"Ted Lasso" and "Reacher" Are the Same Thing
a world in which A Dad is always right
Let’s imagine two types of American men. Let’s simply outline them, and see how these outlines conjure certain presumptions on our part.
If someone is from Kansas or Missouri or worst of all Nebraska, for example, if he wears a mustache and coaches American football, if he is optimistic and loud and obnoxious, if he is geographically and historically and politically ignorant, if he is white and closer to fifty than thirty, if he loves his progeny, if he insists with every fiber of his default perspective that America is still exceptional, if only to him, in the current climate we’d all conclude that he probably voted for Trump. Good or bad (it’s bad), that tracks. This man is also, of course, Ted Lasso, a sort of TV writer’s ideal version of being anti-Trump.
Similarly, if someone is a combat veteran, if he constantly praises Americana junk food and prefers state highways to interstates, if he carries a weapon on his person and also carries his person like a weapon, if he’s blond and tall and muscular enough everyone refers to him as a kind of beautiful ogre in human disguise, if he’s a fact-machine who mostly uses facts to disrupt your easy narratives about violence and power and crime, if he’s serious about measuring twice and cutting once and somehow still makes women swoon, if he’s as competent at cleaning rusty metal as he is at navigating legalese, then he’s someone your dad probably wants to
f*ck, I mean become. He’s dad-competent in a way so many dads aspire (hi, this is a dad speaking), a fictive realization of dad-hopes everywhere. His name is Jack Reacher.
I recently watched the new Reacher TV series based on Lee Child’s novels, and the only resource in the world more plentiful than Ted Lasso’s goodwill biscuit baking is the determination of Jack Reacher to kick your ass. At first glance, the two couldn’t seem more opposite.
Lasso is an isolationist who reveres America’s institutions of power. Having been transported from Kansas to England, the existence of Wales confounds him (“How many countries are in this country?”). He manages to go most of the Premier League season, as a Premier League coach, without learning even the most basic rules of soccer. He gives one of his young Nigerian players a green Army man as a token of confidence, only for the player (sweetly, amusingly) to point out that he has a different relationship to the U.S. military than Lasso. No problemo, for Lasso. He still likes the American military fine. No sweat if they disagree.
Reacher is also a kind of isolationist drifting about America, except he collected and sharpened all his skills as one of the main tools of expansionism. A former MP with the Army, his range of competencies includes geopolitical nuances. Venezuelan currency schemes? Just another tick to be tocked in the mind of an MMA goliath. The first season of the show just released on Amazon Prime1 showcases his seemingly endless aptitudes, a breadth matched only by his brutality.
The premise of Lasso is the soft pitch,2 the avuncular nudge, whereas Reacher is the avuncular gut-punch. There is only one approach to life, and it is as hard as the many abs he sprouts with every CrossFit session. Call Lasso a child of the New Testament and Reacher a child of the Old—the veteran literally takes an eye for an (attempted) eye (gouge).
Much like the misconception of Old Testament and New Testament bifurcation—the promise expands, but the God remains the same—Lasso and Reacher are two sides of the same moral project. In both cases the writers have taken an extreme of American masculinity—rah-rah ignoramus on the one hand and violent jack-of-all-trades on the other—and given the characters in question unflinching moral instincts. They know what is right and what is wrong. More vital than any other aspect of their personality is that their integrity cannot be meaningfully compromised.
Even when they stray, they do not really stray; hell, they barely flounder. Reacher may shoot a man in the back, but it was a man paid a lot of money to kill him. He may have gone rogue vigilante during his time at war, but it was only because some locals were literal child rapists. “Do you mind me killing people who hurt children?” he asks a local cop. He’s asking us, too, as viewers, and he doesn’t give a damn if you say, “Yes? Extrajudicial murder, how say, always shady?” (But also, “No.”)
