise television hit Ted Lasso, about an American college football coach hired to manage a struggling Premier League football club, continues to earn critical accolades and inspire an ever-growing viewership. Even those with little interest in sports seem to be won over by the show’s themes of progressiveness and kindness, and perhaps the pandemic’s timing has facilitated a certain degree of its popularity. Yet there’s an underappreciated but fundamental quality that propels the show: a keen attention to the power of words. From the first time we see our eponymous hero, as he exits a plane’s toilet to return to his seat and a copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, to the text-only dating app Bantr featured in Season 2, Ted Lasso pushes our understanding of what words are and what effects they have in our culture. The show is, in a word, literary.

Ted Lasso’s very premise is structured, in part, around similarities and differences between two countries that do and do not speak the same language. In “an American abroad” fashion, Ted (played by Jason Sudeikis) has no knowledge of either football (um, soccer) or the UK. Rebecca Melton, the owner of AFC Richmond, has employed Ted in an intentional effort to tank the club, her faithless ex-husband’s pride and joy—a high concept that might be expected to play out in predictable comedic ways.

Critics who were initially disappointed with the show cited unoriginal wordplay around biscuits and cookies, cleats and boots. More favorable reviews pointed to the show’s willingness to upend sports stereotypes with a diverse supporting cast. There’s a consistent through line of characters who are seemingly on the margins of the story taking central roles: from Nate, the club’s kitman, and Rebecca, the club’s president, to a neighborhood girl and a local busker (both of whom the incorrigibly amiable Ted befriends), minor characters are not just seen but celebrated as full individuals.

The treatment of characters as fleshed-out personalities, not stereotypes, rises to the level of a theme in Episode 8’s memorable game of darts between Ted and the domineering ex-husband and ex-owner of the club. Before his final play, Ted talks about being underestimated his entire life, and how much that used to bother him, until one day while driving his son to school he saw a Walt Whitman quote on a wall that completely changed his perspective: “Be curious, not judgmental.” He used to get bullied, he says, but adds that the bullies were less interested in him as a target than in the act of bullying itself.

Whitman is no arbitrary choice here. In Leaves of Grass, the book-length poem he wrote and published and re-wrote and re-published over decades, the first-person speaker isn’t merely curious about but actually gives voice to diverse subjects, especially those who have gone unseen and unappreciated: the enslaved, the prostitute, the widow, the manual laborer, the homeless. Previously, in Episode 4, Ted walks out of his flat and comes across a grungy-looking busker. Ted says, “Gotta love a troubadour,” and drops coins in his guitar case. This could simply be a small moment characterizing our protagonist as a decent man. Later, however, comes the Whitmanesque tie-in: Ted brings in the marginal busker to play rip-roaring rock ’n’ roll for AFC Richmond’s annual charity event for children, where he’s a smash hit.

Whitman’s influence, in fact, permeates the first of the show’s two seasons—in obvious ways, by elevating minor characters, but in subtler ones, too. In that same Episode 4, Ted recalls a tandem bicycle accident with his soon-to-be ex-wife in which she breaks her arm and he “chips a tooth and bruises his perineum.” (The perineum is the tissue between anus and genitals.) The bit of dialogue passes in a flash, but to any student of literature this intimate, slightly risqué disclosure recalls Whitman’s “body electric”: the veneration of the body in all its ostensibly vulgar beauty.

In the preface to his great lyric, Whitman writes that a poet “consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What balks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy.” Might we apply such a disposition to Coach Lasso? For his appeal is largely wrapped up in a capacity for taking in stride whatever comes his way—his incarnation of curiosity; specifically, a curiosity about language. This often manifests in his disarming way with words, whether it’s registering but not wallowing in being called a “wanker” again and again, or in being queried by a journalist about the club’s potential relegation and replying, “I’m mostly concerned with the definition of relegation.” This may seem like a joke about Ted’s naivety, but I sought out a dictionary. Relegation: to assign to a place of insignificance or of oblivion; put out of sight or mind. Football fans might be surprised to learn that this is what we mean when a club is sent to a lower level.

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As in a good poem, a good comedy has the ability to reacquaint us with patterns and structures we’ve lost the ability to see. What does it mean, for example, for a marriage to end? In Episode 5, Ted and his wife, Michelle, are getting serious about divorce. Ted, distraught, says, “I’ve never quit anything.” Michelle helps him see anew: “What’s the difference between quitting something and letting that same something go?” Divorce is no laughing matter, but what’s happening here is neither comedic nor dramatic; it’s linguistic. How we use language shapes the way we view events, particularly those in our own lives.

If it seems as though I’m blowing the linguistic preoccupation of Ted Lasso out of proportion, it’s right there again in the first scene of Episode 6. After his marriage has failed (or rather, he’s let his wife go) Ted declares to his assistant coaches that he’s going to “bury myself in my work.” But as soon as he’s said it, he takes it back: “I don’t love the word ‘bury,’ it’s just got a negative connotation to it…what’s another word I can say? Everyone loves a good bath, right? So that’s what I’ll say, I’m going to bathe myself in my work.”

