A Bill Lawrence Appreciation
Conclusion: Why Ted Lasso Epitomizes Bill Lawrence’s Comedy
There are two critical things about all of Bill Lawrence’s characters over the years: everybody has layers that are revealed over time and no one is just one thing or the other. Even the heavy has their reasons for being who they are, and they never planned it that way.
Perhaps the prime example of this in Scrubs was Dr. Kelso, exquisitely played by Ken Jenkins. Jenkins was the chief of staff at Sacred Heart, and he went out of his way to denigrate everybody. This was especially truly in the wonderful back and forth of his favorite target, Ted, who he never let an opportunity pass to insult. (Admittedly, so did just about everybody else.) It would have been easy for any showrunner to make him the bigoted villain and be done with it. But Lawrence never did things the easy way. Over the course of the series, he and his writers went out of their way to give dimensions that you wouldn’t expect. Most of them had to do with service in the military, which he never elaborated on, but we heard about every so often in a throwaway line. (Prime example of both insult and depth: Cox makes a remark about Ted and Kelso having a commitment ceremony. Kelso: “Perry, even if I went that way — and believe me, there were times in the service, it didn’t seem so far-fetched — Ted is hardly my type.) We knew that there was a part of Kelso that wanted to be respected and liked, but that his job demanded that he couldn’t be either — and he knew what his role had to be.
A similar level of depth becomes very clear in the character of Rebecca Welton, the owner of the Richmond team, played by Hannah Waddingham, already on her way to being a shoo-in for a Supporting Actress nomination. We are given to expect almost from the beginning that she is a stereotypical ice queen, who wants to destroy her football team and Ted Lasso along with. But we very quickly that there’s far more to Rebecca then even she wants to admit. Much as she tries to browbeat Ted, she is grudgingly being won over by his can-do attitude. And we know she has a reason for her rage — her husband was cheating on her and left her for a younger model. There is a good soul in Rebecca, aching to get out. We see it very clearly in her unlikely friendship with model Keeley (Juno Temple), who just like Rebecca has depths to her own. (Lawrence has always been good in forming unlikely, deep friendship between women; the friendship between Eliot and Carla, the head nurse at Sacred Heart in Scrubs is one of the deepest I’ve ever seen between women in any TV series,) And it’s clear that Rebecca is at least partly the cause of her own suffering; when she encounters one of her best friends in an episode, Sassy is very quick to call her on her bullshit on just how much she is responsible for becoming who she was. That same episode, in which Ted is struggling to come to terms with his impending divorce and has a panic attack, she walks him out of the club and is more sympathetic than we’ve ever seen to anyone at this point.
And this level of depth is always clear even to the throwaway characters. Coach Beard, played wonderfully by Brendan Hunt, could just have easily been a throwaway sidekick who delivers everything deadpan. But like Ted himself, we see that he has a lot of dimension. For one thing, he can keep up with Ted’s train of thought and references (I’ll get to those in a minute) and he always seems willing to allow himself to do anything. At a karaoke night, he leaps into a very delightful (and tuneful) rendition of Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’ and he seems able to play entire chess matches in his head. (We see him do so with a girl he’s trying to date, but unfortunately, he’s so involved with the match he ‘puts the dame ahead of the game’ as Ted appropriately puts it.)
Which brings me to one more thing I really like about Ted Lasso: all of the jokes are smart. This is generally true of most Lawrence shows, but he and his staff (which includes Sudeikis) are all gifted at throwing out levels of jokes that hit you later. Among Ted’s knowledge Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, Alex Haley’s literary canon, Martin Scorcese’s filmography, classic musical theater, and the exact point where The Iron Giant becomes a weepie (though that may be due to raising a child.) And almost everybody in Ted Lasso is as sharp or engaging. There are only a few characters that aren’t self-aware, but even that may be revealed a little later on. Lawrence’s series always revealed more layers the longer they were on, and we’ve only had a 10 episode first season.
One of the better things about the new Golden Age has been how quickly some shows get renewed and some writers who have toiled in the field for years get honored by the Emmys. Lawrence has struggled for decades to get his series renewed. Not long after Ted Lasso debuted, it was renewed for a second season — and then a third. Based on the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice and the various Guild nominations, it seems very likely that Lawrence, Sudeikis and his cast and crew will get a plethora of Emmy nominations. I would be fine if, just as the Emmys finally honored the Palladinos, creators of Gilmore Girls for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, they finally honored Lawrence of Ted Lasso. I admit, with so many series either finished with their run or unable to shoot new episodes (like Maisel) it will be an odd year, but I’m fairly confident that among any year, Ted Lasso would be among the best.