Ted Lasso is the TV discovery of 2020 in our household. It’s streaming on Apple TV, and it’s worth a subscription for a month just to plough through the ten episodes. I’m delighted to see it getting the attention it deserves. It’s a beautiful example of a movement in the arts called ‘the new sincerity’ — a deliberate rejection of the cynicism that has defined so much art in the post-modern age, the sort one finds in comedies like Seinfeld, or the irony and snark that defined a generation. We see this ‘new sincerity’ in shows like Brooklyn 99, or Parks and Rec, but Ted Lasso is next level sincere — both the show, and its eponymous character.
Ted is an American football coach brought to England as a cynical move by a broken-hearted jilted wife, Rebecca, who has taken charge of her ex-husband’s pride and joy — Richmond F.C, following a messy divorce. She has every intention of driving the club into the ground. Ted is meant to fail, but his relentless sincerity in the face of her cynical scheming is a metaphor for the triumph of something new against the destructive forces of post-modernity’s embrace of irony as a modus operandi. David Foster Wallace, the part time philosopher, part time novelist, part time literature professor, wrote an essay in 1993, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.’ This essay explored the social and cultural costs of irony, and expressed a hope that a rebellion might take place, since then a battle has raged for the spirit of the west, and we’ve been waiting a messiah figure who might embody this sincerity and save us all from a world defined, still, by Seinfeld’s nihilism.
Wallace said this ‘rebel’ would be a figure who would:
“…eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”
Ted Lasso is the man for a time such as this. Ted Lasso is a show championing a different sort of outlook; an outlook that sees art as a vehicle for relentlessly uplifting us, pushing us to something higher. Something… nice. Every person in Ted’s orbit is ultimately made new, transformed, through his presence, except, that is, the one person he (for most of the season) wishes he might transform — his estranged wife back home in America, and the jerky, irredeemable, former owner of Richmond F.C. Transformation comes for those who dare to embrace sincerity over cynicism. For those who dare to…
Ted Lasso isn’t subtle in its sincerity; the coach even plasters the word ‘Believe’ in a prominent spot in the dressing room. It boldly oozes this sincerity as an act of Wallace-inspired rebellion.
That it has been so polarising in the TV review sections of the Internet is evidence that the war between cynicism and sincerity has not been won; there are those who don’t get it, for whom Lasso is too earnest, and yet, maybe that earnestness is its genius — and its entire point. Maybe art can ask us to look higher.
As a coach, Ted Lasso knows nothing about the game. He’s not going to get results on the field, but he has certain convictions about character being more important than results — he’s a trojan horse for a return to an ethic of virtue, rather than utility (though, his lack of utility — in the hands of his cynical team owner, is precisely the point). By season’s end his relentless positivity has uplifted and improved all those around him. He is a coach in the ultimate sense of the word — he comes alongside everyone in his orbit and makes them better versions of themselves. It’s risky TV, and it works. It left me, as a viewer, experiencing the same result as those in the show — having this sense that I might be better if only the spirit of Lasso was at work in my life.
The thing about Lasso’s brand of heroism is that he, as a coach, operates a whole lot like the Holy Spirit does in the Bible. Ted Lasso is a ‘paraclete’ which is the greek word for ‘advocate’ that literally means ‘called to be close beside.’ Coaching is Ted Lasso’s calling, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t understand the game of football (or soccer) he understands his game, the game of coaching; the game of winning people to a vision of the better version of themselves, and working with them to step them in that direction.
It would’ve been an interesting exercise to write a post on how Ted Lasso, the coach, is like the Holy Spirit; but where they differ is that, when it comes to the story of the Bible, and to the nature of the triune God, the Spirit is not the hero. He shines light on others — especially the Father and Son. And while Ted Lasso shows what happens when Ted Lasso shines light on others, the lights, and the focus of the camera, are very much on him. Ted Lasso is a certain sort of Messiah; a man who calls us to discover and “believe” in a better version of ourselves as we believe in him.
The New Testament’s often expresses a vision of the Christian life as a ‘walk’ — one way Paul talks about this ‘walk’ is where he tells us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ in Galatians. This walk language is often flattened in English translations to the more boring ‘live’… But this ‘walk’ is such a profound picture when we add this idea that the Spirit is a ‘paraclete’ — God walking beside us, advocating for us, guiding us towards a better version of ourselves as we “believe”… and Paul’s instruction to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ comes as he describes the fruit of the Spirit (on this, see K.B Hoyle’s review of Ted Lasso and the fruit of the Spirit over at Christ and Pop Culture). Paul says:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.Galatians 5:22-23
There’s a whole lot of this sort of fruit on display in Ted Lasso’s non-cynical, sincerity… his earnestness and integrity, his pursuit of his calling — and also what he produces for those in his care. Ted Lasso might be a messiah in the battle against irony, and for the goodness of the new sincerity (I’m team new sincerity, for the record), and he’s a whole lot like Jesus, but Jesus is better, because Jesus invites us to believe in something more than ourselves. More than that, as Paul unpacks the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ — the new way of life, these new virtues, brought about by the ultimate coach, he sees these as a result of moving from an old life — life in the world and the flesh — because we ‘belong to Christ Jesus’ and so have died with him, and can now walk with him. Jesus is the key not just to our improvement, but to an ultimate victory that we enjoy through him if we keep walking the journey he has us on.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.Galatians 5:25-26
Ted Lasso, and the new sincerity, resonate with our human hearts because we aren’t made for cynicism. Cynicism is a dead end. We were made for joy, and hope. We were created for glory and victory, not for death and defeat. We’re not just wired to enjoy happy endings, rather than tragedy — the universe itself, though it feels otherwise, is headed in this direction, and Ted Lasso shares something with the fabric of the universe, because in some ways it is a reflection of the goodness of the Christian story, the story of Jesus. Ted is a rebellious, revolutionary, even, hero for our times, but he points us to a timeless revolutionary hero.
The Christian story is one that has little space for nihilism, ironic snark, or cynicism — it is a of triumph over death and destructive patterns of life, it is a fairy tale that says life doesn’t end in tragedy, but in hope. Like Ted Lasso, Jesus holds out hope that we might become better people if we believe, but Jesus invites us to believe in something better than victory on the field, or in the game of life — even in our relationships. As good as these things are, they are not ultimate. Jesus is the person who most completely walked in step with the Spirit, the one who embodied that fruit in every fibre of his being, and both his perfection, and his sacrificial death — his crucifixion — we have a path towards not just self-improvement but forgiveness, redemption, salvation and re-creation for eternity, we have a victory that is eternal — something worth believing in. Jesus is the one who makes us better, and brings us to something ultimate.
Here’s how Paul puts it in another letter.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.2 Corinthians 5:17-19