In a post Geico cavemen world, it’s hard to believe one of 2020’s best new series is based on a commercial. The Apple TV+ sitcom Ted Lasso, which debuted in August, has become a bit of a sleeper hit, earning a two season pick-up from the burgeoning streaming site. With Saturday Night Live‘s Jason Sudeikis and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence among its co-creators, it’s not surprising that Ted Lasso is funny. But what is surprising is how warm and earnest the series is.
When the character debuted in a 2013 NBC Sports Network ad, he was arrogant and foolish—a Premier League’s bumbling Michael Scott. But it worked. Certainly well enough to earn a sequel commercial following Ted’s football endeavors after his all-too-brief stint with the Tottenham Hotspurs. The premise alone—an American football coach takes a job managing an elite British football club—is a bit built for laughs. Still, it was hard to imagine it could sustain an entire series without quickly running out of gas. Especially as networks discovered Steve Carell’s branch manager isn’t easily replicated. Instead, when Ted Lasso returned in sitcom form, he did so as an eternal optimist with his heart unabashedly on his sleeve.
Remarkably, there’s a lot of NBC Sports Network’s Ted Lasso in the Apple TV+ Series. The first episode is full of bits from the commercial, including the disastrous press conference. However, in the transition from caricature to TV protagonist, Sudeikis and his collaborators—Lawrence, Joe Kelly, and Brendan Hunt, who also plays understated icon Coach Beard—made a crucial change to Ted that lays the groundwork for the entire series. Indeed, it takes hubris to leap from coaching American college football to managing a Premier League football club. But Ted Lasso softens its titular character’s arrogance and leans into his earnestness.
Ted and Coach Beard arrive in the UK under the guise of rebuilding the AFC Richmond program after a successful college football coaching stint. They’re recruited, perhaps, to bring some American charm to the consistently mediocre Premier League team… or so owner Rebecca Welton ( Hannah Waddingham) can use Ted Lasso to tank her ex-husband’s beloved team. Ted and Coach Beard are self-aware enough to understand the sheer absurdity of their accepting the position in the first place. But they dive headfirst into their new challenge. Beard absorbs all the technical aspects of the sport; meanwhile, Ted works to turn his hodgepodge group of elite players into a cohesive team.
As Ted tells Trent Crimm, an Independent columnist and early adversary, his focus isn’t on wins and losses; it’s encouraging his players to be better people—on the pitch and off. It’s a slightly flawed logic considering they’re a professional athletic club facing relegation (a demotion from the Premier League). And it’s something Ted contends with eventually. But his intent sticks. Ted’s relentless optimism and openness takes root, often reluctantly, in everyone around him. From Rebecca to Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein)—the grumpy captain nearing the end of his pro-footballer career—to semi-professional WAG-turned-marketing-guru Keeley Jones (Juno Temple). To obnoxious rising superstar Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), even.
Ted Lasso never purports its titular character to be the arbiter of reason or turn his team into an overnight success. In fact, one of his greatest obstacles is that his players, the club’s ownership, and even the club’s fanbase spend the first half of the season actively undermining him. Yes, Rebecca had ulterior motives in offering Ted the job. But his reasons for accepting it extend far deeper than his giddy “can do” attitude suggests. However, Ted’s innate goodness is never a gimmick or cheap punch line. Nor is that of long-suffering, knowledgable kit man Nathan Shelley (Nick Mohammed).
In fact, so much of what makes Ted Lasso click is what’s lacking from another recent streaming hit: Netflix’s Emily in Paris, which also follows an expat bringing an American perspective to her new job in a new country. The Lily Collins-led series lives and dies with its titular character. Every episode progresses more or less the same way. A client presents an idea; Emily disagrees with her French colleagues; everyone writes off Emily’s American ways, she nevertheless pushes forward, stumbles, and ultimately prevails. Supporting characters are more or less irrelevant when not immediately in Emily’s purview. It’s disappointing. Especially when considering the talented supporting cast and the rich opportunities their characters present. By the time we bid adieu to season one, only two things are clear: Emily’s generally right and she still doesn’t speak French.
During a time where most of us aren’t leaving our homes, it’s a fun jaunt through what is essentially an Instagram filter of Paris. But ultimately, it’s a hollow interpretation of whatever American ingenuity claims to be. To the point where it feels like a parody—if only the show wasn’t taking itself so seriously.
So much of Ted Lasso’s success is rooted in character growth. There’s something really wholesome about watching its characters learn and grow and stumble. Especially considering so many of the characters are based on professional sports’ real-life hierarchy. A lesser show would reduce Keeley or Nate to bit parts or play them for cheap laughs. But Ted Lasso unlocks the potential. The series isn’t perfect. I’d love to see a few more AFC Richmond players—namely Dani (Cristo Fernández) and Sam (Toheeb Jimoh)—given more to do. And knowing two more seasons are around the corner gives me hope the series expands their roles.
It’s impossible to watch Ted Lasso and not find yourself rooting for AFC Richmond to squeak out a win. Or even a tie! Ted Lasso is an extremely funny series. But arguably one of its best selling points is a kindness that first takes you by surprise and then leaves you weeping to a Marcus Mumford cover. In a way that leaves you wanting more shows like it.
Ted Lasso season one is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
Featured Image: Apple TV+