This moment isn’t “poetic” because it’s pretty, it’s poetic because it’s aware of language—here, of the embedded metaphorical verbs that we ordinarily use without considering their connotations. In the subsequent scene, Ted gets stuck on the word “plan,” repeating it until it no longer seems to hold its meaning. His assistant, Coach Beard, drops the term “semantic satiation” to identify the phenomenon. (I had to look it up, even though I know the experience firsthand; indeed, such estrangement through repetition until a word becomes nonsense was a central strategy of Dadaist poetics.) So while the show is superficially about the internal dynamics of a football club, presented with themes of acceptance and generosity, propelling it all is a continual play with language.

The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge espoused something he termed “genial criticism,” by which one should evaluate a text with respect to other texts of “its kind.” If, for example, we judge a lyric poem based on the criteria of epic poetry (narrative), we are bound to find fault. The problem is that the lyric isn’t trying to tell a story, as an epic is, but is offering the reader a moment in time or a limited impression. A haiku could never do what a sonnet does (or vice versa) because they are different forms to begin with.

If we want to evaluate Ted Lasso, we must look more closely at its actual form—not the one it appears to have on its face, or the one we wish it had. The show isn’t of the same “kind” as the sitcom Friends or the sports drama Friday Night Lights. It’s more akin to Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, a film steeped in wordplay, self-awareness, and a splicing of comedy and sincerity. Like Ted Lasso, His Girl Friday is forward thinking: its setup features male and female co-equals in the drama of the newspaper business, with serious underlying stakes—a man sentenced to death for shooting and killing a Black police officer. In film studies, His Girl Friday is classified as a “screwball comedy” for its satirization of traditional messages about marriage and domesticity, but what fuels a viewer’s experience is quick-witted dialogue and subversive wordplay:

Walter: You can marry all you want to, Hildy, but you can’t quit the newspaper business.
Hildy: Oh! Why not?
Walter: I know you, Hildy. I know what quitting would mean to you.
Hildy: And what would it mean?
Walter: It would kill ya.
Hildy: You can’t sell me that, Walter Burns.
Walter: Who says I can’t? You’re a newspaperman.
Hildy: That’s why I’m quitting. I want to go someplace where I can be a woman.

The final episode of Ted Lasso’s first season centers on a single sentence: It’s the hope that kills you. In the UK, this phrase crops up when a football club faces an almost certain loss in a critical upcoming match, one that may determine relegation, promotion, or qualification for a tournament. But the phrase is unknown in the States—and, of course, Ted objects to its sentiment. He believes in “hope and in miracles.” In this case, the miracle would be AFC Richmond’s beating or drawing league-leading Manchester City in the last match of the season. Hope and killing. Two other phrases come to mind: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and Kill them with kindness.

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If Season 2’s tagline seems to favor the latter (“This year, kindness makes a comeback”), the show begins much as it left off in Season 1—with linguistic hijinks. Sports psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles) is brought in to help the club, counseling first individual players and later Ted. At one point, “Doc” (she eventually agrees to Ted’s moniker) offers him a cup of tea, which he declines. “Well, I have water and I have wine,” she replies. “Ah,” he says, “the chicken and the egg.” The moment quickly shoots by, and yet I found myself laughing out loud: first, because of the sheer unexpected juxtaposition; then, because I couldn’t quite make sense of the parallel. It would seem that water comes before wine…or is it that one drinks water after wine in order to avoid a hangover? Or that one can never decide which is more important, fermentation or hydration? The wordplay here seems to exist for its own sake, and yet the introduction of Doc and psychoanalysis in this season underscores the subliminal importance of language in the series: linguistic interpretation and associative meanings are key to the work of therapy. We learn about ourselves by analyzing the words we use to talk about ourselves.

Episode 5, in particular, has us closely examining our words. In Ted’s first scene, he gives us a motor-mouthed speech on the matter of rom-coms:

I believe in communism. Rom-communism, that is. […] It is a worldview that reminds us that romantic comedies with folks like Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, or Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant […] Point is, if all those attractive people with their amazing apartments and interesting jobs—usually in some creative field—can go through some lighthearted struggles and still end up happy, then so can we. […] Gentleman, believing in rom-communism is all about believing that everything is going to work out in the end. Now these next few months might be tricky, but that’s just because we’re going through our dark forest. Fairy tales do not start, nor do they end, in the dark forest—that son of a gun always shows up smack dab in the middle of a story—but it will all work out. Now, it may not work out how you think it will, or how you hope it does, but believe me, it will all work out. Exactly as it’s supposed to. Our job is to have zero expectations….

The Pollyanna-ish message that “it will all work out” is a familiar one for a rom-com. But its improbable pairing with communism, a word and concept we think we equally know but with very different associations, sticks in the mind. (Fairy tales are our oldest type of literature, and the “dark forest” allusion to the first line of Dante’s Inferno further primes the literary pump.)

