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The one where Ted Lasso goes to therapy

America’s preeminent “feel-good” comedy turns out to have been about mental health all along.

Sharon and Ted smile and sit across from each other in front of a desk.
Ted Lasso and AFC Richmond’s team therapist Sharon start chatting about Ted’s psychological traumas. It’s fun!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Early in Ted Lasso’s second season, I was discussing a minor revelation from episode two with a fellow critic — a revelation she just didn’t buy. “I don’t believe Ted wouldn’t like therapy,” she said. “He seems like he’d be in therapy constantly.”

It’s an idea plenty of other critics and fans have raised. Ted — the mustachioed underdog soccer coach for the soul played by Jason Sudeikis — seems like a progressive, modern man who is emotionally mature and pulled together. A few think pieces about the show have even argued that Ted himself functions as a sort of ersatz therapist for a world filled with conflict and torment. How could he possibly not like therapy?

Yet as season two has unspooled, Ted Lasso has made a compelling argument for Ted not as a would-be therapist who gives his players a shoulder to cry on, but as someone who lets others unload their emotions to him because he is incapable of doing so. Ted isn’t emotionally mature; he’s emotionally stunted in a way that keeps anybody from ever looking too closely at him.

That development comes to a head in the series’ latest episode, “Man City.” A devastating loss on the soccer pitch for Ted’s team AFC Richmond, followed by the sight of a player’s abusive father “joking” with his son in a nasty way after the game, prompts Ted to finally call Sharon (Sarah Niles), the team’s therapist. Ted admits his darkest secret into the phone: When he was 16, his father died by suicide, leaving Ted and his mother alone.

His father’s death is something Ted won’t quite look at, and his refusal to so much as think about what happened to him has made him the folksy charmer he is, at the expense of his own mental health. He’s started having panic attacks, and every so often, he’ll have an angry outburst. (One that occurred around the midpoint of Ted Lasso’s first season, when Ted yelled at a player, was the first sign we had that Ted’s whole deal was obscuring something darker.) In the face of a soccer season that’s shaping up to be a difficult one for Richmond, Ted is seriously struggling.

What I love about this story arc is the way Ted Lasso has taken something we know to be true about Ted — he’s very emotionally available to everyone — and flipped our assumptions on their ear. He’s not emotionally available to everyone because he’s done the hard work of healing old wounds; he’s emotionally available to everyone because he doesn’t believe his own needs are as important. Lots of people who suffered horrible things in their childhood and adolescence have developed exactly the same coping mechanism. You don’t look at the thing. You can’t look at the thing. So you help other people instead. That works until it doesn’t.

It’s almost unbearably trite to say, “This is a worthwhile conversation to be having about mental health right now,” but ... this is a worthwhile conversation to be having about mental health right now. Ted’s reticence to go to therapy is the same reticence many people share, the same reticence that I felt until well into my adulthood. By making therapy a place where Ted finally has to look at himself and make an effort to heal, Ted Lasso is telling an engaging, emotional story. However, the series is also giving a lot of viewers occasion to look at themselves, if only a little bit, and wonder if there might be some old wounds worth treating.

The build to Ted’s reveal is wonderfully crafted TV storytelling

Ted and the other coaches put their hands into a circle to get psyched for the game.
Ted and his fellow coaches reveal their darkest secrets before the big game, except several of them (including Ted) don’t actually reveal their darkest secrets.

As a critic, I’m impressed at how ably Ted Lasso has laid the groundwork for Ted’s big reveal. The show’s second season has focused largely on the relationships between fathers and sons, both good and bad.

Rising soccer star Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh), for instance, has a great relationship with his dad, and the two are able to speak frankly when Sam does something that upsets his father, resolving their dispute in a way that keeps both men in each other’s good graces. On the opposite end of the spectrum, disgraced soccer enfant terrible Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) has a father who has berated him and treated him awfully his entire life.

Beyond those two polar opposite examples, Ted Lasso has also woven a large tapestry of father-son stories, with almost every single storyline offering at least a hint of such a relationship. Even the arc that seems the most disconnected from the father-son tales — the career journey of retired star Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) — features a charming runner where Roy serves as a father figure to his young niece. (Close enough, I think.)

Another main strand of season two’s story is the way that Ted’s never-ending charm offensive sometimes buries actual conflicts that need to be addressed. Ted’s clear preference of Roy (who joined the team as a coach in episode five) over wunderkind Nate (Nick Mohammed) has made the latter lash out at underlings, often cruelly. That’s just one example among several, with Richmond’s abysmal record standing in as the foremost symbol that for all Ted’s methods serve to put a Band-Aid on everybody’s problems, those problems sometimes require far more significant attention.

In one early episode, Ted has brought on Sharon as the team’s therapist, but he doesn’t expect her to turn any of her focus toward him. After all, he doesn’t need therapy, right? Yet when she comes to observe a practice, Ted keeps looking back to realize she’s moved slightly closer to the field (and, thus, to him) in the stands. The sequence is played as a gag — and it’s a funny one — but it also serves as a microcosm for the season as a whole. Every time Ted thinks he’s outrun his problems, he’s reminded they’ll catch up with him eventually.

