‘Ted Lasso’ is a Rom-Com that Reimagines Love

Pain teaches us to channel our anger. It festers inside: we poison ourselves in hopes of poisoning the reason for our pain right along with us. Funnel it through retaliation as a means of release. That’s what Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) expected the day she hired Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) to coach her English Premier League football club. He was a means to an end. But unforeseen in Rebecca’s detailed plans is the unnerving optimism Ted spreads like a theme song throughout the club. Much to Rebecca’s frustration, it thaws the icy armor she had shielded herself with after her divorce. She’d been able to protect herself from everyone around her…except from the one person she least expected.

Love can do that. It can mend the deepest of wounds. It can crack exteriors once welded shut. But love takes many forms. Real love is not the kind you need to protect yourself from. Much like Rebecca, we, too, learn to love again. 

In bell hooks’ All About Love, the late cultural theorist ties our humanity to the concept. “Knowing love or the hope of knowing love,” she writes, “is the anchor that keeps us from falling into that sea of despair.” For hooks, love is a commitment: a verb, not a noun. It’s the conscious decision to work on being loving, and understanding and putting it into practice. “To truly love,” hooks suggests, “we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” 

She provides a conclusive definition of “love” as another type of oath. To understand love is to pledge our relationship to it in a way that binds us to its practice. When I found All About Love, it was like I had found words for my existence. I’d never read anyone who prioritized love as a valid theory or philosophy, who cut right to the idea that our world has ceased to be loving. And loving certainly isn’t easy. 

But watching Ted Lasso, I saw hooks’ argument woven into its makeup. It felt like it was molecular, a part of the show’s DNA.

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Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso in Ted Lasso (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

Finding love in a hopeless place is the driving force behind the romantic comedy genre. And that place is the world it inhabits. The genre has been referred to as science fiction (not always as something derogatory, but with hints of that) or as a fantasyland, indulging our abstract ideals. Romanticizing them. As if every other genre is any more closely connected to the real world. By downplaying the genre and reducing it to its most common denominator, as merely “for women,” we’ve lost a connection to our humanity. To our most basic instincts. 

It’s symbolic of hooks’ idea that love is the one thing that can save us from ourselves – from the emptiness of our souls left unnurtured. The landscape of the romantic comedy has been a shaky one to traverse, especially as a woman. I’ve felt shame in taking pleasure from it, felt less than for drawing comfort from the familiarity of a rom-com’s narrative and guaranteed happy ending. The agonizing yearning I feel when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks hold hands in the final shot of Sleepless in Seattle inspires more hope in me than the inside of a church ever could. To reject the rom-com is to numb ourselves into apathy. Dare I ask: who doesn’t want a happy ending? 

As I went through All About Love over and over, the book’s spine cracking and almost dropping its bound text, I found myself abandoning my shame. After reading what hooks had to say, what I once thought were overly idealized ways of perceiving relationships became genuine possibilities. The rom-com became more than a fantasy to indulge in. It crystallized hooks’ worldly philosophy of love, of love as a symbiotic relationship between feeling and action. Her work revitalized the genre for me and elevated its importance in the canon of our media. The romantic comedy manifests a way of loving that hooks insists we are capable of. 

“So many of us long for love but lack the courage to take risks.”

bell hooks, All About Love

Unsurprisingly, Ted Lasso has become a target for our cynical culture. The most common (and loudest) critique of the show is that it’s another fantasyland in which lofty ideas live for a moment before dissipating like smoke in the winds of reality. No one is actually curious and not judgmental. Right? Or is that cynicism winning the fight? Much like the rom-com, Jason Sudeikis’ pandemic success began life as a gentle musing on optimism. Then our culture got tired of it and grew suspicious of its many soft edges. 

Ted’s optimistic demeanor has, ironically, become a repellent for curiosity. But if you block out the reactions to Ted’s relentless stash of funny barbs and witty commentary, you’ll find a kernel of hope. Not the kind that drives Ted to suppress his emotions until they erupt in mind-numbing panic attacks simply because he goldfished his way through trauma. Hope comes from his relationship with club owner Rebecca. While the series isn’t quite as explicit as it’s been with other couples, like Brett Goldstein’s Roy Kent and Juno Temple’s Keeley Jones, the dynamic between Rebecca and Ted is a traditional slow burn, less will-they-won’t-they and more when-will-they.

