Opinion | Ted Lasso, Holy Fool
Each Wednesday night my husband and I tune in to watch “Ted Lasso,” the Emmy award-winning Apple TV+ comedy series. The show’s protagonist and title character, played by Jason Sudeikis, is ebullient, kind and, though smart, persistently silly. In the pilot episode, Ted, wide-eyed and folksy, arrives in England after relocating from Kansas with his friend Coach Beard. They climb into an impossibly small car, and Ted calls out to Rebecca, his serious, conniving new boss, “Look! This car has an invisible steering wheel!,” mimicking steering on the left side of the car (as we do on this side of the pond). It’s clear that he’s a sort of clown, with this scene even hinting at a clown car shtick. We discover throughout the series that it is in this very silliness that his power is found.
There is no shortage of religious archetypes in literature and in popular entertainment. There are famous “Christ figures” like Gandolf in “Lord of the Rings,” Dumbledore in the Harry Potter stories, and Anna in “Frozen.” Seen through this lens, Ted Lasso is another kind of religious archetype: a modern-day holy fool.
The holy fool, or yurodivy (also spelled iurodivyi), is a well-known, though controversial, character in Russian Orthodox spirituality. In his book “Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond,” the historian Sergey A. Ivanov writes that in the Orthodox tradition the term designates “a person who feigns insanity, pretends to be silly, or who provokes shock or outrage by his deliberate unruliness.” In other words, the holy fool is a person who flouts social conventions to demonstrate allegiance to God. Holy fools dwell in ordinary, secular life, but they approach it with completely different values. Rejecting respectability and embracing humility and love, holy fools are so profoundly out of step with the broader world that they appear to be ridiculous or even insane and often invite ridicule. And yet, they teach the rest of us how to live.
Lasso, an American football coach hired to coach soccer — a sport he knows little about — for the English football club AFC Richmond is often derided by the public and the press. Ted takes it all in stride, angering fans with his apparent lack of concern with winning. Early in the series, Ted tells a reporter named Trent Crimm: “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.” It’s a cliché, of course, the kind of thing uttered as a sound bite in high school sports. But Ted seems to really mean it. And the team’s fans find this horrifying, not heartwarming. Crimm calls Ted “irresponsible.”
From a religious perspective, a rejection of the trappings of success, of whatever the mainstream culture values most deeply, can be a prophetic act — one that, as Lasso shows, rarely gets applause. The so-called foolishness of holy fools is tethered to their spiritual insight. They offer a change in perspective. What appears “normal” and “successful” in the world is revealed by the fool to be hollow, vain and pointless. What appears foolish, it turns out, is the true path of flourishing. Above all, a holy fool is an icon for radical humility. And this is where Lasso most clearly embodies this persona.
Lasso is not a perfect man, and he knows it. When his not-exactly-love-interest Sassy rejects him as a “mess,” he embraces it (he calls himself, in a delightfully terrible pun, “a work in prog-mess”). He is not guilt-ridden, sullen or perfectionistic. He’s just Ted. He struggles with panic attacks and normalizes our nearly universal need for therapy, so much so that President Biden hosted the cast of the show at the White House last month to promote mental health awareness.
In the opening episode for this season, Lasso is publicly insulted by his former friend and kit man (equipment manager) turned evil “wunderkind” coach, Nathan Shelley. Rebecca, somewhat vindictively, tells Ted to retaliate, to “fight.” Yet, when asked by the press to respond, he calls Nathan’s comments “hilarious,” praises him as “smart” and wishes him well. He then proceeds to essentially do a stand-up bit with himself as the butt of the joke: “I look like Ned Flanders is doing cosplay as Ned Flanders. When I talk it sounds like Dr. Phil hasn’t gone through puberty yet.” He makes a joke about his mental health: “I’ve had more psychotic episodes than ‘Twin Peaks.’” He charms the press, gets them laughing, and, with effervescent humility, he turns a moment of conflict into a moment of levity, even joy. This also exposes Nathan’s pettiness. In Ted’s weakness is his strength, while Nate’s grasping at strength reveals debilitating weakness.
Lasso’s great humility, again and again, makes him a wellspring of transformation and redemption. He disarms people. In the main story arc of the series’s first season, Rebecca goes from trying to use and humiliate Ted in order to destroy her team (seeking vengeance against her philandering ex-husband, whose only true love is the club) to embracing him as a loyal friend. He won her over with daily “biscuits with the boss,” which, we discover, he secretly bakes himself, the kind of extravagant thoughtfulness we come to expect from him.
When, in an emotional season climax, Rebecca reveals her secret plan to Ted, confessing “I’ve sabotaged you every chance I had,” she tearfully apologizes and Ted immediately forgives her and sees a kind of goodness even in her dark scheming (“This job you gave me has changed my life,” he says). Holy fools are marked by this sort of opulent, irrational, prodigality of grace. As Dostoyevsky sketched out the main character of “The Idiot,” Prince Myshkin, perhaps the most famous holy fool in literature, he wrote: “His way of looking at the world: He forgives everything, sees reasons for everything, does not recognize that any sin is unforgivable.”
There is a kind of magic at work in Ted Lasso’s life. When everyone else seems to be carried along by the powerful riptides of ambition, vanity, fame, jadedness and contempt, it startles us when someone swims upstream against the current. The Catholic social activist Dorothy Day ends her memoir “The Long Loneliness” with one of my favorite lines: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” Lasso carries around an aching loneliness. His marriage has dissolved. He longs to be nearer to his son back in the States (I find myself asking in the third season, as does Ted, why is he still in England?). Yet his incessant, childlike faith in people — his foolishness — allows Ted to lavish love on those around him. And wherever he goes — from the locker room to a meeting of the Diamond Dogs, his makeshift male support group — community flourishes. In an interview with Crimm early in the series, Ted looks the journalist in the eyes and says, “I really enjoyed getting to spend this time with you.” Crimm is taken aback. He replies, flummoxed, “You actually mean that, don’t you?”
“Ted Lasso,” the show, is uneven. There are parts I love (like Jamie Tartt’s and Roy Kent’s brewing bromance) and parts I don’t (like how the writers insist, even in our post-MeToo era, on romantically pairing employers with employees with vast power disparities). Still, I’m drawn back to the show each week because of Ted’s genuine, though troubled, joy, redemptive silliness and relentless embrace of people.
In a time when our culture is marked by outrage, division and cynicism, Ted Lasso calls us back to humility. He asks us to lighten up a little, to not take ourselves too seriously. In doing so, he reminds everyone he encounters — including us watching at home — of our shared humanity. We are all, in the end, not winners or losers, successes or failures, pure heroes or villains, but people who long to be known, loved and delighted in. This is the gift of Ted Lasso. He shows us what’s possible when we give up winning — soccer games, power grabs, professional success, culture wars or online fights — and, however foolish it may be, choose to root for the people all around us.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”
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