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Ted Lasso Reveals Its Long Game

“Man City” nudges Ted Lasso past its often-idyllic outlook and into something more grounded in reality, a development that’s of particular importance when it comes to Dr. Sharon Fieldstone. Photo: Apple TV+

I just wanted to tell you how I was feeling.” 

With that line spoken by Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), the season-long cold war between Ted Lasso’s titular football coach and the new team psychiatrist has thawed, pushing the pair’s gently adversarial relationship into a new stage of mutual recognition. 

Like last season’s “Make Rebecca Great Again,” season two’s “Man City” uses a road trip as an engine for major revelations. The episode will certainly be remembered for the decisive steps forward for unlikely couple Sam and Rebecca, and for an uncharacteristically vulnerable Jamie finally standing up to his father, both major plot beats centered on characters giving in to sharing their feelings. But most crucially, it portrays a key — and necessary — moment of growth for Ted and Sharon, two characters who have spent the season at odds but in “Man City” start to take tentative steps toward a shared understanding. This development not only brings them closer to each other (and the audience), it nudges the show past its often-idyllic outlook and into a reality that more closely resembles where we, as viewers, live. And that grounding in reality is of particular importance when it comes to Dr. Sharon Fieldstone.

Over the last several years, episodic television has been awash in Black therapists. Shows like You’re the Worst, Never Have I Ever, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, Grace and Frankie, In Treatment, and many others have all presented arcs of growth and self-improvement that were helped along by the professional wisdom of Black women. Given the history of onscreen portrayals afforded to them, a newfound abundance of educated Black women on our screens seems like something to be celebrated, but as Aisha Harris correctly pointed out in 2018, what we’re actually seeing is the emergence of a new trope that’s just as likely to overshadow these women’s humanity.

“They’re on screen to do a job, albeit one signifying a wealthier class status, and ostensibly a product of choice rather than forced circumstances,” Harris wrote, noting, “they exist in these narratives for the sole purpose of listening to the woes of their white patients, not unlike the [Black Best Friend], and helping them arrive at a process for fixing themselves.” Add to that the comparative dearth of Black therapists in the profession (in the U.S., recent estimates hover around 4 percent), and we have a recipe for a new device of white self-realization.

Dr. Sharon Fieldstone the character almost certainly isn’t thinking of herself as a trope, and yet her introduction to Ted and the rest of the Diamond Dogs shows glimmers of self-awareness on the show’s part. When she proclaims her competence at her job — evoking memories of the fiery speech Scandal’s Eli Pope gave to his disgraced daughter about needing to be “twice as good to get half of what they have” — she not only affirms herself in the eyes of white men who have already voiced skepticism about what she has to offer but also highlights the other element of this dynamic that challenges the emerging trope: this Black lady therapist does not have a willing client.

Ted Lasso, who has been acclaimed both on the show and in real life for his enlightened nature, is neither willing to consider nor desperate to have Dr. Fieldstone’s help. In near-singular defiance of his Whitman-originated, Lasso-adopted mantra of “choose curiosity, not judgment,” he insists that neither his team nor he needs Dr. Fieldstone. He’s somewhat self-aware about this, picking fights with Higgins about “Doc” being brought on full-time without his consent, then immediately assuring the head of football operations that he’s done nothing wrong. But not even the measured approval of Coach Beard, whose knowing “it’s not a bad idea” to Ted when the prospect of a sports psychologist is first broached, can bring him aboard. (Kudos to Beard’s portrayer, Brendan Hunt, on his delivery of the line, which strains not with approval of the idea itself, but with a pleading to his boss and friend to consider the idea on its own merits.) Simply put: We’re used to Ted believing the best in people, but here he doesn’t. And the person to whom that distrust falls matters.

Beard’s line, and the way it’s met by Coach Lasso, aligns with a phenomenon coined by Kecia Thomas of the University of Georgia in 2013: “pet to threat.” A transition thrust specifically on Black women, it speaks to the moment where Black women move from “pets” in an office setting (admired for their strength, competence, and willingness to serve their co-workers and bosses), to threats (when they refuse, push back, or ask for their competence to be recognized or rewarded). “The women who were mid-career were constantly feeling as though they were coming up against barriers even though they had already established high levels of performance,” Thomas told Erika Stallings for Zora in 2020. Thomas’s 2013 academic paper, “Moving from Pet to Threat: Narratives of Professional Black Women,” expands this in a way that casts Ted and Dr. Fieldstone’s first encounter in a new light:

In every career trajectory there comes an opportunity for a promotion or leadership, where the individual has a level of influence or power to make significant changes and to rethink how business is done. That’s when women are probably most vulnerable to getting recast as threatening, because their colleagues are pushing back on the person legitimately exerting their influence in the workplace.

