A review of this week’s Ted Lasso, “Man City,” coming up just as soon as I make some obscure reference to something very specific to a 40-year-old white man from middle America…
Through the first seven weeks of Season Two, Ted Lasso was averaging about 35 minutes per episode. That’s very long for a sitcom (showrunner Bill Lawrence’s ABC and NBC comedies usually came in under 22 minutes), and a size at which many comedies can start to feel saggy and self-indulgent. That hasn’t really happened here, in part because the show is built on more of a hangout model: When the chief source of the appeal is getting to spend time with likable characters, as opposed to letting various jokes build and build, more time is rarely a bad thing. And because this season has been much more of an ensemble comedy than the Ted-centric Season One, the supersized approach has worked wonders in making supporting characters like Coach Beard or Keeley feel as rich as they need to be, while turning minor figures like Colin into more than just glorified extras. Think back to the rom-communism climax of “Rainbow,” for instance, and how much more potent it is because the episode spared a few earlier minutes for Higgins to tell the story of his marriage and the meaning that “She’s a Rainbow” has to him and his wife. When the song kicks in for Roy’s trip across town — and especially when we get a brief glimpse of Mr. and Mrs. Higgins happily meeting up inside the stadium — that extra time pays huge emotional dividends.
Even so, “Man City” clocks in at 10 minutes longer than the season average — essentially the length of two network sitcom episodes back to back, or that of many modern dramas. But it never feels long, because it earns that relatively epic running time. The installment brings several of this season’s arcs — Ted and Dr. Sharon in particular — to a boil, even as it’s a really well-constructed episode of television on its own. All the pieces fit together in a satisfying — if often profoundly sad — way across those 45 minutes, and it advances some longer stories without undermining the experience of this installment. It’s fantastic.
“Man City” is the story of the biggest game of Ted’s career in England so far, but that game is over before it starts: a 5-0 blowout loss that turns AFC Richmond back into a pumpkin after its Cinderella ride through the FA Cup. But if it’s a bad loss, it’s also a valuable one, because the scale and public stage of it forces a lot of epiphanies about the episode’s real subject: children who have been let down by parents and parental figures — whether they are pieces of garbage like James Tartt or loving ones like Roy Kent — and the damage left in their wake.
In the buildup to Richmond’s semifinal match against Man City — the team that knocked them out of the EPL last season, and that cut Jamie loose because of his reality show shenanigans — Ted distracts himself by looking after Dr. Sharon, who suffers a concussion when a car clips her during her morning bicycle ride. It is a scary moment for the good doctor, and then an exasperating one, as she finds the caregiver-patient roles reversed. She is a woman with a very clear sense of professional boundaries, as well as someone who is not particularly charmed by Ted Lasso’s persona, so it’s nightmarish for her to have him in her apartment, seeing all the empty alcohol bottles she keeps lying around (because her cool and detached vibe can be just as much of a put-on as Ted’s jolly feel-good one), and letting him look after her for a couple of days. But the unexpected switcheroo works wonders for their therapeutic relationship, with Sharon finally laughing at one of Ted’s comedy bits and opening up ever so slightly about how the accident impacted her emotionally. That, in turn, primes Ted to return the favor after the humiliating loss at Wembley — and after witnessing what happens between Jamie, his dad, and Roy in the locker room postgame. Finally, he confesses the dark secret that explains an awful lot about who he is, and why.
“My father killed himself when I was 16,” a tearful Ted tells his therapist on the phone after the game. “That happened to me, and to my mom.” The series has been slow-walking us to this revelation for a while now — recall, for instance, Ted telling Jamie that his father was always harder on himself than he was on Ted — and recent episodes have played up the emotional damage that Ted hides beneath his chipper facade. So it’s not presented as some kind of M. Night Shyamalan-style twist. But it’s an important, and powerful, breakthrough for Ted, and it’s lovingly presented as a mirror to Sharon’s earlier confession about how her accident frightened her. In the moment, Ted does not want to discuss the larger issues stemming from his dad’s suicide; he just wants his doctor — and, as far as he is now concerned, his friend — to know. The analysis can come later.
As we see prior to the Man City game(*), it’s a big day for Ted and emotional honesty. He admits to the other coaches and Higgins (or, if you prefer, to the other Diamond Dogs and Roy) that he walked out on the Tottenham match not because of intestinal distress, but because he was having a panic attack. This inspires candor from the others — Roy doesn’t read the scouting reports; Higgins messed up a transaction; Nate rehearses all his “spontaneous” brainstorms; Beard was accidentally on mushrooms for a match — and perhaps encourages him to do the same with Dr. Sharon. But it’s the ugly and then beautiful spectacle that happens in the postgame locker room that really leads to it.