(I want to note here as an aside that Sharon is played by a Black actress, and there’s a long, unfortunate history of movies and TV shows using Black characters as sounding boards for white characters’ problems. Sharon is a nuanced character, and Niles plays her brilliantly. Still, it’s not like Ted Lasso is subverting this trope in any way, at least not to date.)

Even season two’s much-maligned Christmas episode ends up weaving its way into this dynamic. Its portrayal of Higgins (Jeremy Swift), Richmond’s director of football operations, as the ultimate good dad to both his own kids and many of the players on the team stands as a kind of example of what Ted Lasso views as effective fatherhood. Similarly, the episode plays with Ted’s inability to engage with his own sadness over not getting to be with his son on Christmas. Those two characters’ circumstances might not be enough to get the episode’s many haters on board with what it aims to do, but they do place the episode in a slightly new context.

Notably, even as season two has presented “What’s up with Ted?” and “Dads can be bad, right?” almost as hints pointing to a big moment, the actual reveal is not especially shocking. Nothing out of the ordinary happened to Ted when he was a teenager. A lot of people lose beloved family members to suicide. How rarely do we let ourselves talk about these things, though? Losing his dad when he was 16 has stuck with Ted his entire life, but he also refuses to confront his emotions about the loss because they are painful and inconvenient. Instead, he tamps down his feelings. Or at least that’s what he did. Now, he’s unable to any longer, and everything threatens to spill out.

Ted Lasso is cleverly interrogating one of the core truths of the American sitcom

Sharon gets ready to go on a bike ride.
Slowly but surely, Sharon is getting the players to open up. But she has a certain fear of vulnerability herself.

The sneaky brilliance of Ted Lasso’s therapy storyline is twofold. The first bit of cunning is that the show so successfully established Ted as a different model of masculinity from the usual TV dude that his reticence to go to therapy stood as a notable anomaly. (Hence my friend’s confusion.) So when the show explored that reticence and helped viewers understand why he felt the way he did, it also argued for the effectiveness of therapy without Ted having to lecture us about it.

It’s always better for characters to learn stuff in the course of a story, at least if you want whatever those lessons might be to stick with an audience. When people talk about Ted Lasso season two, this storyline will surely come up.

Simultaneously, the second bit of cunning is that Ted Lasso is ever so carefully edging up to questioning one of the core, sacred tenets of American sitcoms: Family trumps everything.

Ted’s breakdown is spurred by Jamie’s father accosting him in the locker room. Jamie’s dad only had access to that locker room because Jamie got him tickets to the match and listed him as a VIP guest. He only conferred that VIP status at the not-so-subtle urging of Higgins, who said that Jamie’s dad was a VIP just because he was Jamie’s dad. Higgins has a great relationship with his own kids — and he assumes the same is true for others. He’s not directly telling Jamie, “You have to be nice to your dad,” but he is saying that Jamie’s dad is a Very Important Person, even if he’s someone who made Jamie’s life hell.

Think about all of the sitcoms you’ve seen where family members are beastly to each other, only for them to realize in the end that they’re family and that means something. American comedies drum this message into our brains over and over and over again, and in most cases, the slights that characters are meant to forgive are ultimately minor. (A husband forgetting his anniversary, for example, is something that can be overcome.) But far too many shows, especially family sitcoms, suggest that you should forgive anything — including toxic or abusive behavior — if a family member is involved.

How many episodes of how many sitcoms have revolved around family members treating each other horribly or telling pointless lies or otherwise sowing discord? Certainly, those storylines can be incredibly funny if handled well. (I am a big fan of Everybody Loves Raymond, and that show centered on a family whose members were often awful to each other.) But the American sitcom almost always wants to place a button at the end of a story like that, one that says you have to keep your family together, no matter what. And for a lot of people, both in this world and in fictional ones, the primacy of family only leads to hurt and anguish, with so many people waiting and waiting for their families to love them as they are, not as their families wish they would be.

I am not going to suggest family isn’t important. Ted Lasso revels in healthy families that support and love each other. However, the show is refreshingly smart about the ways in which families can be callous and cruel to each other, and it doesn’t make excuses for that behavior. What’s more, the show turns the soccer team at its center into a found family, of sorts. When Jamie’s dad treats him horribly, Roy’s the one who gives Jamie a hug that lets Jamie express his emotions over what just happened.

It’s not too difficult to connect Jamie’s experience with his father to what happened to Ted. One day he had a dad, and then one day he didn’t. Whatever code of manhood Ted was raised under said you just didn’t talk about that kind of loss, no matter how much it tore you up inside. Prioritizing family trumps everything, even when reckoning with pain caused by that family would be healing and necessary. A code of silence rarely helps anyone, though — not even Ted Lasso.

The idea that a found family can offer you the love and support you need is an old concept in queer spaces, but it’s a fairly recent one in mainstream entertainment. I don’t yet know if championing found families is what Ted Lasso is up to, but I won’t be surprised if it is. I would love if there was a warm and friendly sitcom about found families that acknowledges our families of origin sometimes let us down badly. Maybe it could be this one.

For a show that is sometimes written off (including by me!) as conflict-free fluff, Ted Lasso has proven surprisingly thoughtful and emotionally intelligent. Ted’s dad jokes used to just be a weirdo character trait; I’m honestly surprised that they’ve turned out to be a deflection away from something so raw. I didn’t know this show had that sort of reveal in it. I’m excited to find out what else it is capable of.