This post contains spoilers for Ted Lasso.
Ted Lasso has become a beacon of kindness, both throughout its opening season last summer and its second season, now airing weekly on Apple TV+. The show’s high-concept premise -- what if a folksy American football coach was hired by an English football club to lead a team overseas, in spite of having no awareness of the differences between American and English football? -- masked a tender heart, exemplified both by the title character played by Jason Sudeikis and by most of the ensemble surrounding him. As season two has now hit the halfway point of its 12 episodes, Ted Lasso has revealed that its new secret weapon isn’t Ted himself or even any of the other regularly credited cast members: it’s the immensely charming young actor Toheeb Jimoh, as up-and-coming player Sam Obisanya.
Though Jimoh’s been credited as a guest since the pilot episode, he’s been a vital part of the Ted Lasso ensemble. Sam’s mantra is given to him by Ted early on in the series -- to have the memory of a goldfish when heartbreak occurs for the club for which he plays and Ted coaches, AFC Richmond. That mantra steers not only him through the first season, but eventually everyone else on the club. Throughout the first season, Sam is given the chance to step up within the Richmond squad even as he’s bullied by his arrogant teammate Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster). By the time Jamie’s sent back to his original club in a mid-first-season plot twist, Sam gets even more of an opportunity to serve as a right back improving all the time.
Sam hails from Nigeria; in the first season, that connects him to Ted simply in terms of the two being characters from other countries who can’t help but have a bit of homesickness in the UK. But in the second season, Sam’s heritage is center stage for different reasons. In the third episode, “Do the Right-est Thing”, Sam’s star is on the rise: he’s getting a photo shoot for Richmond’s main sponsor, Dubai Air, and being treated like a celebrity by local fans, including the daughter of a friend of Richmond’s owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham). But when Sam shares the photos with his father, he’s given a bracing wake-up call. His dad calls him a shill because Dubai Air’s parent company is an oil conglomerate destroying Nigeria from the inside out. Sam is quickly inspired to not only back out of the sponsorship deal, but also put black tape over the Dubai Air logo on his jersey, an act of defiance the entire team follows in suit with.
The storyline could easily read as being more polemical than necessary -- though the spate of racism against English football players in real life over the last couple months has made this a sadly very timely plotline -- but Jimoh’s performance keeps it grounded without ever feeling like a diatribe or a lecture. (Arguably, the speed with which the rest of the team quickly surrounds and supports Sam offers a slight touch of fantasy, but considering the nastiness of the real world, there’s nothing wrong with a touch of implausibility. The one hard-to-swallow aspect is that there's been no negative aftermath from the club's decision.)
Also early in the season, Sam comes into conflict with Ted, after he sees a surreptitiously snapped photo of Jamie, coming metaphorically hat in hand to the coach to get his old post in Richmond FC back. Sam talks about how rough Jamie made things for him, and in so doing inadvertently encourages Ted to bring Jamie back, just to create some new tension for the team, which has been perpetually stuck in tying game after game in its first season relegated from the Premier League. Jamie, as luck would have it, ends up being the first teammate to join Sam in his in-game protest after turning down the Dubai Air photoshoot, putting black tape over the logo that adorns his jersey. It’s as much a testament to how Jamie’s overconfidence has been cowed between seasons as it is to Sam’s new sense of leadership over the team, communicated so deftly through Jimoh's brilliant work.
But -- spoilers ahoy -- perhaps the biggest twist of the season came at the end of the most recent episode, “The Signal”. (That title refers to how Ted and his fellow coaches signal Jamie to revert to his old, obnoxiously talented form, by flipping him off in full view.) Throughout the season’s first half, one of the subplots has focused on Rebecca and her attempts to find someone new in her romantic life. Though she’s had some casual flings, nothing has stuck except for a mysterious, unnamed person with whom she’s been chatting on a new dating app called Bantr. One episode seemed to imply that her mystery man was Ted (after a careful cut from Rebecca using the app on her phone to seeing Ted on his, seemingly reacting to something with a wry smile). Ah, but it's not so. “The Signal” ends with a real surprise: the mystery man is Sam, who’s as in the dark about who he’s texting with as Rebecca is.
It’s hard to know after these six episodes where Ted Lasso as a season will conclude. Sam and Rebecca’s story isn’t yet a main focus, at least compared to where “The Signal” ends: with Ted cooped up in the office of sports psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), finally ready to talk after suffering yet another panic attack, this time during the middle of a crucial match. But Sam has proven himself to be an impossible-to-ignore part of the show, thanks entirely to Toheeb Jimoh’s radiant charm. Presumably before the season is over, both Sam and Rebecca will realize what’s going on, especially since Sam is now proposing to his mystery woman that they should meet up.
The challenges of a relationship between Rebecca and Sam are easy enough to note: there’s a substantial age difference, and the unavoidable fact that she’s his boss. (Plus the part where they may each be a bit horrified or at least shocked to realize who they’ve been talking to in secret.) But just as Waddingham quickly revealed her performance in the first season to be vastly more layered than that of a harridan owner trying to tank a major sports club simply to screw over her ex (with intentional shades of Major League and its female-owner villain trying to tank her own baseball team), Jimoh’s performance has revealed layer after layer in every episode.
Jimoh has done an incredible job of representing Sam’s indomitable spirit and his mostly unflagging positivity from the start, but it’s thanks to him as much as the writing that the same naive young man from the pilot is now able to stand tall among his club. Keeley (Juno Temple) all but says it when she shares pics from the Dubai Air photoshoot: "You're a mood! You're a moment, you're a mantra." When Jamie meets him on the pitch upon returning, he’s stunned to see Sam get the better of him, as Sam says, “While you were off filming your little TV show, some things changed around here.” Jimoh doesn’t deliver the line with some exaggerated sense of triumph, as much as a matter-of-fact statement on how things changed gradually enough that Jamie can be literally and metaphorically stunned.
And now, in a season where Ted Lasso has already declared that he believes in “Communism...rom-communism”, Toheeb Jimoh gets to potentially play out his own version of a romantic comedy. Each aspect and twist of Ted Lasso comes as a delightful surprise, so it’s easy to envision that either Sam or Rebecca is going to be aghast at the revelation that they’ve been carrying on a secret texting relationship. But it’s just as easy to imagine Sam, at least, trying to see where things go. (If Rebecca dives in more willingly, that would be shocking, if only because Rebecca has been reticent and nervous all season about putting herself out in the world more openly.) There’s still one more half of what has been an excellent season so far for Ted Lasso. But hopefully the second half realizes what’s been clear in the first half: this show has a secret weapon, and his name is Toheeb Jimoh.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, and the Hollywood Reporter, among others.
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