In the episode titled “Signal”, from the second season of Ted Lasso, there’s a moment when the four men who make up the football club Richmond’s coaching team, stand in a line and flip the bird at a player known for his arrogance. It’s an image that should smack of belligerent masculinity, but because this is Ted Lasso, the effect is quite different. Instead of being an indication of aggressive hooliganism, the middle finger salute signals how Richmond is coming into its own as a team. They’re communicating with each other, treating one another with respect off the field and playing to their individual strengths on the field — all of which is communicated with the raised middle finger. Stripped of its aggression and rudeness, the gesture becomes endearing and practically wholesome.
Goodness is rarely sexy or even fun. Ask the frontbencher in any classroom. That’s why in fiction, we give heroes obstacles and challenges that will justify the good guy behaving badly for brief interludes. Watching someone act out of character and flout social conventions adds a layer of complexity to the good guy. Watching them tailspin, like in the recently-released Beef, can feel cathartic. Across entertainment cultures, cynicism, anger and machismo have become all the rage in recent years (pun intended). Then along comes Ted Lasso with a protagonist who will see all your prickly anti-heroes and raise them his bounding-golden-retriever energy.
This comedy about an American football coach working with an English football club takes all the clichés you can imagine — footballers are bone-headed; divorcées are vindictive; it’s the quiet ones you need to be afraid of; Americans are clueless; the English are manipulative — and redeems them with goodness. On one hand, it’s the classic underdog story, but Ted Lasso doesn’t follow that script. We’re four episodes into its third and final season, and Richmond still seems to lose or tie more games than it wins. All the hyped-up confrontations have been anti-climaxes, beginning with the scene in which Richmond’s owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) admitted to Ted (Jason Sudeikis) that she’d hired him as part of a plan to get back at her philandering ex-husband, by destroying the football club he loves. In the third season, Ted’s first meeting with Nate after Nate (Nick Mohammed) ditched Richmond to become West Ham’s manager has neither ego displays nor fireworks. Yet it is in moments of everyday absurdity that Ted Lasso finds drama and packs its most powerful emotional punches by focusing on kindness, empathy and puns. “Fellas, we’re broken, we need to change,” Ted tells the team in the first season, and change they do — not by raging against the system, but by becoming better humans.
Instead of following formulae, Ted Lasso follows rules. He’s polite, honest and determined to be cheerful, whether he’s facing journalists at a post-match press conference or confronting his own sadness. He is, to quote Ted Lasso himself, “a work in progmess”. In a time when darkness is cool and anti-heroes and vigilantes crowd every OTT platform, the fact that Ted is a good guy makes him stand out like a rebel. While others champion cynicism, Ted will make you believe in humanity. Even when everything goes wrong for the characters in the show, Ted Lasso leaves you feeling optimistic because of the goodness that its protagonist pays forward. From the world of Indian cinema, someone who can match Ted for relentless good cheer and silly dad jokes is Professor Parimal Tripathi from Chupke Chupke (1975).
Director Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s gentle comedy came out at a dark time in Indian history. The top-grossing films of 1975 — Sholay, Deewar, Zakhmee, Pratiggya — hint at the frustrations and anxieties of a country that’s disillusioned by those who make the rules. There were wars India had won and lost as a young nation, natural disasters, political turmoil and back-breaking poverty. Two months after Chupke Chupke released, the Emergency would be announced, suspending civil liberties for the next 21 months. Is it any wonder the Angry Young Man ruled the box office that year? However, in sharp contrast to the violent anti-establishment rage that was showcased in many films of that time, Mukherjee created Parimal Tripathi, a mild-mannered hero whose goodness is what makes change possible. Playing him was Dharmendra, Bollywood’s muscular dreamboat who didn’t get even half a second to flex his muscles or flare his nostrils in Chupke Chupke.
