TL;DR – This article explores how a show can have an episode focused on nothing, yet still be everything.
Disclosure – I paid for the Apple TV+ service that viewed this show.
How Ted Lasso Perfected the Nothing/Everything Episode with Sunflowers –
One of the significant shifts in the Television landscape was the move from more episodic episodes to more serialised outings. It started taking steam in the 1990s with shows like Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine. But this would explode in the streaming era, with nearly every show you watch having some serialised component. Whether the show works with the serialised content does not matter. With the insertion of boilerplate narrative arcs becoming more of the norm, looking at you Wednesday. In this world, can you have a stand-alone, nothing episode anymore?
There was a time when shows like Seinfeld built themselves around being the show about nothing, where there was no character growth. However, today if you have an episode, let alone a series, where nothing happens, you will get a chorus of comments claiming condensation over there being filler. I have seen a claim championed time after time, whether the show was filler. But can you still have an engaging episode of TV that does not move the plot along in the current landscape? Well, you must trust your audience to come along with you if you want to attempt something like this. Trust which is something that is earned, not given.
This is where we come to the delightful Ted Lasso, now in its third season. If you have not watched Ted Lasso, now is the time to stop reading this and watch the show because both Season One and Season Two are masterclass in television. Each season of the show roughly lines up to a season of football/soccer, so you have a natural arc of a serialised story. We get this with our fall to relegation and the march back to the Premier League. However, today we do not find ourselves dancing in the season’s arcs, as the show has almost the most stand-alone episode in the show’s history.
Sunflowers is not the first attempt the show has taken in this realm, with Season Two having the incredibly well-received Carol of the Bells and the often-derided Beard After Hours. I adore these two episodes, and they also have the same strengths and weaknesses. They are both wonderful character pieces, but they feel almost disconnected from the show because they were two extra episodes ordered late in the production period and had to work with episodes that came after them that had already been written and shot. But for all of their highs and lows, they provided the proving ground for what we got today. The perfect Nothing/Everything episode.
There are many ways of charting growth in a show. So far, we have been discussing plot growth or narrative growth. However, this episode is so potent not because it lacks development but because it has been utterly shifted to character growth. Every show that wants to be good should explore character growth throughout its season. Still, usually, it is playing second fiddle to the narrative, or one character gets to have their moment to shine in the episode. For example, the focus episodes in the first season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. But in Sunflowers, every character has a moment to build upon what has defined them in the series so far
The show has many relationships: the love of music, antagonistic rivals becoming friends, teammates bonding, the one-night stand that shakes your world, and discovering a friend you never knew you had. We get to learn more about Will Kitman (Charlie Hiscock), Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), and Colin Hughes (Billy Harris), to name a few, and those characters who don’t, such as Jan Maas (David Elsendoorn) and Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernández), still get moments to shine. Even if that is a realisation that one Tulip is divine, a field of them would be too much.
However, while we have these general moments, six different storylines are at play as the team fractures after being given no curfew after their match in Amsterdam. The first is when Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) unexpectedly delves into a canal. Rebecca has had a being going through a malaise since her amicable split with Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh). Nothing in her life is sticking as the people around her move in different trajectories, or in the case of her ex-husband Rupert (Anthony Head), who keeps hanging around like a bad smell. But as her world comes crashing down into that Dutch canal, and she is helped out of the muck by a stranger (Matteo van der Grijn), there is a moment of clarity, or like just an excellent foot massage. But whatever the case may be, Rebecca is transformed by the experience.
The only people who did not go back to the hotel with the rest of the team were Roy (Brett Goldstein) and Jamie, as Roy picks the moment the bus leaves to continue Jamie’s training. This whole section gives Jamie some more depth as we see how his life was defined by his parents in Amsterdam and the depth of his character growth. When we first meet Jamie, he is a self-centred brat with the social awareness of how good he is but not much else. However, here he is joyful, and knowledgeable about which bench The Fault of our Stars was filmed on. But more than that, he saw a pain in Roy. He empathised with it and took steps to help fix this through the medium of an impromptu bike ride to a windmill … only Roy can’t ride a bike. While this story held much of the show’s comedic moments, it was still just as touching.
