A truly ethical life requires that we let go of cynicism and strive for a better world.

Long after we’ve forgotten the gags, the on- and off-field shenanigans, and even most of the characters’ names, I suspect we’ll still remember how watching Ted Lasso made us feel.  

That’s what makes this American sitcom about an endlessly optimistic NFL coach making the most of an English football team so remarkable today. It’s a show that subverts our expectations about what a typical TV show is all about. Instead of commenting on the ills of the world, or just making fun of them, Ted Lasso – both the character and the show – is devoid of cynicism. 

Besides being a refreshing break from the bleak TV that populates our streams, there’s an important ethical message lurking behind Ted’s blunt moustache: in order to become better people and make the world a better place, we need to let go of cynicism. 

Cynicism is rife these days. Largely for good reason. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the sheer number and scale of the problems we face today. And it’s easy to lapse into despondency when those in power repeatedly fail to address them. Add to this the increasingly polarised political atmosphere, and the growing sense that the “other side” is not just wrong but is morally bankrupt, and it’s easy to lose faith in human goodness altogether. 

Given that popular storytelling is often a reflection of the time we’re living in, it’s no coincidence that it, too, has given over to cynicism. Series like Game of Thrones, White Lotus, Succession, House of Cards and Curb Your Enthusiasm depict duplicitous individuals who are far more consumed by expanding their power and/or covering up their insecurities than changing the world for the better or lifting up those around them.  

We relate to these shows. We love to hate the Machiavellian villains. But this kind of storytelling comes at a moral cost. When art only acts as an exaggerated mirror, and only reflects back the worst of our nature, it’s no wonder that we have come to regard any magnanimous gesture with suspicion and any appeal to right the world’s wrongs as being naïve or in vain.  

This is the heart of cynicism: a fundamental lack of faith in others’ intentions, an abandonment of hope that the world can be made better, as well as a tacit acknowledgement that we’re powerless to fix any of this ourselves. 

Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt), Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis), Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) and Nathan Shelley (Nick Mohammed) in Ted Lasso. Image from Apple TV.

The first Cynical age

Cynicism is not unique to our time. There have been other cynical ages, including the one in which the term was coined.  

In the late fourth century BCE, corresponding with the rise to power of Alexander of Macedon, Greece also slipped into an age of cynicism. Prior to Alexander, Greece was a land of innovation, progress and (at least for a certain class of Greeks) seemingly boundless possibilities, driven by greater political participation by the people in city states like Athens.  

Greek philosophy in the times before Alexander reflected that sense of empowerment and optimism. Thinkers from Pythagoras to Plato debated topics like justice, love, virtue and how to build the perfect state. They acknowledged human failings, but they believed we could – and should – rise above them.  

But when Alexander and his successors shifted political power from individuals to concentrate it in the hands of a glory-seeking elite, philosophy shifted also. As Bertrand Russell put it in his History of Western Philosophy, philosophers “no longer asked: how can men create a good State? They asked instead: how can men be virtuous in a wicked world, or happy in a world of suffering?” 

During this post-Classical era, four main schools of thought emerged from Greek thinkers, each with its own spin on how to cope in a corrupt world. Epicurus taught that happiness comes from diminishing our desires and learning to accept mortality. The Stoics believed that liberation from suffering came from within, cultivated by personal wisdom and self-control. The Sceptics gave up on the idea of truth altogether. And the Cynics – from whom we get the modern term – rejected all social conventions, including wealth, status or even basic material goods, in favour of living in accordance with raw nature.  

It’s probably no coincidence that during our own time, when many of us feel a growing sense of powerlessness to fix the world’s ills, utopian visions have given way to a resurgence of these views. Indeed, Stoicism is undergoing a boom today. It seems many of us have given up trying to change the world for the better. Instead, we’re trying to adapt ourselves to cope with the way it is. 

In walks Ted

Ted Lasso represents the peak in a growing trend against cynicism in media, the vanguard of which were Parks and Recreation, Schitt’s Creek and The Good Place. These are shows that subvert the typical formula of modern storytelling. Instead of depicting exaggerated versions of people at their worst, they show us exaggerated versions of people at their best. They tell stories where virtues like positivity, charity and forgiveness are not weaknesses that will be exploited by others but are strengths that help overcome the challenges we face. 

That takes courage on behalf of the showrunners. It risks people dismissing uncynical shows as being unrealistic. And of course they are unrealistic, but no more so than the cynical series. But where many shows today are purely about illuminating and critiquing the ills of the world, they have little interest in offering solutions. Non-cynical shows, on the other hand, accept the critique has been made but offer us something ambitious to aim for. 

Keeley Jones (Juno Temple) and Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) in Ted Lasso. Image from Apple TV.

Ethics requires moral imagination, which is the ability to picture the full range of possible choices open to us. And cynicism kills moral imagination. As author Sean P. Carlin puts it, “the stories we tell about the world in which we live are only as aspirational—and inspirational—as the moral imagination of our storytellers.” 

Ted Lasso expands our moral imagination. Instead of dismissing people as only being self-interested or cruel, we can picture them as struggling with their own demons and offer them help.

Rather than only seeing the bleakest version of our future, moral imagination encourages us to see the world we want to live in and work towards making it happen, not ignoring the challenges we face but motivating us to overcome them.

While Ted Lasso is paradigmatically non-cynical in the modern sense, there is an interesting hint of the original philosophical Cynicism in the character of Ted. Like Diogenes, the paragon of Cynicism in the ancient world, Ted rejects the conventional metrics of success defined by the society around him. He’s uninterested in wealth or status, and justice to him means more than revenge. He repeatedly, and seemingly authentically, asserts that it’s not winning or losing that matters to him, it’s helping his players be the best versions of themselves they can be.  

He also goes through his own arc to embrace another aspect of ancient Cynicism: shamelessness. The Cynics believed that conventions and social norms were bunk. Thus, they felt no shame, because they felt no discomfort in violating social expectations that they dismissed as vacuous. Likewise, Ted goes through his own journey with his anxiety, eventually opening up about it and demonstrating his contempt for norms that would shame him for it. 

But Ted Lasso also transcends ancient Cynicism, just as it illustrates a better path than ancient Stoicism. It’s not just about how individuals can come to thrive by learning to cope in a disappointing world. It’s about how assuming the worst about others, and falling into the trap of suspicion and defensiveness, contributes to making the world even more disappointing. 

Ted Lasso is not just entertaining. It carries an important ethical message about the virtue of releasing ourselves from cynicism. Yes, it’s unrealistic, but it reminds us that it’s worth having something to aim for, even if it’s likely to forever remain just out of reach.