In a following scene, Rebecca tries to teach Nate, the kitman turned assistant coach, how to “make himself big,” a physical act she uses to pump herself up before a board meeting of club owners (all men). On tiptoe and with up-stretched arms, she looks like a raspy-roaring phoenix. The club’s PR consultant, a rom-com heroine in her own right, Keeley Jones, says in a stunned whisper, “Fuck, you’re amazing. Let’s invade France.” Later, Rebecca has an exchange on the app Bantr with a mystery man, who first quotes the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (“our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure”) then texts, No need for small talk. Only big talk. Agreed? The exchange illustrates what Keeley says a couple of scenes earlier: “It all comes down to branding, even love.” Because branding can co-opt language, it can also co-opt thought and even emotion. This kind of word-work is usually the job of literature, not television.

Innumerable moments of wordplay in the show beget divergent lines of thinking. In Episode 6, the team’s cocksure star player, Jamie Tartt, desperately wants Roy Kent, his former foil and now new assistant coach, to actually train him instead of avoiding him. “You two have to woman up,” Ted says. “You mean man up,” Jamie says. “No,” Ted says, “you did that and look where it got you.” We might chalk up this quip to the show’s feminist zeitgeist, but in effect Ted simply upends a conventional phrase and re-sees it: Does “man up” mean to become invulnerable, or something more complicated? In Episode 7, Doc tells Ted: “I can’t be your mentor without occasionally being your tormentor.” “Ooh, I like that,” he replies. “I knew you would,” she says. The play on words opens up a possibility one might not have previously considered about mentorship: that it can at times be painful in its nurturing. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote about her vocation, “Art is action, but it does not cause action: rather, it prepares us for thought.” Language leads to thought. Thought leads to action—or purposeful inaction.

Part of being literary is being writerly. The phrase “bird by bird” pops up twice, once in Season 1, Episode 2, and again in Season 2, Episode 8. It happens to be the title of Anne Lamott’s canonical guide to writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and it essentially means to take difficult tasks one small step at a time. In the show, Lamott’s phrase is applied to the aftereffects for the team of tough losses. But neither instance is explained or contextualized—it’s just another of Ted’s encouraging mantras. One would either have to know it already, as many writers do, or…look it up. As a good reader does.

The writing motif is more fully explored in Episode 9, “Beard After Hours,” in which we follow Coach Beard on a topsy-turvy nighttime odyssey, a kind of homage or retelling of the fifteenth episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was written, not incidentally, as a play script. At one point, Coach Beard encounters an eccentric woman who appears to be a quick hook-up, but we get no sex scene. Instead, she offers us heady lines: “People come and go from my life. I’ve always kept a pair of their trousers. This rack is like my memoirs.”

Perhaps the greatest literary move of Season 2 is the redemption (that is, re-seeing) of Rick Astley’s 1987 “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The song is one of pop history’s most sentimental and most grating earworms, as well as the origin of the bait-and-switch Rickrolling Internet prank. Episode 10, though, revolving around the repercussions of Ted’s and Rebecca’s teenage traumas (a father’s suicide and a father’s adultery, respectively), finds a way to use the song in a wholly unfamiliar way. At the funeral of Rebecca’s philandering father, Rebecca is supposed to give his eulogy. “I don’t really know what to say…my father was….” she trails off. Then lightly, tenderly, she begins, “We’re no strangers to love/You know the rules and so do I…” and continues singing, in a stumbling yet lovely a cappella, the first verse of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” When she breaks down, Ted takes up the verse from the back row of the church. Soon all the mourners join in unison.

The song is re-seen, transformed from a saccharine teenage tonic to a strange elegy for a man whose adult daughter still struggles to reconcile her conflicting feelings about him. Such re-seeing or “making new again” gets a special name in literary studies: defamiliarization. It comes from a transliteration of a Russian word that the theorist and critic Viktor Shklovsky invented to describe those moments in literature that make a reader see something in a new light or from a wholly different angle, as if seeing it for the first time.

Ted Lasso doesn’t always go in for such renewal; sometimes it simply tackles literary concepts head on. In Season 2’s penultimate episode, one particular exchange spotlights the difference between imagery and text. As Keeley prepares for a photoshoot for Vanity Fair, she admits to her boyfriend, Roy, how nervous she is. He waves it off: “Babe, you’ve done a thousand magazines. You did an advert for a service station where you jumped out of an airplane topless eating a hamburger. You can’t be more nervous than that.” Keeley replies, “But this isn’t that. It was about how I looked. This is about me. I had to do an interview, like a real interview. But they asked me about my thoughts and my feelings and my goals for the future. When people read this article, they’re gonna see me. See the real me.”

There isn’t only a difference between what we see and what we read, there is a hierarchy: reading claims more authenticity than the images with which we are constantly bombarded. In Ted Lasso, the text has primacy. Keep this in mind when Season 3 arrives later this year. Don’t watch each episode only to see what will happen. Try to listen to what it’s saying.


Adapted from an essay in Football, published by Bloomsbury as part of its Object Lessons series.

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