The first season of Ted Lasso arrived at its climax when its eponymous hero (Jason Sudeikis) -- an American college football coach who was recruited lead a struggling English Premier League soccer team -- was forced to face his greatest foe. Not the opposing team or even troubles within his own organization, but an attitude. In the English aphorism "it's the hope that kills you," Ted found the distillation of everything he stood against, a kind of reflexive pessimism that doubled as a self-fulfilling prophecy. For Ted, hope doesn't kill, it sustains. How could a man who stuck the word "Believe" above the door of his office (and his bathroom to remind him to floss even when he doesn't want to) feel any other way? That Ted's team, AFC Richmond, ultimately suffered a crushing loss that led to their demotion to the lesser Championship League was almost beside the point, a temporary setback that offered a chance to learn lessons and prepare for a victory down the line. When you live in hope you have no other choice, really.
Ted Lasso kicked off with, in sports terms, a miracle season. The show also felt, at least at first, like something of an underdog. Developed by Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt (who co-stars as the enigmatic Coach Beard), and Joe Kelly from a character Sudeikis created for a series of NBC Sports commercials, it sounded, in bare description, like a simple culture clash comedy in which an achingly earnest Midwestern rube is forced to fumble his way through a world he doesn't really understand. It is that, but it's also a series that subverts expectations at every turn. Sure, Ted hates tea and trips over British slang, but the real clash with his new home is philosophical. Ted Lasso takes seriously Ted's embrace of inspirational thinking, treating his homey words of wisdom as locker room clichés but as to-the-point demands to live a better, more compassionate, daring life. (All while still finding room for goofy exchanges about fettuccine alfredo or Toy Story or the Gin Blossoms or whatever else passes through Ted's mind at any given moment.)
There's a problem with miracle seasons, however: How do you follow them up? The television landscape is littered with series that sputtered after their first explosions of creativity. Fortunately, Ted Lasso's sophomore season not only picks up where Season 1 left off without skipping a beat, it keeps finding ways to enrich its characters and push the story along in new directions now that the issue of AFC Richmond owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) trying to sabotage Ted's efforts to revive the team has fallen by the wayside (not that it ever felt like that much of a threat).
That starts with Ted himself. Where last season saw him using his upbeat attitude to fight off doubt, a crumbling marriage, and the occasional panic attack, Season 2 finds him smiling but struggling, with the distance from his son among other issues. But Ted views the arrival of a team therapist Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles) the same way he views therapy in general, with, as he puts it, "general apprehension and a modest Midwestern skepticism." She might work wonders for others like the previously unflappable Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernández), who begins the season sorting through the trauma of a darkly comic accident, but that doesn't mean Ted can bring himself to walk through her door.
Sudeikis' layered performance has anchored the show from the start. He conveys not only that there's more to Ted than meets the eye -- recall the first season's great darts hustling scene -- but that Ted's positivity comes from an act of will. Without it, he might sink. He's a great central character but, if anything, the series' ability to use its entire cast gets even more expansive in Season 2, which finds room for substantial ongoing storylines for those around Ted.
Many of them struggle with having reached turning points in their lives. Now retired after a final season that found him showing his age, Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) can't quite figure out how to fill all the unwanted free time as he ponders his next step (though coaching some kids and hanging out with local soccer moms and chatting about reality TV does help). Shaking off her divorce, Rebecca plays the field but struggles to find a man who can give her everything she needs. (Or, in Roy's words, the recognition that she deserves "someone that makes you feel like you've been struck by fucking lightning.") A new dating app championed by Keeley (Juno Temple) might help her, or it might just complicate her search. As Nathan (Nick Mohammed) settles into his new role as assistant coach he has to discover how to be assertive elsewhere in his life. Similarly, Higgins (Jeremy Swift) has to reinvent himself as someone not just there to do Rebecca's will as Coach Beard (Hunt)… well, it's always hard to tell what's going on with Coach Beard but his love life seems to have grown even more complicated in the time between seasons.
There's a reason virtually the entire supporting cast received Emmy nominations, but Ted Lasso's second season finds room for other characters to take the spotlight. The standout here is Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh), the team's Nigerian newcomer whose gotten past some of the homesickness of the previous season but now finds himself forced to balance his newfound fame with his conscience, particularly in an episode that explores, with the expected thoughtfulness and gentleness, the intersection of sports and activism. A pleasure to watch in the first season, Jimoh gets considerably more to do this time around. And instead of just drawing Sam to the fore only for the purpose of a very special episode then letting him recede back into the ranks, Season 2 keeps him central to the story. As in sports, when a player shows they have what it takes to be a starter you don't put them back on the bench.
What role Sam plays, as with much of the second season that's been provided to critics ahead of the season premiere, is better left unspoiled. Suffice it to say that, yes, Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) is still very much part of the picture (and gets a chance to do some growing of his own), and the fourth episode, "Carol of the Bells," is sure to end up on the list of best Christmas episodes for years to come (even if it premieres in August). So far, Season 2 keeps everything that made the first weapon so memorable then expands from there. However thin its fish-out-of-water premise might have seemed at first, it's proven strong enough to support everything Ted Lasso's creators want to place on top of it, be it silly business or moral quandaries. Like Ted, there's depths to it that aren't apparent at first glance. Season 2 provides an even better sense of how far those depths go.
TV Guide rating: 4.5/5
Season 2 of Ted Lasso premieres July 23 on Apple TV+.