Ted Lasso’s framing of the phenomenon is notable in its positioning of Dr. Fieldstone as simultaneously a pet (to nearly everyone else on Richmond, including players who hail her work as “amazing,” respond well to her competence, and encourage others to see her) and a threat (to Ted). In “Man City,” we hear Dr. Fieldstone’s own therapist reframe her client’s high performance as a means to keep her own vulnerabilities at arm’s length — “He uses humor to deflect, you use your intelligence,” we hear over the phone, an admission that is met with a kind of sheepish agreement by Dr. Fieldstone. Yes, that hypercompetence is armor, but as we see from the toll her most skeptical co-worker has had on her (“Ted Lasso is driving me fucking crazy,” she tells her therapist), that armor has been forged out of necessity.

To be clear: Ted Lasso the show isn’t positioning itself as against Dr. Fieldstone and certainly not against Black women in the workplace specifically. But to Black female viewers watching Ted Lasso the character behave the way he has this season, the net effect is the same: an aching recognition of Dr. Fieldstone’s plight in our own lives. Beard’s “she seems … fun” after Sharon and Ted’s first encounter feels familiar to those of us who have been accused of not being team players (pun recognized). In “The Signal,” Ted turning down Sharon’s help with Isaac’s struggles as new team captain when he himself is without a plan feels familiar to those of us whose well-considered suggestions are shot down or minimized. Put together, seeing Sharon’s overtures of genuine and much-needed help to Ted be repeatedly rebuffed feels familiar for those of us who struggle to get a foothold at work when surrounded by charismatic if occasionally clueless white guys. And more to the point, the “mystery” behind why she behaves as she does was never all that mysterious.

For those less familiar with the motives behind Dr. Fieldstone’s tightly held boundaries (or, expressed in Ted-isms, “she’s more mysterious than David Blaine reading a Sue Grafton novel at Area 51”), “Man City” breaks the spell. That opening glimpse inside Sharon’s session with her own therapist gives both her and the audience something that most of TV’s other Black lady therapists don’t get: a clear sense of her humanity. She is not ordained with some magical ability to fix people, nor does she do so with boundless enthusiasm or infinite patience. There’s no ingrained “Black Girl Magic” here. She’s smart and competent and often hides behind those traits — a profoundly human thing to do. Last week’s “Headspace” showed parts of that veneer starting to crack; in the aftermath of her bike accident and periodic check-in phone calls with Ted in “Man City,” she breaks open to a degree greater than we’ve ever seen before, and frankly to a degree that Black women often don’t feel able or welcome to express in the workplace. Dutifully meeting the challenge her therapist offered, she meets Ted partway by disclosing her fears, and when she utters that quietly momentous line — “I just wanted to tell you how I’m feeling” — it feels earned, novel, and real.

And what of Ted’s breaking open? His decision to finally sit down with the doc never really felt in question, even as his attempts in “Headspace” went from truncated to angry to finally accepting in the span of a single episode. But what does feel notable is his decision to bring others — both Dr. Fieldstone and, later, the Diamond Dogs — behind his curtain of boundless optimism. Admitting your struggles to yourself is a major hurdle to clear; doing so to the people around you is another. Ted also meets Sharon partway in “Man City,” with a major revelation about his past, a tightly held secret that he tells her, in an echo of her own revelation, “I just wanted you to know.” In that moment, as Ted moves another step closer to “mere mortal” status by offering Dr. Fieldstone a sense of why he is who he is (for good and bad), it, too, feels earned, novel, and real.

“Man City” feels like the turning point that brings this season back down to earth, and not just in the sense of a championship match lost. Both Ted Lasso the show and Ted Lasso the character have ascended in our public consciousness to a level that practically reaches myth — the show was so uplifting at a time we needed it most; Ted is such an aspirational character. But the earnestness and uplift that drives this show shouldn’t feel supernaturally ordained, bestowed upon characters based on their narrative function; it needs to be earned, and “Man City” earns it by showing, through Ted and Sharon, the hard work that goes into revealing yourself to another person. On Ted Lasso and in life both, one shouldn’t always need to be the best version of themselves to be of worth in this world — and they certainly shouldn’t need to live up to tropes that can’t actually exist.

Ted Lasso Reveals Its Long Game