In the last scene of Ted Lasso — likely forever, although there’s been no official announcement — Ted gives his son some advice after missing a soccer goal. “Be a goldfish,” he tells Henry. It’s up there on the Mount Rushmore of Ted Lasso advice, along with “believe,” and “doing the right thing is never the wrong thing” and “be curious, not judgmental,” a quote Ted incorrectly attributes to Walt Whitman. “Be a goldfish” is Ted’s way of telling his son to shake off a mistake. Don’t wallow in the error, don’t get caught up in emotional turmoil and self-doubt. Move along. Try again. Keep going.
More than once in its third season, Ted Lasso tried to embrace this advice. One of its biggest season-two arcs, the vilification of former kitman turned coach Nate Shelley, was quickly revealed to be more like an unfortunate mistake Nate made, a brief lapse with reason. By the end, Shelley’s Darth Vader turn was undone with barely a moment of onscreen conflict or conversation, a fait accompli performed with a single retroactive hug. The same general approach applied to Ted’s mental-health crises from season two, Rebecca’s needs and desires, Keeley’s woes both romantic and professional, and nearly every story involving any of the minor characters. There was Sam’s restaurant, Isaac’s unspoken personal troubles, Colin’s sexuality, Zava (who came and went, meaninglessly), Dani’s nationalism, and Trent Crimm’s book. All these subplots appeared in the season at one point or another, but none hung around long enough or dug deep enough to make more than a temporary, superficial dent in the place where a narrative imprint should be.
“Be a goldfish” is appealing advice for an athlete on a field, but as a storytelling guideline it’s challenging at best. Shows like Ted Lasso, built on long, fond character relationships and the slow-burn pleasure of spending time with friends, rely on remembering the past. It’s what the show was about, especially in its first two seasons: Ted helping the players of AFC Richmond work together as a team by integrating their past experiences into their present selves; Ted trying to understand his own anxiety and motivation as a mentor through reconsidering his childhood. And fine — Ted Lasso was also a show about the nature of fatherhood, about masculinity, about teamwork and nationalism, about fandom, ambition, trauma, confidence, genius, racism, eccentricity, and, of course, friendship. More than anything, Ted Lasso was a show that loved to be about themes.
The trouble is that themes are not the same as stories. They are simplistic, generalized ideas, but without winding them through the mechanics of a story and embedding them in the lives of characters, a theme is just an abstract noun. Stories have conflicts, and there’s no reason a theme like “friendship” can’t be the basis for endless, fascinating tension. But increasingly in its later run, Ted Lasso seemed allergic to depictions of real unhappiness or anger. All the turmoil and unpleasantness is subterranean; it must be there somewhere in order to make things happen, but we rarely get to see it. At its best in the first two seasons, Ted Lasso was about exploring exactly that, the space between Ted’s superficial niceness and his lurking anxiety. The second season’s panic-attack stories had real sadness to them, and in the first season, Rebecca’s fury at Rupert was selfish and messy. But the show’s earlier investments in real human emotion now look more like a child’s book of fables, a Pilgrim’s Progress where there is never any doubt that Ted Lasso will eventually find his way toward righteous goodness.
As a result, the show’s season (and probably series) finale contained an astonishing absence of surprise. Richmond won a big game. Rupert, the flat-as-a-pancake villain, receives his comeuppance after being a comically over-obvious asshole on a public stage. Nate is forgiven, Keeley gets to do a job she’s good at. Roy Kent becomes the new head coach. Ted, having recently discovered that the true meaning of fatherhood is emotional openness, decides it’s important to be physically closer to his son and moves back home. As a finale, it had several appealing moments, many of them leaning heavily on the supportive infrastructure of the narrative callback — a welcome departure from the goldfish brain. It can be tough to develop conflict in forward motion, or at least, Ted Lasso found it to be increasingly challenging, but it’s a bit easier to look backward and pick up all the pieces that got dropped. Shandy becomes a dating-app mogul and Rebecca meet-cutes with the hot pilot. Nate briefly remembers the existence of his girlfriend. None of it is quite the same as a satisfying end to a story, but the finale has some individual bits and pieces of appealing closure (like Jamie bonding with his father) that will do in a pinch.
From a broader perspective, though, it’s tough to see Ted Lasso as anything other than a cautionary tale. For a brief period after its first season, it looked like a heal-all for a culture desperately searching for positivity and hope. The combination of Trump-era politics and a global pandemic made Ted Lasso a universal panacea, soothing and warm for everyone at once, a brotherhood of the magical soccer jersey that somehow managed to fit everyone. But a show that tries to be everything to everyone inevitably ends up failing on multiple fronts at once. Every character got a little bit of story, and the show ballooned in length to try to encompass it all, but rather than expand Ted Lasso’s world, it began to feel diluted. Ted Lasso became a show more interested in making big gestures toward meaning, a series perpetually striving to be about something without settling down to be any one thing in particular.
If Ted Lasso did have one central idea it wanted to focus on in the end, it was fatherhood. Never a show to pull its needledrop punches, Ted Lasso’s final big cue was Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son,” a track that played in full over a montage designed to stitch up every last little character arc before finally landing on Ted at his son’s soccer game. It is, perhaps unintentionally, a fitting choice for Ted Lasso’s ending inability to translate between broad theme and telling detail. The title’s right, no question — “Father and Son” is exactly what the show wants to say. There are repeating lyrics that sound right, too. “I know I have to go away” could be Ted, sitting on an airplane, sad that he has to leave Richmond but pleased to be reuniting with his son.
Never mind that it’s really a song about estrangement, about a father and son who cannot reconcile their differences because they can’t see each other as people. The song ends with the son insisting he has to leave his father behind while the father begs him to stay. If he’d stopped and listened to it, Ted might have wondered what it means for his own relationship with his son. Instead, he tells his son to be a goldfish. Forget what’s happened and move on. It’s a shame that Ted Lasso, in the end, gives us little reason to not do exactly the same.