When I first turned on “Ted Lasso,” I was looking for a show to have on in the background while cooking and figured it might be harmless enough to fit the bill. At the time, I didn’t know anyone else watching the Apple TV Plus comedy about a hapless Premier League coach (played by Jason Sudeikis), and the reviews were decidedly mixed. But as someone who became so obsessed with British football during quarantine that I now spend all my idle minutes tinkering with my fantasy league lineup (I’ll take any and all tips you’ve got), it seemed worth a shot. Cut to: ten episodes later, when I was crying real tears over what turned out to be a smart and remarkably sweet show about teamwork, friendship and redefined masculinity. Above all odds, “Ted Lasso” chipped away at my skepticism until there was none left — just like the character himself does to everyone he meets.
The basic premise of “Ted Lasso” is, admittedly, very silly. It was borne out of a series of 2013 NBC Sports promos, in which Jason Sudeikis played a clueless American football coach who suddenly becomes the manager of a prestige London soccer club in order to highlight the network getting U.S. television rights for the upcoming Premier League seasons. These commercials cast Lasso as a clueless, cocky imposter completely undeterred by his lack of knowledge. His vibe was that of an aggressive “SNL” sketch meets “The Office” boss Michael Scott — an oblivious dimwit whose only job was to underline the culture clash of bringing British soccer to the U.S. The idea that this guy could be funny or interesting beyond a few minutes, let alone ten entire episodes, was a tough sell.
So it makes total sense that the resulting show, in all its thoughtful pleasantness, confused critics and viewers. The preexisting character was an exaggeration of American sports guy clichés who encouraged British footballers to tackle each other like they were trying to stop touchdowns. The show’s version of Ted Lasso, however, is an unfailingly polite teddy bear who makes cookies for his boss every night and just wants his players to be “the best men they can be, on and off the field.” He’s charming and lightly witty, but not altogether a laugh riot. The comedy surrounding him is therefore softer, less concerned with landing jokes than establishing meaningful relationship dynamics. It’s not at all the wacky slapstick comedy one might have otherwise expected from a Sudeikis show based on a ridiculous commercial — and good riddance. This version of Ted Lasso makes for not just a better man, but a better show.
Developed by Sudeikis, Brendan Hunt, Joe Kelly and Bill Lawrence, “Ted Lasso” takes a couple shortcuts to breeze past the rather unbelievable premise of even a fictional Premier League club hiring an American manager with zero experience. Having recently won A.F.C. Richmond in a messy divorce, new owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) wants to get revenge on her cheating ex-husband (Anthony Head) by tanking the franchise he’s loved all his life. (If this sounds an awful lot to you like 1989’s “Major League,” you are not entirely incorrect.) Ted, always game for a challenge and wanting to give his wife Michelle (Andrea Anders) some space, takes Rebecca up on her offer to become manager alongside his taciturn right-hand man, Coach Beard (Hunt).
Ted’s relentless positivity in the face of overwhelming odds and a stadium full of furious fans calling him a “wanker!” makes him a better fit for the ailing team than anyone could have anticipated. Unlike most sports coaches, Ted has no ego to speak of. His willingness to get advice from the club’s errand/whipping boy Nate (Nick Mohammed), for example, confuses the hell out of Nate — but it also pays off. Even snobby reporter Trent Crimm (James Lance), who ends his first press conference question to Ted with “is this a fucking joke?”, ends up rooting for the guy despite his every disdainful instinct. The slow but steady thawing towards Ted — from Trent Crimm, to Rebecca, to the team’s surly captain Roy (Brett Goldstein) — mirrors that of the audience, primed to believe he’s a joke before realizing he’s a flesh and blood human man who genuinely wants the best for everyone.
Another way the show distinguishes itself as something different is in how it solves its conflicts. TV’s long taught its audience to expect an outsized amount of drama where there might not be as much in reality, even if only to milk every storyline for what it’s worth. But on “Ted Lasso,” potential landmines like seething jealousy, secret lust and Rebecca’s scheming only fester for so long before the characters deal with it all like….well, adults. For example, a potentially explosive love triangle between Roy, his flashy teammate Jamie (Phil Dunster) and influencer Keely (scene-stealer Juno Temple) stays shockingly level-headed, with Roy and Keely especially learning how to be upfront about what they want and need without dragging tension out for the sake of it. When Rebecca starts to realize the extent of the pain her ex caused her, she works on accepting her anger for what it is instead of taking it out on everyone else. And when it becomes clear that Ted’s wife wants a divorce but doesn’t want to say it, Ted gently lets her go, even though it kills him to do it. The show’s hard pivot from an absurd premise to a heartfelt comedy about adult relationships isn’t altogether surprising given Lawrence’s involvement (see also: “Cougar Town”), but it’s nonetheless startling. There’s almost something subversive in how straightforward it is. In going against the expectations of how TV stories are supposed to build and climax, “Ted Lasso” finds a refreshing new gear in simply writing interactions in the way that real people with a healthy amount of self-awareness might in real life.
So where, you might ask, does the tension of “Ted Lasso” come from if every conflict gets resolved in a decently logical way? For one, it’s still a comedy about sports, which guarantees a certain level of stakes built into the action. (Without spoiling anything, the way A.F.C. Richmond’s season ends is dramatic enough that I genuinely can’t wait to find out what happens next.) For another, this show takes enough care with its characters that watching them become friends, disappoint each other, fall in love and just be there for each other proves more than enough. At a time when just about everything feels catastrophic, there’s something undeniably satisfying about spending some time with good people who are just trying to be the best they can, on and off the field.
The first eight episodes of “Ted Lasso” are currently available to stream on Apple TV Plus; the season 1 finale airs October 2.