Not quite hitting the same operatic note, Lasso’s altruistic strategy of playing to win by not playing to win sees its greatest success with Roy Kent. He shouldn’t field his aging star, and though he gives in to this logic for a time, he rejects it in the final, climactic game of the first season, and he was right to do so.
Neither character is exceptional, per se. Lasso shares a lot of DNA with Leslie Knope from Parks & Recs, while Reacher’s literary cousin Jack Ryan already has his own Amazon Prime mansion. Reacher is a more extreme, and more satisfying, example of competency fetish than Ryan, but what I found fascinating was his dark paralleling with Lasso. Ted Lasso and Jack Reacher? Really?
They might live in a somewhat gray world (okay, I said somewhat), but they refuse to assimilate. They are both, what’s more, projects of ideal traditionalism. I have no idea how Reacher will play with the legions of Brooklyn recappers who fell in love with Ted Lasso, but I’d be surprised if they felt the same about a character who seems invented to debunk certain narratives on the American left.3 Basically, Reacher is violent, but he is somehow still good. He is the action hero taken to as moral an extreme as possible. His competency and resolve is only matched by his inability to let a bad act pass unpunished.
What if the American military was never wrong? That’s almost the question Reacher asks, on a symbolic plane, at least. But it goes further, I think. What if the ideals of the American military remain, well, attractive? Not the actual military operations, not the wasted and apocalyptic years in the Middle East or the destruction wrought by foolish generals and hapless politicians. Rather, look frankly at the world, Reacher suggests, and ponder whether all the violence doesn’t sometimes make you wish for the God of justice as well as the God of mercy—an angel of justice at least. The kind who’s never heard of compromise, or donuts.4
Before anyone flinches away (or says, “yeah, duh” depending on who you are), this is the same logic that underpins Ted Lasso’s characterization. What if midwestern ideals were realized at the level of their conception? Lasso’s American myopia becomes humility, his blowhard exuberance becomes exhortation. He doesn’t know much about the world, but golly, that’s not because he doesn’t care, he’s just busy trying to help in whatever part of the world he’s landed. Can you really blame someone for being from Kansas?
Maybe there’s no larger conclusion here, not without actual data on how popular Reacher will become, or without a broad survey of the reactions it inspires in the chattering classes who’ve praised Ted Lasso. But I found both characters cathartic in a similar way. They’re both silly, they’re both unwavering, and they’re both a very small way of saying, “Sometimes the tragedy of American masculinity, of toxic masculinity more broadly, really is that the men in question betray their own standards.”
I don’t mean a simple knee-jerk retort in which one party says, “Real men can kill with their bare hands!” and then I say, “Real men are wise enough to know that situation is pretty rare, actually!” Rather, both shows suggest that the moral project—the imperative that places right action before strength and humility before leadership—is meant to be at the heart of identity, not its offspring.
Both shows are dads at their sincere, dopey best. They want you to build character.
Reading: Quick highlights from my reading journal:
Jenny Linsky and the Cat Club, by Esther Averill: “I think the mystery of pleasure and taste are most difficult to dissect in kids books. Do I think the tales here are charming, eschew a lot of the self-help tendencies of later kids fiction without avoiding difficult kid subjects, and have fun and whimsical and striking illustrations--of course! But isn't that basically true of every decent book for kids? . . . Jenny Linksy is a shy little cat, and basically every story is about finding a good enough reason, and the courage, to perform.”
Jack Reacher, Ted Lasso, and Jenny Linsky: name a more iconic trio.
I love you all.
I have never read a Jack Reacher book. Whether you have or not, though, this review of the Reacher series by Michael Robbins is an all-timer.
I know Ted Lasso (the character) shows some superficially different characteristics with the second season, but I’m concerned mostly with the first season and the basic premise of Ted Lasso, his initial appeal that persists however much the TV writers will try to add wrinkles as the show continues.
I don’t care that the show makes a big deal out of Reacher loving junk food. That actor hasn’t even been in the same room with sugar for years.