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Juno Temple as Keeley Jones & Hannah Waddingham as Rebecca Welton in Ted Lasso (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

The signs are there if you know where to look for them. Ted Lasso is deceptively good at masking a traditional romantic comedy with the tropes of a sports comedy. But a lot of us aren’t fooled. Especially its opening scene features Rebecca Welton’s pensive expression as she contemplates what to do with a rather expensive David Hockney her ex-husband (Anthony Head) gave her on one of their anniversaries. What sets the entirety of Ted Lasso in motion is the heartbreak of a woman who spent her life loving a man who didn’t spend his loving her. It’s by coincidence, by chance, by destiny that she stumbles on the viral video of Ted dancing with his (American) college football team and sets her revenge plans in motion.

Coincidence. Chance. Destiny. All are all-too-familiar in the world of the rom-com. By the same token, Ted, too, comes with baggage that matches Rebecca’s, like a pair of gloves (self-imposed Serendipity reference here). On the verge of his own divorce from his wife, Michelle (Andrea Anders), Ted finds himself at an unwanted crossroads. Does he keep pushing a marriage that’s been over since before he set foot in London? Or does he let it go? In choosing the latter, Ted also chooses to save himself– in a way that services and nurtures his soul. 

By the end of his marriage, Ted had become the caretaker of both his and his wife’s love. The only one tending to their garden. And eventually, it began to wilt. Seeing Ted run across the Richmond practice pitch to his waiting family felt like desperation. Ted’s Hail Mary to love. Out of breath and out of hope, Ted sweeps his son off his feet – but is met with a stilted, closed-off Michelle. The fate of his marriage is sealed. And deep down, Ted knew all along. Throughout his marriage, Ted knew what hooks described as just “care.” Care is still a dimension of love, “but simply giving care does not mean we are loving.” Love isn’t just a marriage certificate or the product of two sets of DNA. It’s a commitment that both have to honor. Ted and Michelle shared one dimension of love and forgot the rest along the way. 

I also reference the idea of destiny because, despite the many tropes that make up the rom-com, Ted Lasso’s “chance” meeting between these two characters was, in fact, inevitable. Their paths crossed for the first time on September 13, 1991, though it was unbeknownst to either of them. Ted and Rebecca both suffered tragic events that would shape the rest of their lives on the same day. The point of connection reveals that these two characters were always meant to meet. The poetry of their destiny speaks to the genre. But fate’s invisible strings are not the entirety of their dynamic.

Encasing the romantic comedy genre through hooks’s work demystifies the idea of fantasy; the world of the romantic comedy is no longer unattainable. Similarly, Ted Lasso reframes the genre in ways that serve our understanding of love. We think the allure of the rom-com is also its whimsical nature: the idea that fate weaves the perfect plan for us to cross our soulmates. But there lies the misconception (one that perhaps that rom-com hasn’t aided by making a case for itself). Ted Lasso soft-shoes his way into Rebecca Welton’s life, determined to show her she doesn’t need any of the armor she’s put on to protect herself from more emotional abuse. In seeing Ted’s actions and hearing his words, Rebecca lets down her guard and leaves behind the pain of her marriage. 

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Hannah Waddingham as Rebecca Welton and Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso in Ted Lasso (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

Ted’s instincts are connected to hooks’ theory of being loving. His marriage falls apart because his relentless optimism is part of his own emotional armor. But Ted chose optimism as a coping mechanism. He can take it to an extreme, but making a conscious effort to be kind, respectful, and loving – not just to a romantic partner but to everyone – is an act more significant than saying, “I love you.” While his marriage to Michelle didn’t last, it didn’t make Ted any less willing to love.

Rebecca’s history of love is much more painful to dissect, especially as a woman. One of our first experiences with love is with our parental figures. They’re our first caretakers, and our first examples of what love is for better and for worse. And young women are taught to value themselves through their romantic outcomes and worth. So what happens when what we see at home shapes our understanding of love? Culture dictates that love exists in a vacuum and is separate from our familial relationships. That love can “save” us from toxic marriages or negative relationships our parents might have fostered. But that’s simply not true because our introduction to interpersonal relationships begins at home.