While the episode has a lot of people out exploring the city, one story has people staying in place as the team decides where to go as a group. Some people want to make the most of Amsterdam’s infamous red-light district, and others still want to go to an inconvenient party two hours away in Groningen. However, despite all the carnage of that decision and the following disasters, we get to see how Isaac McAdoo (Kola Bokinni) works as not just a team captain on the field but off as well. The team has been desperately missing leadership since Zava (Maximilian Osinski) left the team. By the end of the episode, they are a team again, even if it took the intersection of a pillow fight as the concierges look on in bemusement.
Our next adventure finds Higgins (Jeremy Swift) and Will going on a pilgrimage to the red-light district, not to partake in the expected entertainment but to find one of the heartlands of jazz. On the surface, this story is just a set-up for the famous comedic Rule of Three, which would not be realised until Will talks to his mum as he packs the bus the following day. But beyond just a perfectly worded joke, we get to see Higgins’ passion on show, which makes him the man he is. More than that, we see Will become a more well-rounded character than just the guy who finds himself awkwardly stuck as people argue. There is also a level of respect that Will gets from the team that, sadly, Nathen Shelley (Nick Mohammed) never got before Ted arrived. But seriously, this was a great use of the Rule of Three.
While the rest of the team is exploring and fighting about where to eat, Colin slips out to find his own place in the world, only to discover much to his fear that someone else at work, Trent Crimm (James Lance), also knows his secret. There is this moment of horror as Colin fears that his whole world is about to collapse out underneath himself. However, instead of finding a journalist looking for a scoop, he found a sympathetic shoulder of support. Someone who has some understanding of the two different worlds that Colin has made for himself. While it is not breaking into any new ground regarding representation, it is also a quiet, honest, and measured understanding of what someone in Colin’s shoes needs in life. It also shows the power of being there to listen.
Finally, while there is a world of character development on show, there is still just a smidgen of plot growth, if you look for it, in Ted Lasso’s (Jason Sudeikis) story. This time, we still get a version of Beard After Hours, only it is a more personal and quieter version. After Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt) leaves Ted with some augmented tea, Ted explores Amsterdam, leading him to the Van Gogh Museum, where the titular sunflowers almost confront him. Which thanks to Doctor Who, is only the second most moving thing to happen in the museum. Ted is at a crossroads in his life, trying to find his place in the world with all the competing pressures around him. But in the middle of Amsterdam, he is drawn back to facsimiles of nostalgia. Reaching back into that nostalgia, he finds a new direction for the team, Total Football, the only plot-relevant part of the episode. But more than that, I think he sees a purpose that will define where his story ends at the show’s end.
There is such a joyful montage of stories and characters going on that you feel as elated as those on the bus as they sing Three Little Birds by Bob Marley and the Wailers as the bus leaves the city. Everyone is coming home to London changed by their time in the city, so much so that you might not even remember that Three Little Birds was used almost mockingly at the start of the episode. It is the episode where nothing but everything happened. We got to spend time and luxuriate with all the characters we love. Maybe this is just the calm before the storm? Perhaps we will look back at the episode differently at the end of the season? Whatever the case may be, in the now, I continue to be uplifted by the episode of television and the power that a Nothing/Everything episode can have when used effectively.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Ted Lasso
Directed by – Matt Lipsey
Written by – Brendan Hunt, Jason Sudeikis & Joe Kelly
Created by – Jason Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt & Joe Kelly
Based On – Format and characters from NBC Sports
Production/Distribution Companies – Ruby’s Tuna Inc., Doozer, Universal Television, Warner Bros. Television Studios & Apple TV+
Starring – Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, Jeremy Swift, Phil Dunster, Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, Nick Mohammed, Anthony Head, Toheeb Jimoh, Cristo Fernández, Kola Bokinni, Billy Harris, James Lance & Juno Temple with Matteo Van Der Grijn & Ellie Taylor and Carly Wijs, Mike Reus, Ko Van Den Bosch, Bart Harder, Anwar Lachman, Carolina Dijkhuizen, Flue East, Jack Van Gelder, Marv Albert, Timothy Dennett, Mary Roubos, Derek Mitchell, Noa Nikita Bleeker, Cecile Sinclair & Corey Burton
An excellent review. And it is my favourite episode so far! 😊
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