NEW YORK – Roy Kent cries. Nate Shelley apologizes. Rebecca Welton lets her anger go. Trent Crimm finishes his book. Keeley Jones embraces her strength. And the kind-to-a-fault but often lost Ted Lasso finally — after three seasons, but arguably after nearly a lifetime — figures out exactly where he needs to be.
Criticized by some for losing its way in its third season, “Ted Lasso” ended up exactly on brand — by taking a sharply drawn crew of characters who had lost their ways and gotten stuck, and freeing them from shackles that were often of their own making. “Can people change?” Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) wonders. The answer, after Wednesday, is a resounding "probably."
“Perfect is boring,” Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt) says at one point in the season ( and likely series ) finale. And if there had been a travel guide to the three seasons of the Apple TV+ show, that quote might well have sat opposite the title page.
“Ted Lasso” has been a Whitman's Sampler of pandemic-era stuckness with a message that, whether it was delivered with a subtle glance or a giant narrative mallet, couldn't help but resonate in a post-pandemic landscape: The moments that have trapped you don't have to last forever.
It was difficult to find a show with more of a collection of people who were stuck — trapped in the amber of their own circumstances or choices. Keeley (Juno Temple) was stuck. Roy was stuck. Jamie (Phil Dunster) was stuck. Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) was stuck. Trent, Colin and Sam (James Lance, Billy Harris and Toheeb Jimoh) were stuck. Nate (Nick Mohammed) was stuck. Even Sharon the sports psychologist (Sarah Niles) was, to some extent, stuck.
And of course Ted himself (Jason Sudeikis), a lost boy with a mustache and a plenitude of platitudes who had been stuck in the quicksand of grief for most of his life and, it turned out, needed a mission to get others unstuck to help him find his own way forward.
‘STUCK’ IS A THEME TV LOVES
The character who's stuck in the mire is nothing new. It has been a useful and oft-used narrative engine from “It's a Wonderful Life” (1946) through “Groundhog Day” (1993) and beyond. But something more intense is happening lately. Take a tour across genres in the American streaming landscape over the past, say, four years, and you'll find a surfeit of stuckness in pretty much every direction you look.
The Scarlet Witch in Marvel's “WandaVision”? Stuck. Nadia in “Russian Doll”? Stuck in strikingly different ways in seasons one and two. Alma in “Undone,” Carmy in “The Bear” and “Mare of Easttown”? Stuck, stuck and stuck. Even some of streaming's most recent stars — “Severance,” “Shrinking" and the recently concluded “ Star Trek: Picard ” — focus on central characters who are stuck by bad choices, trauma or a lost sense of purpose.
Then there are the shows about the very embodiment of stuckness: “Ghosts” and “School Spirits,” both of which address the problem from the vantage point of people who have shuffled off the mortal coil but — even then — can't seem to figure out how to get where they're going.
“Ted Lasso” distilled this theme to the Nth degree without resorting to supernatural activity. This batch of humans was, viewed from a bit of a distance, an entire citadel of stuckness — albeit in varied ways.
Keeley was paralyzed by uncertainty, Roy by anger, Jamie by trauma and ego, Trent by expectations. Nate was being derailed by feelings of inadequacy and Colin by a fear of judgment. Sam was stuck by expectations familial and national. Rebecca was drowning in the scars of a partner's psychological abuse. Arguably the only main character not stuck was Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift), jazz virtuoso and dedicated family man — and the only character to understand all along that right here, right now was the place he wanted to be.
He had a leg up on many of us. The COVID-19 pandemic was, for a time, stuckness incarnate. “Ted Lasso” debuted right in the middle of it, on Aug. 14, 2020. Now, almost three years later, aren't we navigating through an entire generation coming of age amid an isolating pandemic and deep political fissures? Aren't there millions of folks across the republic locked in tiny, individual struggles to avoid getting stuck or — possibly even more daunting — trying to avoid staying that way?
AMERICANS LEARN FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE POND
The other elephant in the “Ted Lasso” room — one directly related to stuckness — is also something that invoked the British-American divide so often played for laughs on the show.
A few weeks back, the “Lasso” cast visited the White House to talk about mental health. At the time, Sudeikis said this: “We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help ourselves.”
That suggests — no, proposes overtly — that going it alone, “American-style,” isn't always plausible and that, as the poet John Donne put it so many centuries ago, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” The bringing together of so many different people from so many places — an international soccer team — provided the ideal canvas for the show's thesis. Turns out that varied points of view can produce better results. Go figure.
Those who say “Ted Lasso” was treacly and wandered a bit during the third season make legitimate points. Plot lines were dropped or overly compressed. Nuanced antiheroes were not this show's jam, and never did dark doings define the day. The only true villain — Rupert Mannion (Anthony Head) — was a mustache-twirler with a goatee (the mustache was, of course, already taken) and mostly a foil, a scheming island alone in a sea of sentimentality.
That was OK. Because if the show had a message for the stuck among us, it was this: Maybe, just maybe, rank sentimentality can get you unstuck. And more to the point, maybe you get unstuck by bringing a piece of yourself to everyone else. “The best we can do,” Higgins says, “is to keep asking for help and accepting it when you can.”
In the United States in 2023, that's still a harder message to sell than it should be. But it's more relevant than ever. Feelings get you stuck, but feelings also set you free. Effort can make you vulnerable, but effort matters.
“I just had to try,” Rebecca tells Ted at one point in the finale. That's ultimately the answer to getting unstuck. And it points right back to the song we heard every week in the opening credits — the key, in the end, to unlocking the whole show.
"It might be all that you get.
I guess this might well be it.
But heaven knows I tried ..."
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at the Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted