A review of this week’s Ted Lasso, “Beard After Hours,” coming up just as soon as I share a few thoughts on the fragility of life…
Season One of Ted Lasso was 10 episodes. Season Two, you may have heard, was originally planned to be the same length, but the overwhelming response to that first season prompted Apple to order two additional episodes after showrunner Bill Lawrence, Jason Sudeikis, and company had already outlined all the Season Two arcs. Rather than mess with those original plans, the creative team instead decided to make two largely standalone installments that could be inserted between, as Ted writer Joe Kelly put it, “when s— goes down and is about to go down.” One of those was the Christmas story “Carol of the Bells,” which became a major talking point for the factions insisting that Ted Season Two is a disappointment because it lacks conflict. The other appears to be “Beard After Hours” (written by Kelly and Brett Goldstein), which explicitly takes place immediately following the events of “Man City,” but barely features any major characters other than Coach Beard, and doesn’t address any ongoing storylines other than his relationship with Jane. And since Jane exists more as a background running gag than a character at this point, “Beard After Hours” could be neatly excised from Season Two without anyone noticing.
If your expectations for the episode are based on the last five or so years of increasingly serialized television, you may view it as pointless filler that adds nothing to the plot. If you’re someone who feels like time spent with interesting characters only enhances the larger experience, you likely delighted in this extended spotlight on the most mysterious member of the core ensemble.
While I almost always wind up in the latter camp, I had mixed feelings about “Beard After Hours.” Yes, it offers some insight into its title character. And, yes, it’s a suitably weird homage to Martin Scorsese’s 1985 cult classic After Hours, which also involved a man spending an alternately exciting and nightmarish evening on the town while periodically losing his money and/or keys. But it’s also the first episode of Season Two to feel long; a whimsical solo spotlight like this has no business being only two minutes shorter than an ensemble epic like “Man City.” And the timing feels less than ideal, tabling the various major breakthroughs of “Man City” — Ted telling Dr. Sharon about his father’s suicide, Rebecca and Sam hooking up, Roy hugging Jamie — at a moment when the season was really starting to build momentum. “Beard After Hours” is an amusing diversion — and is far more melancholy than “Carol of the Bells,” and thus tonally a better fit with what’s been happening lately on the show — but it’s not the kind of instant classic it needed to be to justify its placement in the episode order.
Still, it has its moments, and is a fine reward to Brendan Hunt, who has had something of a thankless job ever since he helped create Ted for those 2013 NBC Sports promos. Beard is essential to making Ted work as a character, not only because his calm, taciturn manner provides an amusing contrast to his loquacious and physically loose boss, but because Beard seems so clearly sensible that his belief in Ted translates into the audience’s belief in Ted. But that reserved demeanor can also be somewhat limiting for Beard as a character in his own right, rather than as Ted’s foil. The more Beard does and says, the farther away he gets from his primary function. He’s almost never the focus of a scene — before this week, even the running gag about his toxic relationship with Jane was more about how others reacted to the couple than about what Jane was doing to Beard.
So after nearly two seasons of lurking at the edge of the frame and offering pithy wisdom about other characters’ stories, Hunt finally moves front and center for “Beard After Hours.” We open with a replay of Beard and Ted’s talk from the end of “Man City,” then follow our temporary title character for a weird odyssey through the highs and lows of London nightlife. He rides home on a train packed with giddy Man City fans (while a sad piano version of the Ted Lasso theme plays over time-lapse footage of everyone else having more fun than Beard). His apartment offers no respite, as he imagines being heckled by studio analysts Gary Lineker and Thierry Henry for failing to challenge Ted rather than be a yes man. It is a fair point, since Beard’s command of the game is so much stronger than Ted’s, and suggests that Beard’s confidence in both himself and his boss is not as strong as it often appears. To escape the doubting voices in his head, he gets drunk and deeply philosophical at The Crown & Anchor with Jeremy, Baz, and Paul, then convinces the Richmond fanboys to join him in crashing the elite Bone N Honey club, where he adopts the identity of Irish-born Oxford professor Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus. This is actually Elvis Costello’s real name, but it hoodwinks the finance bros at the billiards table. And Beard’s explanation for how he knew so much about the school — “I dated a professor at Oxford, and I listened more than I talked” — sums up his whole ethos.
Is Jane the professor in question? We know precious little about her, save that she loves chess and is bad for our hero, who is in such a sad and self-destructive state in part because Jane did not return his first “I love you.” An escalating series of catastrophes finds him ripping his track pants, getting kicked out of the club, wearing a pair of Elton John-style trousers in the loft of the mysterious and alluring Mary, then chased onto the building roof by Mary’s enraged and very large boyfriend, then taking a wild leap into the dumpster below just to stay alive. His survival is only a brief respite before he winds up in an alley being beaten up by James Tartt and his crew, then rescued by Mary’s now calm but still very large boyfriend, who returns a phone filled with texts from Jane, increasingly furious after she’d initially texted Beard the three words he so desperately wanted to hear from her. This hurts him more than any of Tartt’s punches and kicks, but his phone battery dies before he can respond and fix things.
After an interlude where Beard rewards the fanboys with a chance to run around on Richmond’s home field at Nelson Road(*), he finally takes everyone’s advice to pick up his keys and go home, only to break the key off in the lock right as a downpour begins. He takes refuge in a church, drops a Judy Blume reference to the Almighty (“Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret’s little boy”) and talks some more about feeling fundamentally broken — a trait that connects him and Ted, even if neither one of them has ever said as much to the other — before discovering that the church is the location of the rave where Jane has been spending her evening. The sounds of Marin Solveig & Dragonette’s “Hello” gives our usually reserved hero the opportunity he needs to cut loose, dancing with abandon even before a smiling Jane turns up and hands him a hula hoop to show off for the crowd.
(*) Nice as it is to also give these recurring characters a showcase of their own, this sequence, scored to “We Are the Champions,” definitely contributes to the sense that this idiosyncratic Beard short story has somehow become too long.
It’s at once a nice moment and a bittersweet one. We’ve seen how bad these two are for each other, and Beard has only just acknowledged to God that Jane can’t fix him. But after the Man City game and the nighttime odyssey that follows it, Beard just needs some kind of win, and he gets the one he wants, followed by a chance to doze off while the other coaches are watching sped-up Man City game film scored to The Benny Hill Show theme, “Yakety Sax.”
Episodes that deviate from a series’ normal POV are often my favorites, as much for how they inform my viewing of later episodes with that character as for the temporary change of pace. “Beard After Hours” is an entertaining example of that, but one that feels a bit thinner than it could, especially given where it landed within Season Two as a whole. I certainly hope this won’t be the last POV shift Ted Lasso tries (what, I wonder, does Jan Maas get up to when he’s away from Nelson Road?), but hopefully in the future Apple gives the creative team lots of advance warning about how many episodes they’ll be making in a given season, so they can plan accordingly.