The idea that kindness would be so surprisingly fashionable in this angry, spiteful period of human history, surprised everyone.
Hannah Waddingham, the veteran British actress known mostly for her stage work, had just won her first prime time Emmy for her role as Rebecca Welton, the prickly but vulnerable professional football club owner, in the surprise hit show Ted Lasso. She was standing next to Bret Goldstein, also a writer on the show, and who was also holding a statuette of his own for his role as Roy Kent, the oft-angry, but aging captain of the club.
They were trying to answer the question of how this unlikely tale of curious, nonjudgmental kindness had captured the hearts of American audiences despite a fundamental lack of interest in soccer, and an often deeply antagonist view of their fellow man.
“Everyone has their dark days,” she explained. “Who knew that everyone just needed to be kind to each other again. It feels like it had just become so desperately unfashionable. That you could only be funny if you were cutting. Whereas these ridiculous ninjas [the writers] have written something that is funny, heartbreaking and kind.”
This was maybe the most surprising aspect of the allure of Ted Lasso, the offbeat comedy from the mind of Jason Sudeikis of SNL fame. The idea that kindness would be so surprisingly fashionable in this angry, spiteful period of human history, surprised everyone. It wasn’t just that kindness could also be funny, it was how much we had missed authentic, tender-hearted thoughtfulness. Who knew, indeed.
“We live in a cynical world,” Jerry McGuire told us back in the 90s. In what may remain the least romantic scene in the history of cinema, Tom Cruise storms into his estranged wife’s house to explain that he’s sad because he doesn’t have anyone to share his big night with. He misses his wife, he explains. Not her personally, mind you. Not for who she is, but for what she represents to him, what she can do for him. He misses having a wife despite not a shred of evidence that he ever had any interest in her other than his appreciation for her adoration of him. Plus he thought her kid was cute.
“You complete me,” he tells her, evoking an earlier scene in the movie when a deaf man uses this phrase to tells his companion he loves her. While it was meant to be romantic, it’s a decidedly selfish interpretation of love, sacrifice, and commitment. He was right about the cynicism though, he just had no idea how bad it was going to get. We do live in a cynical world. It’s true, but maybe kindness is what we crave after all.
In a separate interview, Goldstein explains how unnerving the American habit of being friendly to strangers, is for your average Brit. There is so little earnestness in British culture that if someone presumes to be kind to you, you’re looking out for the pie in the face that is sure to follow. “Oi, what are you after?” he asks.
This is one of the things the world finds fascinating, endearing, and sometimes unnerving about Americans. For all our bluster, violence, and abrasiveness, we’re like overgrown toddlers who will just hug strangers for no reason.
We’re optimistic and expect things to go well, all evidence to the contrary. The dark side of this is our belief in American exceptionalism, but if you remove the hubris, we’re sincerely hopeful and bullish about the future. We believe in winning, that losing is shameful, and draws are unworthy of our attention. If no one loses, what are we really winning?
Which makes Ted a more nuanced character that we haven’t seen before. A coach that doesn’t care about winning as much as developing his players into well-rounded individuals. He gives his team captain, the curmudgeonly Roy Kent, a copy of “A Wrinkle In Time.”
“What even is ‘A Wrinkle In Time’,” Roy asks. Before Ted can answer, the hard-boiled journalist Trent Crimm jumps in.
“It’s a lovely novel,” Trent says. “It’s the story of a young girl’s struggle with the burden of leadership as she journeys through space.”
“Am I supposed to be the little girl?” Roy sputters.
“I’d like you to be,” says Ted.
We may live in a cynical world, but Americans, it turns out, are decidedly uncynical. We’re a lot more like Ted Lasso. You can’t hold up the self-appointed intellectuals, writers, and tastemakers of New York and Los Angeles as exemplars of the American identity. They tell us that we’re Jerry McGuire, and we want to be. We may get knocked down, but we’re coming back to beat you.
That’s the ideal. That Americans are somehow the perpetual underdog, fighting the British Empire, but also the mighty warriors, kicking ass and taking names. We so want to be cool, to be the dominating hero, but deep inside, we may just want to be Ted Lasso. Slightly goofy, with maybe just a little homespun wisdom, and a good heart.
We want to be good, but we also want to win. The question is whether you can achieve both with kindness. Ted Lasso is just a television show. A bit of comedy pablum to get us through a tough patch. But it may be more insightful than it intended to be.
As Trent said in his fictitious article, Ted will likely fail in his quest to win with his brand of kindhearted goodwill, but there will be no gloating when he does, because we’re all rooting for him to win.