Ted Lasso’s Toxic Positivity, Explained
The show's relentless optimism was a balm in 2020, but have we outgrown it?
On March 20, the cast of Ted Lasso, the soccer comedy currently airing its third and rumored final season on AppleTV+, crashed the White House press room to talk about mental health.
“We encourage everyone — and it’s a big theme of the show — to check in with your neighbor, your coworker, your friends, your family, and ask how they’re doing and listen sincerely,” Jason Sudeikis, who created and stars in Ted Lasso, said. “It’s easier said than done [but] we also have to know that we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help ourselves.”
“I truly believe that we should all do our best to help take care of each other,” he continued. “That’s my own personal belief. I think that’s something that everybody up here on stage believes in. That’s things we talk about in the writers’ room and we talk about in the editing room and everything in between.”
As Sudeikis said, mental health, kindness and the fundamental goodness of people are staples of Ted Lasso, which centers on the titular Kansas football coach (like, American football) who is plucked to run a floundering British football team (like, European football, aka soccer), AFC Richmond, by Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), the ex-wife of the club’s former boss, Rupert (Anthony Head). The joke’s on Rebecca, though, because the endlessly cheery attitude of Ted instantly warms his most ardent detractors to him, including her.
The optimism of Ted Lasso was a balm when it premiered in 2020. Not that anyone needs a reminder, but most of the world was on lockdown and still mourning the loss of our previous lives and all they entailed: travel, parties, seeing our friends and family without worrying that someone we loved would get sick.
The cracks in Ted’s jubilant facade begin to show, though, as he suffers through panic attacks. Meanwhile, his soon-to-be ex-wife back in America reveals that one of the reasons their marriage didn’t work is because of Ted’s relentless positivity — or what some might call toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is “the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences,” as defined by Psychology Today, and it involves outwardly expressing cheeriness and a focus on positive thinking at the expense of other feelings.
Ted’s toxic positivity can be seen as a response to what’s going on in his love life in Ted Lasso, but it’s also reactive to his upbringing. In season two, he reveals to his shrink, Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles) — she of the Black Woman Therapist trope whom Ted initially expresses reluctance towards — that he witnessed his father’s suicide when he was a teenager. It’s a miracle he’d gotten so far without psychological assistance, but where others might turn to more typically destructive coping mechanisms, Ted doubles down on his toxic positivity. He expresses “general apprehension and a modest Midwestern skepticism” towards Dr. Fieldstone, and he insinuates that she’s stiffing her patients by charging them for an hour when she devotes 10 minutes of the session to note-taking and treatment plans.
By the end of the season two story arc, Ted is equipped with healthier tools to handle his anxiety, and Dr. Fieldstone is relegated to phone calls, thus reducing the number of Black women in the core cast back to zero; season three looks at what’s next for Ted. When he finds out that his ex-wife is dating their marriage counselor (which threatens to regress Ted back to his disdain for therapists), he grasps at turning his booty call Sassy (Ellie Taylor) into a regular thing. At this, Sassy laughs in Ted’s face and calls him a hot mess. This rattles him, and when Ted asks Richmond’s managerial squad, known collectively as the Diamond Dogs — sans Nate (Nick Mohammed), who went full heel last season and is now bringing his Wonder Kid powers to the enemy, Rupert’s new team West Ham — if this is true, they too unsuccessfully stifle cackles. Ted ultimately owns it, though, calling himself a “work in progmess.”
In the same episode, we see how toxic positivity doesn’t serve other characters. For example, Ted withholds footage of Nate tearing up the “believe” sign in Richmond’s locker room, which has become a bastion for the team and, indeed, the Ted Lasso fandom at large, in an attempt to take the high road when Richmond faces West Ham. They play like crap, so at halftime Ted’s right-hand man Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt) and fellow coach Roy (Brett Goldstein) make the executive decision to show the team the video. This instills in them a renewed motivation, showing how anger, envy and vengeance can be great ammunition when harnessed correctly.
Dr. Jessi Gold, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St Louis’s School of Medicine, agrees, telling InsideHook that “there are no good or bad feelings: there are just feelings. I think it’s important that we don’t say being angry is bad. Being angry tells us something. There are plenty of times when anger motivates good, like advocacy.”
“It’s important that those emotions aren’t dismissed and ignored and that you don’t make yourself feel bad for having them,” she continues.
Ted, too, has a reckoning with how unsettling toxic positivity can be when Rebecca flips the script on him, manically yelling at him to have fun instead of worrying about winning against Rupert and West Ham.
“That’s intense,” he kowtows.
Rebecca, who earlier in the episode had been incandescent with longing to usurp Rupert, makes Ted realize that it’s better to confront your feelings rather than mask them with an inauthentic sheen of positivity, even if it is in the most Ted way possible, with a furrowed brow and the equivalent of an “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” when he tells his ex that it felt shitty to find out about her new relationship through a passing comment from their son.
Now that everything’s “back to normal,” the toxic positivity of Ted Lasso hits differently. The show presently exists in a world in which we’ve largely given up our collective responsibility to one another, and it seems like every time you turn on the TV or check social media another disaster has struck. And as Kylie Cheung noted in Jezebel, the drama surrounding Sudeikis’ breakup with Olivia Wilde last year in which he allegedly displayed controlling behavior by lying under her car to prevent her from leaving is even more at odds with the show’s “be kind” message. We all know what eventuated from the last pop culture phenomenon to proffer such a philosophy: they were tormenting their staff behind the scenes.
Other elements to the Ted Lasso cast’s appearance at the White House were icky, too, like the failure of “mental health awareness” to extend beyond platitudes and the fact that the publicity stunt occurred on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
Dr. Gold says she’s a big proponent of celebrity self-disclosure but that it must be paired with experts to answer questions that people might have that don’t match up with the celebrity’s lived experience, citing Selena Gomez’s visit to the White House last year in which she brought along mental health advocates working in the field as a good example.
Dr. Gold also questions the positioning of the characters of Ted Lasso speaking about mental health — bolstered by the inclusion of James Lance, who plays journalist Trent Crimm on the show, being called upon in character at the press conference — rather than the actors themselves.
“Does Jason Sudeikis have panic attacks, or does Ted Lasso? It’s very confusing. Are you a fictional character, or is this you?” she questions. “I bet you they had a medical consultant or a mental health consultant that helped portray the therapist character and portray panic. They’re speaking about something that even in the writer’s room, they had to ask for help for. And if they didn’t ask for help they’re not doing viewers a service.” (In response to a tweet asking whether mental health professionals were consulted, show creator Bill Lawrence said the shows’ storylines are informed by “lots of personal experience within a crazy talented staff,” so do with that what you will.)
Without meaningful action regarding mental healthcare, which Sudeikis purports the Biden administration is working towards, all this talk about being kind and asking for help is moot. It’s a bit hard to ask for help when there is none.
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