(*) Not only is the team badly outclassed by Man City, but the match is a nice reminder that a lot of Ted’s confidence is pure bluster. He somehow still doesn’t understand the passive offsides rule after a season and a half in the U.K., and when he tries ripping off one of Gene Hackman’s motivational tactics from Hoosiers by saying that the Wembley pitch is the same size as the one back home, Coach Beard immediately points out that he’s incorrect. Ted’s a good guy, but he’s kind of a terrible coach.
We already saw how awful Jamie’s father was last season, and it’s clear how mortified Jamie is to have to secure tickets for the old man and his loutish friends for the Man City match. He spends much of the episode on the margins, though, while we check in on other subplots like Roy realizing what a bad influence he’s been on little Phoebe. It’s been a charming running gag throughout the season to see Roy cursing up a storm in front of Phoebe and her friends, but when she gets in trouble at school for swearing too much, Roy recognizes that there are certain ways even he shouldn’t behave around small children. Roy’s confession to Phoebe that he fears he’s infecting her with the worst parts of him inspires her to weep and insist that her uncle teaches her great things. The scene is painful and smart, because both of those things are true at once: We’ve seen how devoted Roy is to Phoebe, and we’ve also seen that the Roy Kent Effect is really more of an adults-only deal, and that Roy rarely thinks through how his behavior impacts the people he cares about.
And it’s because of the Phoebe situation, it seems, that Roy is in the proper headspace when James Tartt swaggers into the Richmond locker room after the game to taunt Jamie and his teammates about the team’s humiliating loss. Jamie seems willing to let some of this slide, the way he has so much of his dad’s emotional abuse over the years, but at a certain point it’s hard to blame him for rearing back and punching James in the face. Coach Beard(*) intercedes before it can turn into a full-on father-son brawl, and while he’s busy dragging the interloper out of the locker room, Roy bloody Kent marches up to his least-favorite teammate ever and wraps the crying Jamie up in a hug. Roy is not Phoebe’s father, but he understands the influence father figures have on children. In the moment, he not only has a much better understanding of why Jamie turned out the way he did, but what the poor kid needs from a person in authority right now. It is an earned and beautiful scene.
(*) Beard is for the most part used as Ted’s hype man and deadpan comic foil, and his relationship with Jane is mostly played for laughs. But odds are that a guy who would stay with a Jane despite all the problems has a more ingrained self-destructive streak in him. Right after Ted hangs up with Dr. Sharon, a very rattled Coach Beard appears and says he needs to shake off the day’s terrible events, in a tone suggesting he’ll be doing more than taking the long walk home. It’s an effective and unnerving bit of acting from Brendan Hunt, who usually plays Beard as the most unflappable man in the world.
The one part of “Man City” that initially doesn’t seem to fit, either tonally or thematically, is Rebecca and Sam’s discovery that they are each other’s Bantr crush. Much of this is pitched more comically, particularly all the broadly amusing business about Sam calling in his once-per-season haircut marker from Isaac. And Rebecca is obviously not Sam’s mother, though she’s old enough to be, and is horrified to contemplate their age gap upon discovering he’s the guy with whom she is expecting to have a romantic night out on the town. But she is nonetheless an authority figure in his life, and someone with the wisdom and maturity to recognize how much both of them can potentially be hurt should they embark on an affair. It’s not just that she is his employer, but the series of events that entangled them even before they hooked up. Rebecca was the one who got Sam out of the Dubai Air ad campaign when he had moral qualms, who refused to cut him when her primary sponsor asked her to, who kept him on the team after his very public protest scared away said sponsor (which led to the team being sponsored by the app which led to the two of them becoming romantically involved). We know as viewers of the show that this was all done innocently and with the best intentions (earlier in the episode, we even find out that Sam’s protest helped trigger events that led to Dubai Air’s parent company is getting out of Nigeria), but it would look pretty awful to outsiders. Rebecca seems aware of this at first, joking that she’ll look like a pedophile who was grooming her 21-year-old defensive star. But when Sam begins texting her after the Man City game, she can’t resist giving into her attraction, and happily lets him into her home when it turns out he was sending those texts from her doorstep.
Given how the show seemed to fumble the whole Dubai Air/Bantr situation earlier in the season, it’s possible we’re headed for some implausible happily-ever-after for these two in the season’s closing episodes. (This week’s was the last one critics were given in advance.) But everything else about “Man City” — Ted’s admission about his father, Roy’s afternoon with Phoebe, Jamie and Roy’s hug, even Beard’s night out — suggest a series that has been very carefully laying the emotional groundwork for some intense material, even if some of it was disguised as the lightest of light comedy. “Man City” is an episode brimming with confidence that in turn leaves me assured that this creative team very much knows what it’s doing at the moment.