Ted Lasso Sure Loves Books, Doesn’t He?
Alex Thomas on How the Series Uses Reading to Reveal Character
As bibliophiles we’re frequently struck by books, a bit stunned by their presence in a modern world loud with the clatter of smartphones and the suffocating omnipresence of social media. We’re the sort of oddballs who peer at what strangers are reading on the subway or in cafes. And so I immediately took note during the opening scene of Ted Lasso, when our hero conspicuously dropped a book on his airplane seat. That book: Dharma Bums, is Jack Kerouac’s best; a roman à clef about aspiring bodhisattvas headed toward their next adventure in life. Just as Ted is embarking on a new adventure in his life: going to England to coach football with barely any knowledge of the sport.
Dharma Bums touches a soft spot for me, it was the pinnacle of my high school Kerouac phase and I brushed its nodding presence in Ted Lasso off as a coincidence. But my assumption of coincidence was discarded during the third episode of the show, when Ted gives each of the characters a book as a gift. To the arrogant young star Jamie Tartt, he gifts The Beautiful & Damned, Fitzgerald’s novel about the arrogant young heir Anthony Patch who is doomed by his habit of coasting atop the lucky odds given to him.
But while the momentary appearance of Fitzgerald’s overrated sophomore novel may reek of high-brow literature, the show doesn’t succumb to literary arrogance. A major plotline within the third episode is the personal development of aging star Roy Kent, to whom Ted gives a copy of the YA novel A Wrinkle in Time.
When Roy Kent asks Ted, “what even is A Wrinkle in Time,” a side character jumps in to answer, “it’s a lovely novel. It’s the story of a young girl’s struggle with the burden of leadership as she journeys through space.” Later in the episode, as Roy reads the book to his niece, he comes across the line: “that it has to be me. It can’t be anyone else”—Roy shouts “fuck” and the epiphany Ted hoped for is reached. And the viewer experiences that almost mystical sensation of any middle-school English teacher who has finally gotten through to a stubborn student.
This, I’d argue, is the best aspect of how Ted Lasso references literature. The show doesn’t beat viewers over the head with canonical authors and dusty works. It’s the antithesis of a heavy-handed Woody Allen flick, ripe with references awkwardly inserted to prove the screenwriter is more civilized than the medium he inhabits. There’s nothing worse than a literary conversation in which the participants are foisting their knowledge of the classics upon you.
Instead, the show takes a reverential tone toward literature. We can never be reverential toward anything if we hope to get something out of it, in the way that you can’t accumulate good karma if you chase good deeds for the sake of building good karma. In order to successfully build a piece of literature into a book or movie or show, the creator must be sincere in their purpose. That’s why our great art works. It’s why the Hemingway scene worked in Silver Linings Playbook, it’s why the references in The Elegance of the Hedgehog made the book beautiful. When those references are forced, as they are in a film like Midnight in Paris or in any of the coattail-riding novels you might see on a bookstore’s summer reading shelf, they glare upon the audience.
I’m reminded of a cringing line in the stellar comedy Brooklyn 99—when the demoted police captain compares walking his beat to Sysiphus, a side character offers encouragement by saying “You know, according to French Philosopher Albert Camus, Sisyphus achieved happiness in that absurd repetition”—it’s difficult to say why that simplification of Camus’ iconic essay causes us to cringe but there’s something awkward in the explanation. Probably, it’s just impossible to boil absurdism, which interrogates how we ache for meaning in a meaningless world, into a single line of dialogue.
That authenticity is strengthened by Ted Lasso’s method of building upon literature it references. In the second season of the show, the team brings in sports psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone. During his first meeting with Dr. Fieldstone, Ted giddily asks “hey, what’s your favorite book?” When she responds “this is interesting,” Ted shoots back, “what is? That my answer is The Fountainhead? I know, curveball, right? But I can explain,”—unfortunately we don’t learn why Ted’s favorite book is the doorstop Ayn Rand novel that has become a must-read for the modern American right. It’s not until the end of the episode that Dr. Fieldstone tells Ted her favorite book is Prince of Tides, a book that includes a relationship between a psychologist and a man named Tom Wingo who has many similarities in Ted. In the book, the psychologist and Tom must put aside their differences in order to help Tom’s sister, in the same way that Ted and Dr. Fieldstone must set aside their differences in order to help the football team Ted leads.
The well-read Ted Lasso viewer realizes that these are not superficial glances at literature. That somewhere, somebody has investigated what these books mean and what truths they hold. In a recent Lit Hub essay, Rebecca Solnit mentioned the scene in which the quiet and intimidating Coach Beard tells another coach who has become selfish about his contributions to the team, “You know, we used to believe that trees competed with each other for light. Suzanne Simard’s field work challenged that perception, and we now realize that the forest is a socialist community. Trees work in harmony to share the sunlight.” It’s a brilliant moment, exemplifying how the show understands literature: by taking those truths contained within books and applying them into the views and ideas of the characters.
In this way, Ted and his cast vocalize the main belief held by almost all bibliophiles: that books help to explain the world around us. He constantly references literature and points to how it explains our hopes and fears. In a conversation with the journalist Trent Crimm he asks, “what do you love, is it writing?” And later in the episode, he quips to Crimm, “Watch your back, Gay Talese! There’s a new iconic profile about to be typed up by one Trent Crimm!” What could be more flattering to an old-school profile writer than to compare them to the king of the profile? During the ninth episode of the first season, Ted tells his Coach Beard, “Coach, you are a natural-born caregiver. Like, Chief from Cuckoo’s Nest.”
When you ask somebody why they adore the show, they often cite Ted’s overwhelming optimism in the face of difficulties. But that optimism, we must assume, is shaped to some extent through Ted’s reading habits. If we can hope for something in the third season, we should hope for development upon those literary references and chief among them, an explanation as to why Ted’s favorite book is The Fountainhead.