The history of TV is studded with attempts to make commercial pitchmen into the stars of their own series. During the dot-com boom, “Baby Bob” advertised the service provider FreeInternet.com before getting his own CBS sitcom; Geico’s “Cavemen” moved from hawking car insurance to telling jokes on ABC.
In this tradition follows Ted Lasso, a character created by NBC Sports to sell Americans on coverage of English Premier League soccer. Bulked out from Jason Sudeikis’s short videos into a 10-episode season on Apple TV Plus with the help of executive producer Bill Lawrence, Lasso, played by Sudeikis, coaches college football in the U.S. before being recruited for the U.K.’s version of football — with which he lacks even passing familiarity. Clever viewers will be able to guess whether a positive attitude and homespun wisdom help this fish survive even out of familiar water.
Sudeikis brings to bear genial charisma and light accent work, but it’s not clear what about this character suggested that going deeper would yield more — for one thing, Ted Lasso is about as deep as a pleasantry. Recruited to purposefully tank the team by vengeful team owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) for a job to which he is obviously unsuited, Ted puts on an attitude of bland willingness to help. His most distinguished characteristic, besides an undifferentiated hope for the best, is a tendency to lean heavily on self-coined adages. Within a single scene, we hear him describe the human body as “like day-old rice: If it ain’t warmed up properly, something real bad could happen,” and the ability to change directions while running as “like Kanye’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ — it don’t get nearly enough credit.” Later in the same episode, he declares ice cream “like seeing Billy Joel live — it never disappoints.” Could these pronouncements all have come from the same person? It doesn’t seem to matter, as Lasso’s being upbeat is where the character study stops.
Lasso is tiresome company, but he charms his team — his ability to wring squad unity, if not consistent wins, simply by failing toward it feels a bit Forrest Gump in its trust in the American naif. In this way, “Ted Lasso” comes to feel out of step. It’d be a great deal to expect of a sitcom based on a series of promotional shorts to have much to say about transatlantic cultural differences, but Ted fits into his team — one composed of players from a variety of backgrounds within the U.K. — so seamlessly as to suggest all that was really needed to make English soccer interesting was … us. This is, perhaps, the point of Lasso, to inflect “the beautiful game” with a touch of the ugly American. But Lasso’s path among the Brits he consistently charms is so conflict-free that there’s little to grab on to. Why should we root for Ted if he hardly needs our help?
Sudeikis does his best with a barely there character; Waddingham, playing a conflicted admiration for Lasso, fares better, as does the ever able Juno Temple, putting a witty but humane spin on a social-media influencer character in the team’s orbit. In the end, though, the players on Lasso’s team run together, in what’s perhaps the show’s defining flaw. Conceived to market soccer, Ted ends up making the game look like a slog.