It’s been a week since the season/series finale of Ted Lasso aired, and opinions on the episode (and the season as a whole) remain divided. Personally, I had significant concerns with Keeley’s storyline, the introduction and departure of Zava, the swift redemption of Nate, and the packed runtime of most episodes. It felt like Jason Sudeikis tried to cram two seasons’ worth of material into one. Despite these reservations, I still found plenty to enjoy. While it didn’t reach the same heights as previous seasons, I genuinely loved spending time with the characters (Nate’s redemption felt far-fetched, but it was satisfying to see nice-guy Nate again). As a prestigious comedy, it earns a solid B; as a romantic comedy, it falls to a C- (for breaking up Roy and Keeley, even if the eventual outcome was satisfying). The finale deserves an A- for the numerous gratifying callbacks.
But here’s the thing: as a sports movie, Ted Lasso deserves an A+ for the entire series (I’m using “sports movie” to refer to the genre, not the medium, so it applies to both film and TV). I love a good sports movie, even though there is no genre as conservative, formulaic, and predictable. I enjoy the best ones (Miracle), the not-so-great ones (The Replacements), and everything in between as long as they don’t involve talking animals or dogs named Air Bud.
Sports movies are uplifting crowd-pleasers, and unless they’re biopics about specific figures (see 42), the outcome of the big game is what matters most. It’s the culmination of the winning streak, the montage, and the initial losing streak. Sometimes, winning the championship game is all that’s necessary, as long as the music is rousing and the final play involves an unexpected callback (or Al Michaels calling the game). There’s also the moral victory, slightly harder to achieve but equally satisfying. Hoosiers exemplifies the former category, while Tin Cup is the ultimate example of the latter. I also appreciate the variations in movies like Gladiator.
Television has fewer examples, but Friday Night Lights - if it had swapped the outcomes of the first and third seasons - did it best. Remember, the Panthers won the state championship in the first season but lost at the goal line in the third season (the second, strike-shortened season didn’t happen). The third season’s ending, directly from Buzz Bissinger’s book, would have been perfect for the first season. It would have given the Panthers something to fight for in the third season, while winning the state championship would have set up a fourth season where the Panthers were divided, and Coach Taylor had to guide the underdog East Dillon Lions to a moral victory over their arch-rival in an otherwise losing season (the championship would come in the fifth and final season).
Ted Lasso followed a similar formula but executed it in the right order. It couldn’t have had a better first-season ending: AFC Richmond scored a goal in the final minute of the game to tie the match and avoid relegation, except that their former player/nemesis scored the winning goal in the final seconds by following his old coach’s advice and passing the ball. It’s a perfect blend of crowd-pleasing victory, heartbreaking loss, and moral victory.
The second season also skillfully combined victory with heartbreak, joy with bittersweet moments. They achieved promotion on a penalty kick that Jamie Tartt handed off to Dani Rojas, beautifully bookending a season that began with Dani’s penalty kick killing a dog. However, the victory and promotion came at a cost. It pushed Nate toward the dark side, even though it was his own plan that the team executed (despite his initial insistence to abandon it). It was a flawless outcome. No notes.
In the final season, once again, they balanced victory with pain, even if the pain was only slight. The stakes were high - the Premier League championship was at stake. As any good sports movie would do, the underdogs fell behind early, only to be revived by a rousing halftime speech that propelled the team to victory. It was a spectacular, crowd-pleasing team effort to win the game, almost overshadowing the fact that the game ultimately had no impact on the standings. Their main rival, Man City, won their later game and secured the Premier League championship.
That’s exceptional sports movie writing: a moral victory that ultimately means nothing in the standings. For Ted Lasso, it was never about wins or losses anyway. It was about shaping his players into better individuals, and the outcomes always reflected that even if the standings did not.