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How ‘Ted Lasso’ Failed Nate as a Character

Ted Lasso has taken our pop culture by storm. From its trademark humor to the soccer (AKA football) matches, to the great performances, and an often stunning exploration of mental health (at least for most of its main cast), it’s a show that inspires through showcasing the difficulties that the members of Richmond Football Club endure, and how they ultimately uplift each other through it all.

Well, not all for all of them.

Spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of Ted Lasso follow:

I’m late to the Ted Lasso party, having only watched the two seasons so far in the last month. I’m generally glad I watched it, as it is an overall great show for the reasons listed above. But I hesitated to get started, due to the online reaction to the show’s singular South Asian character, Nate Shelley (played by Nick Mohammed).

The response to whatever Nate’s actions were was visceral. The last time I saw such online hate for a character was Joffrey from Game of Thrones. What could Nate have done that was so bad? Through online osmosis, I realized it was because he betrayed Ted, divulging personal information to a journalist that made the news rounds. And that this betrayal seemed so sudden, even if it didn’t come out of anywhere. Until recently, I held out on watching the show for that reason. When I did start, I watched with a particular eye out for how Nate would be treated and written, and I’m sad to say it was so much worse than I thought.

He starts out as a nice enough guy, one who is meek and subjected to bullying from some of the club members. Starting in Season 1, Episode 7, the show takes a drastic turn when it makes Nate say terribly belittling comments to Colin. Nate is simply obsessed with his own star rising, scrolling constantly for his name on Twitter. Did the show expect us to think of Nate as an asshole, who just did a good job at hiding it previously? Coach Beard confronts him on it, simply telling him sternly to “do better” without any digging into what would compel him to act that way. Basically not in the same way the show has done with its white characters who also have acted out. There’s virtually no benefit of the doubt given to Nate from Coach or the show at large. Thankfully he does apologize to Colin and the team at large for his rudeness, but the fact they don’t explore what caused him to be so rude is troubling.

It gets far worse in the second season. As Nate realizes more of his great ability to coach, being key to getting some of AFC Richmond’s victories. But as he becomes more successful, with the encouragement of Ted and the others who once bullied him, he goes beyond assertiveness to a rather jarring nastiness towards others. The show ultimately presents his ambition in a bad light. It seems as though his ambition and inherent goodness are linked.

Once he starts doing well and getting recognition, he sheds basic respect for others. The reasons for Nate’s degeneration of character are implicit, and not explicitly stated like the other characters almost constantly have the grace to have stated. Virtually no such grace is offered to Nate. The detail of his hair rapidly graying he’s more vocal and confident is jarring. It’s as though asserting himself increasingly ages him out of youthful innocence, and makes him grizzled. He also dresses in a suit, signifying his desperation to be mature and “loss of innocence.” It rather comes off as patronizing, especially for a person of color, to be told that their ambition is corrupting. Especially when it feels almost out of nowhere.

This descent into villainy ultimately leads him to leaking to a reporter that Ted had a panic attack. Once Ted finally confronts him on it, Nate explains that he felt betrayed by Ted who once was there for him and his success, but diverted his attention toward others, such as Roy who was also made an assistant coach. It’s easy to understand why anyone would have felt threatened by Roy’s promotion, but to do something as heinous as share Ted’s personal mental health struggles, in some warped attempt to get ahead or to get revenge? I was genuinely baffled watching this.

It genuinely felt like there was missed context for Nate’s rationale. Was he a morally repugnant schemer the whole time? Is he that insecure that he would go from being a seemingly nice guy to such a heinous traitor? There is so much unexplored! Nate has nowhere near the exploration of motivation, much less actual quantity of dialogue generally, to give his character the proper nuance and depth he deserves. At least nowhere near as much as the other, especially white, characters have. But no need for that. We have all we need to know and we’re just supposed to hate him. I obviously feel deeply for Ted and what Nate put him through, and side with Ted in this, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t interrogate why the reasoning for Nate’s turn felt shallow.

It ultimately feels manipulative and gives the audience the excuse to singularly hate him without giving him compelling motivation. He’s ultimately the villainous brown man, and not someone dealing with his own struggles that might have motivated him to join up with Rupert and betray Ted and Rebecca in such a personal way. The audience is given no real opportunity to empathize with Nate, except for when he needed to stand up for himself and his parents in a restaurant to have a window table on their anniversary.

It’s not that Nate can’t be a villainous character who does harm. But it’s the fact that he’s clearly a brown man who likely been conditioned differently than his white counterparts that makes that villainy more significant. Of course, he’s not the only character of color on the show and others like Sam and Dani are afforded more depth, but him being the only South Asian character who has barely any depth given to his corrupted motivations. He lives his life as a South Asian person, and with that comes systemic inequities and the lingering effects of colonial trauma from British Imperialism, and the racism that remains too common in British society.