Rebecca is a product of a loveless marriage and a warped perception of love. After catching her father with one of her mother’s friends, Rebecca shaped her world around the resulting trauma. It didn’t come from her father’s infidelity as much as from his ensuing silence. It built so much room inside Rebecca that she was forced to live outside her own body. Her marriage to Rupert meant Rebecca had to watch parts of herself be stolen by an ex-husband whose cruelty further stifled the screams she was so desperate to get out.

“True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption.”

bell hooks, All About Love

Rebecca and Ted’s relationship isn’t as explicitly romantic as, for example, Keeley and Roy’s because our perception of love is distorted. We’re used to seeing romantic love as all-or-nothing. That romantic relationships exist in a vacuum. And that they can save us only if they fall on our laps. We remove friendship when the components of a long-lasting and romantic relationship become intertwined. When did we stop looking for friendship in our interpersonal relationships? Or has it always been this way?

My intent is not to convince anyone that Ted and Rebecca’s relationship does turn “romantic.” Sex is easy. Sex is something that is part of life and part of a relationship but not all of it. While sex is not the foundation of Ted and Rebecca’s relationship, it is, is something far deeper than what hooks mentions: 

Care. Affection. Recognition. Respect. Commitment. Trust. And honest and open communication.

There’s such witchcraft in their relationship that, although their romantic future is still an open question, Ted and Rebecca seem to have everything they need to love one another. It’s in the biscuits Ted so lovingly bakes daily for Rebecca. It’s in Rebecca’s bravery as she descends from her office to his to tell Ted that her intentions weren’t honest when she hired him, each step bringing her, physically and emotionally, closer to him. It’s in Ted’s genuine respect for Rebecca as an individual, a flawed and complex woman who breaks just as easily as he does. And it’s in their unspoken connection – the one they don’t just leave to fate to nurture and strengthen. They both work to mend their bond. It’s not just a feeling for Ted and Rebecca; it’s active participation on both sides. One can’t exist without the other. Their needs become each other’s needs. It’s a perfect equilibrium that pulls them back and forth into each other’s orbits. At the end of every season, down in Ted’s office, they meet in the middle.

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Hannah Waddingham as Rebecca Welton in Ted Lasso (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

After Rebecca confesses to Ted, there’s quiet resignation from Rebecca as she waits for Ted to quit angrily. To scream at her. To demand an apology once more. To her surprise, and an extent, my own, Ted forgives her. He calmly breaks down every expectation she’s had about loving relationships by telling her that “divorce is hard.” It’s equally moving and heartbreaking. As women, we expect to be treated with disrespect and anger whenever we act out. Our instinct is to brace for war and punishment. That love must be conditional. But Ted Lasso softly mends the cynicism that lives inside most of us. That love can be what hooks describes in her book. The romantic comedy itself can save us just as much as love can. 

Ted is not a savior. He’s not a moral pinnacle. He’s just a man. Ted Lasso is not a vehicle for our salvation, nor should it be. But what is remarkable about the man and the show is its reframing of love by taking two very broken people and making them each other’s examples of the kind of love hooks spent years talking about. It’s hard to make an audience care about love, especially when packaged in the rom-com formula. That label alone makes cynics out of many. But there’s magic to be found in these characters and their stories. 

When Ted forgives Rebecca for lying to him, Ted chooses to love. When Rebecca confesses to Ted, she also chooses to love. Declarations of love pale compared to when Ted hits that bull’s eye to spare Rebecca further contact with her abusive ex. Or when Rebecca consoles Ted after a panic attack. Both are running purely on instinct. A silent commitment to the other that they’re there for the other no matter what. There to help the other pick up the pieces. To glue them back together and create something new. Willingly. 

Whether or not Ted and Rebecca fulfill every romantic comedy trope doesn’t matter. Ted Lasso is not about that. And the rom-com isn’t just about fervent confessions and first kisses. Much like our own perceptions of love, the rom-com fulfills a more profound mission in our culture. That mission is grounded in hooks’ lifelong work of describing how love builds community. Ted Lasso has done more for the genre and “love” in two seasons of these characters existing than most explicitly “love” stories I can think of. Confessions and sex are the easy part. Committing; respecting; nurturing; and forgiving are a lot harder. Just as Ted chooses grace and kindness even on his worst day, choosing these acts daily is true love. Choosing to perceive Rebecca’s complexity and the totality of the hurt she carries is as well. Maybe we could all use a new way to love. 

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