Protagonists, in my experience, typically fall into one of two categories. There are the relatable leads, who deal with messy problems and struggle between wanting to take the right way or the easy way, often defaulting to the latter. The problems they deal with might be grounded in reality (as with McNulty in The Wire) or fantastical (as with Stark in the Marvel movies), but what remains constant is our ability to identify in them our own challenges and weaknesses.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have aspirational heroes, people who, no matter the personal cost, choose the virtuous path, inspiring other characters as well as the audience to emulate them. Often, these are old-fashioned, larger-than-life heroes such as Captain America with his impeccable jawline, and Superman before the Zack Snyder era. But my favourite of this category has always been the impossibly cuddly talking bear Paddington, with his mantra "If we are kind and polite, the world will be right."
The great thing about Paddington is that he is not just a great children's hero, he's someone viewers of all ages could learn from. After all, kindness isn't something that comes easy. However, lovely as the Paddington films are, they have a limitation. They are set in a fantastical world where kindness is extremely effective, and can melt the iciest of hearts. And their furry protagonist, by being in the aspirational category, loses out on the merits that come with the relatable category. So when I watch one of these films, while I do wish to be more like him, I never feel like that's an achievable goal.
Enter Ted Lasso. I was late to the bandwagon on this Apple TV+ show, which dropped last August, and has already been renewed for a third season before the release of a second. The series is about American football coach Ted Lasso (a charming Jason Sudeikis), who flies out to Britain to coach a team that plays the kind of football which is actually played with one's feet. Lasso doesn't understand the sport at all, but what he does understand is coaching, which to him is about forming bonds with the team and helping them bond with each other.
Ostensibly, Lasso and Paddington aren't all that different. Both are optimistic about humanity, both face resistance from the forces of mundane cynicism, and both win people over with good humour and a persistent display of affection. And yet, at the end of the ten half-hour episodes of Ted Lasso, I found myself feeling hopeful about the possibility that I could, with effort, be nicer. I attribute this feeling to two storytelling choices made by creators Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence.
First, in their protagonist, they managed to combine the best attributes of both the relatable and the aspirational. Ted Lasso isn't perfect. While he often succeeds at reaching out to and connecting with the players he's working with, there are times when his methods don't work out, and the show never shies away from placing the responsibility for that on his shoulders. At other times, his entire hyper-idealised approach to coaching is called into question, and Ted is forced to modify it to fit the reality of the world he inhabits. Even his infinite optimism is shown to be something that can push someone away. Perhaps the moment that affected me the most was when he realises what he has been doing wrongly in his romantic life, since it helped me come to terms with aspects of my own recent past.
Put these together, and it makes it all the more remarkable every time Ted goes out of his way to make someone smile, shows someone appreciation for a talent they didn't even know they had, or responds to an admission of an ostensibly unforgivable slight with forgiveness and empathy. With Ted, we know that being good isn't somehow baked into his biology, that instead it is something he is constantly working on, and is therefore also something that is achievable through work.
Second, and equally crucial, is that in the world of the show, kindness never comes easy. From the moment he takes on the new job, Ted is faced with relentless pushback, and the stress of it all (together with his wobbly personal life) simmers under the surface of the show until it explodes in a sensitively and realistically depicted panic attack. He is repeatedly bullied, undermined, and insulted. Moreover, when he holds back his (very justified) anger for too long, the inevitable release isn't always healthy.
But the world that Ted inhabits is a lot like the real world, and just like in reality, here too, not everything is bad. That panic attack I mentioned? This may be a mild spoiler, but a friend arrives and helps him through it. This is someone who does not make it easy to befriend them, but in the preceding episodes, we've seen Ted try, and in this moment we see the result. We see this reflected, to varying degrees, in all his relationships. His wife, for instance, may no longer love him, but she respects him and roots for him. And the more we see him forge new bonds in the UK, the easier it becomes to see why the bonds he already has are so wholesome. Forgive the cliché, but kindness begets kindness.
In the end, this leaves us with a series that shows us how a flawed, complicated person can still be a paragon of humanity. It then puts him in the middle of a world that makes it difficult to be nice, but rewards your efforts with the support systems you need so you can continue trying anyway. And in all this I haven't even mentioned just how funny it all is! I can't recommend Ted Lasso enough.