The fact that we barely had any exploration on this aspect for Nate and the systemic inequities he would likely deal with, instead of making him a “color-blind” cast character, is a misfire on the part of the show. Apparently, there was some sort of intent for this, but the instances of “microaggressions” Nate faced were so incredibly subtle that they were ultimately missed. This is especially pertinent when compared to the highly effective and much clearer treatment of white characters on the show, and the systemic issues they might face, especially for Rebecca as a middle-aged woman. Author, podcaster, and fellow Nerd of Color Preeti Chhibber elaborates more on this:

“I do want to note that Nate is South Asian and Greek Cypriot (according to Nick Mohammed in an interview), but was never explicitly referenced as such. That said, he is clearly the only brown character with a significant storyline and it was frustrating to watch him fall into harmful and cruel patterns without the show recognizing why he might be doing those things from a systemic perspective.

In season one, when the show began and our villain was apparently Rebecca – the narrative never let us forget the systemic biases Rebecca dealt with as an older woman.

Nate, by contrast, has the impact of those biases implied but never stated. In the scene with the restaurant, I absolutely recognized why Nate and his family were likely denied the spot by the window, but the show didn’t do the work of making it explicit. So instead, if you are not someone familiar with microaggressions, Nate’s pretty intensive fall to villainy seemed to be a result of people being kind of mean to him? Instead of the result of a years-long existence as a brown man in a system that doesn’t think you’re worth as much as your white counterparts. I think — based on Nick Mohammed’s Twitter post after the finale – the writer’s intent was very much that Nate’s fall was a result of this idea, of his consistent isolation and minimization as a brown man who is meek, self-loathing, walked over, desexualized, etc. But the fact that Mohammed had to come out and write that up after the fact tells me that the show’s writing wasn’t strong enough to support it on its own.

I don’t live in the UK, but I am the child of Indian immigrants in the states and I can tell you that colonialism has a huge impact on South Asians to this day. Whether it’s in South Asia or the UK or the US – we are still dealing with the ramifications of our colonial history. I think it’s really off-putting to have a brown character and not recognize that, especially when the show is so good at recognizing other systemic biases (ie. with regards to gender).

Even though I’m Middle Eastern and not South Asian, though still a brown person, I could also tell that the consideration for Nate’s character as a brown man in western society wasn’t thoroughly considered. The actor for the character should not have to come online with a bullet list to rationalize why his character was written well with that consideration. Even if the writers did intend that, it didn’t come through, apparently necessitating Mohammed’s post. The fact that there are no South Asian writers on the show (at least so far) makes this even more troubling.

Many have noted that one could easily cast a white man in this role and there would barely be a difference in how he was written. The problem is, a color-blind casting for an ultimately villainous role, without clear sympathy or understanding of the systemic prejudices against him, ultimately feeds back into that prejudice. Most audiences watching aren’t even going to read Mohammed’s post. They’ll simply see his character as a villainous brown man who unequivocally deserves hate coming to him, with little room for sympathy. Even while South Asians are starting to make gains on TV, they systemically remain under and mis-represented in western media. And Nate is the singular South Asian on Ted Lasso that has received the public’s ire.

It’s all the more concerning with the knowledge that South Asians are severely underrepresented in British football. Why couldn’t Ted Lasso have more South Asian characters to present in a positive light, and directly delve into the nuances of being Desi in British society, which has systemically been racist to them? The way Nate was written and presented so far in the show was far from enough, and feels like a step backward.

Even with all of this frustration, some audience members have retained hope for Nate’s redemption in the third, and presumed last, season. I do hope that the show does his character more justice, whether as a hero or villain, and give viewers a more meaningfully written South Asian character to watch. Preeti also shared her thoughts on how she hopes the show will do better by Nate:

Again, I hesitate to specifically say South Asian only because the show hasn’t explicitly told us what Nate’s background is, aside from an interview that Nick Mohammed gave in which he says they cast Nate’s parents as South Asian and Greek Cypriot to reflect his own experience. But I do think the writers need to be explicit in how systemic issues play a part in creating a person. That’s not pandering, that’s creating a fully-fleshed out character. Nate can be a villain, there’s nothing to preclude him from doing so. But for the show to allow complexity to everyone else, to allow them to exist both as a villain and a victim of circumstance, is one that hasn’t been afforded to Nate at the same level. (It would help if there were any other brown characters so that the optics weren’t so bad, to be honest.) It’s true that characters’ storylines should not be reduced to their race, but you also can’t deny that it impacts a character at all. I also understand that Nate’s big speech at the end of Season 2 was meant to show how complicit Ted, specifically, was in Nate’s journey. But it isn’t just about Ted. The show knows the system matters, it just has to put that piece of the puzzle into place for Nate.

Ted Lasso is an overall great show. The character explorations for Ted, Sam, Rebecca, Roy, and Keeley are wonderfully stunning. But the show has failed Nate so far by not delving into his humanity anywhere near as much as the other characters. It wouldn’t matter as much if there were other South Asians on the show, but this is where we are. I genuinely hope the writers do better next season, and perhaps bring some South Asians on board to write for Nate as well.

You can stream Ted Lasso on Apple TV+.

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