The first time we meet Parimal, he convinces the elderly caretaker of a guesthouse to leave his post and see his ailing grandson instead. When the older man worries about losing his job, Parimal promises to stand in for him and exchanges clothes with him. He puts on the chowkidar’s monkey cap and shawl, and gives the other man his coat. It’s a swap that does more than establish Parimal to be a generous man. The new clothes transform him from a privileged professor to a member of the invisible working class. Later in the film, Parimal becomes a driver as part of a prank to cut his arrogant brother-in-law, who is a barrister turned businessman, down to size. The labour that goes into being service staff is highlighted as Parimal does all the work of the chowkidar and the driver. Through him, Mukherjee makes plain (without preaching) the rigidity and arbitrariness of class hierarchies. There’s nothing malicious or vindictive in what Parimal or anyone else does, but through innocent mischief, he shows both the elite in the story and the audience watching Chupke Chupke how the working class is treated with prejudice. It’s the most gentle exposé of social hypocrisy, but cuts deeply because it is delivered with grace.
One of the most delightful scenes in Chupke Chupke is when Parimal encounters a thief in his brother-in-law’s house. There’s genuine anguish on Parimal’s face when the thief says he climbed a pipe to get into the house. “Baap re! Tujhe dar nahin laga (You weren’t scared)?” Parimal asks him. When Parimal comes up with a truly flimsy excuse to not hand the petty thief over to the police, the thief hands over the one thing he’d stolen and cheerfully volunteers to leave on his own. “How will you go?” Parimal asks him.
“I’ll take the pipe again,” the thief replies.
“No no, what if you fall?” replies Parimal. “I’ll show you a way out.”
By the end of the scene, the thief is calling Parimal “dost” (friend) and wishing him all the luck. As he leaves, the thief says, “Sab kismat ki baat hai na? Tum bhi saala chor, main bhi saala chor (it’s all destiny, isn’t it? You’re also a conman, I’m also a conman).”
The way Parimal sees people who are sidelined by others feels reminiscent of Ted because both these men disrupt oppressive social hierarchies simply by the act of seeing. Nate’s jaw drops when Ted speaks to him the first time because he’s so used to being ignored by everyone. His jaw drops again when he realises Ted has remembered his name. Ted doesn’t do Nate’s menial job like Parimal chooses to in Chupke Chupke, but he does swap roles with Nate so that Nate acts as coach and gives the team a pep talk. In the third season, when everyone is convinced of Nate being a treacherous villain, Ted has (so far) held on to grace. Much to Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt) and Roy’s (Brett Goldstein) frustration, Ted will not speak against Nate. It’s an attitude that starts to feel justified when we’re given hints in the episode titled “Signs” that Nate may not have entirely sold his soul to the devil that is Rupert (remember Nate picking up the toy figure of Ted and the way he spits out the drink that Rupert gives him during their celebratory party?).
“Signs” is the fourth episode in the 12-episode final season of Ted Lasso and it seems to be an important one for the narrative arc. In it, Richmond taps into its reserves of toxic aggression when they have to go up against rivals, West Ham. In the pub, owner Mae snarls and makes one of her regulars kick out his friend because he came wearing a West Ham jersey. It’s an uncharacteristically ungenerous and exclusionary attitude that’s reminiscent of what Ted faced in his early days, when every passing stranger called him a wanker. Rebecca makes it clear to Ted that she desperately wants to win this match to make a point to Rupert. Coach Beard and Roy are equally determined to win because it’s the first time they’re going to meet Nate on the field since he betrayed Richmond and joined West Ham. In a bid to rev the players up, they show the team security footage from when Nate was assistant coach. He’s seen ripping up the “Believe” sign that’s been a fixture of the locker room since Ted joined Richmond. The furious players go ballistic when it’s time to play, committing fouls and earning red cards at a manic pace. Evidently, they want to beat Nate up for having disrespected the team’s motto, but since he’s out of reach, the Richmond players take it out on their West Ham counterparts, attacking the opposing team with all the elegance of a drunk thug. The net result is a humiliating loss for Richmond. In the overwhelmingly hopeful universe of Ted Lasso, negativity will not bring you success.
It may seem like the lowest of low points for Richmond and in terms of the club’s standing, it is. They’ve been defeated by other teams before, but this one seems worse because of the gracelessness of their behaviour. And yet, in ways that are arguably more important than scorecards, there are small victories to be savoured. Rebecca does get the last word with Rupert who remains the paragon of vices. The ignominious defeat spurs Jamie to focus on his training. Ted finally puts aside his mask of good cheer and tells his ex-wife how he was hurt by her behaviour. Richmond may have lost the match on the field, but off the field, they’ve come out on top in the emotional battles that matter.
And just like that, being good is no longer boring.