I’m sure there’s disagreement on this front, but my opinion is that when reviewing a new TV show, two episodes is the absolute minimum a critic owes the creators, and that’s only if the product is truly bad. If it’s middling or there’s any uncertainty, a third episode is necessary, and sometimes I’ll find myself moving on to a fourth or fifth, like a frustrated detective reviewing CCTV footage over and over in a grim police station. Once in a great while, I’ll watch the entire season. Apple TV’s Ted Lasso is an example of the latter—started Wednesday afternoon, finished the tenth and final episode Thursday morning. There are plenty of words explaining why to come, but I’m not sure there’s any better endorsement than the plain fact that I couldn’t stop watching, and I didn’t want to.
Seven years ago, NBC Sports released a very funny sketch starring Jason Sudeikis as an American football coach named Ted Lasso who manages to get hired as the manager of Tottenham, one of the top soccer clubs in England’s Premier League, which is one of the best leagues in the world. The comedy is the culture clash—a shouting alpha male with a southern accent trying to figure out a totally unfamiliar sport in a strange place, too stubborn to adapt and bringing all the wrong lessons over from America. As soccer becomes more familiar in the U.S., that sketch becomes increasingly quaint, since even your average deep-south gridiron jock knows more and more all the time about the world’s most popular sport. Which makes the premise of Ted Lasso the 2020 TV show questionable; can you really translate a concept that’s thin in the first place, and extend it to a ten-episode season even as soccer grows less and less exotic all the time?
Wisely, creators Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence didn’t really try. In the process of fleshing out the concept, they made a few very smart decisions. First, they went easy on the fish-out-of-water concept. Yes, there are jokes about Lasso despising tea, or learning the new names of biscuits and chips and boots and other kinds of boots, but in the grand scheme it’s a very minor part of the comedy. Other reviews that claim the show treads into cliched territory are, I think, ignoring the rarity of these forays. Second, they don’t really try to explain why Lasso, a successful Division II national championship coach, would ever accept a job with AFC Richmond, a middling English soccer club facing relegation. They dance around it a few times but never quite pinpoint the answer, because, frankly, there is no satisfying answer. If the show was devoted to even traces of realism, this would never make sense. You have to take the premise, and the drama, as fantasy; once you make that shift, you’ll be on their wavelength and stop caring. Third, they never try to force the notion that Lasso becomes some kind of soccer genius. Even when his owner tells him that he has a chance to see the sport from a new perspective (as close as they get to sports cringe despite the landmines of the conceit), all the trick plays he devises, with one hysterical exception, come from his players. Comedy or not, transforming Lasso into a soccer savant would be insulting.
Fourth, and most importantly, they make Lasso painfully, almost pathologically nice. That’s the root of his abilities as a coach and a motivator; not any kind of tactical genius, but a simple relentless optimism and decency that makes everyone around him better. Reading that, it may be tempting to roll your eyes, but the fifth wise choice they make is to endow Lasso with a surprising emotional shrewdness and even intelligence that belies his presentation as your run-of-the-mill gruff football dope. He quotes world literature, invents stem-winding puns, and has a sixth sense for how to divide and conquer individual personalities en route to getting the team on his side—all while maintaining his steadfast bonhomie. Sudeikis sells that sincerity relentlessly, and just like the doubters he’s trying to convince (they call him “wanker,” first angrily and then affectionately), we buy in despite ourselves.
The success of the show begins and ends with Sudeikis, but the rest of the cast is also superb. Hannah Waddingham, a star of the British theater scene but better known here as Septa “Shame!” Unella in Game of Thrones, rivets as Rebecca, the newly divorced owner of AFC Richmond who transfers her hatred of her former husband to the team he loved. She tries to sabotage Lasso and the club at every step, a la Rachel Phelps in Major League, another ice queen hellbent on wrecking a group of plucky underdogs. But unlike Phelps, she defrosts with the help of the hilarious Juno Temple as Keeley Jones, a model “famous for almost being famous.” Phil Dunster and Brett Goldstein are tremendous as team stars Jamie Tartt and Roy Kent, the former an egotistical wunderkind, the latter a fading legend. The same is true of Brendan Hunt and especially Nick Mohammed, Lasso’s sergeants-at-arms, who complete the entourage with their own brands of low-key intensity.
I noticed early on in the viewing experience that I wasn’t laughing very often, which sounds like a serious demerit; it’s a comedy, after all. But there are comedies that don’t make you laugh because they try and fail, and there are comedies that don’t make you laugh because they’re compelling pieces of character-based drama with comedic elements, where the story is so compelling that it ends up mattering more than the individual jokes. I felt the same way about What We Do in the Shadows, for different reasons, but Ted Lasso belongs broadly to that school; it rewards in ways that make belly laughs almost irrelevant. In short, I found it genuinely moving more than it was uproarious (although the climactic scene in the final episode might be one of the greatest athletic set pieces in comedy history, and will make any sports fan bust a gut).
It’s entirely possible I enjoyed this show so much because I’m a sports fan with a critical blind spot, or because I’m in my mid-30s and reacting against decades of irony poisoning, a reversal that has rendered me particularly susceptible to this theater of the sincere. The show itself doesn’t necessarily endorse Lasso’s worldview; there’s something very timely about the fact that the competitive drama here isn’t about winning a glorious championship, but about avoiding the shame of relegation. And yet, when faced with the unofficial AFC Richmond credo, “it’s the hope that kills you,” Lasso disagrees. “It’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you,” he tells his team, and whether or not that’s strictly correct is irrelevant. What actually matters is, do you believe?
The first three episodes of Ted Lasso premiere Friday, August 14th on Apple TV+; new episodes will air weekly after that.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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