'Ted Lasso': TV Review

Ted Lasso-Jason Sudeikis-Publicity still - H 2020
Apple TV+

'Ted Lasso'

Full of warmth and heart, if not laughs.
8/14/2020

With help from 'Scrubs' creator Bill Lawrence, Jason Sudeikis brings his NBC Sports promo character to Apple TV+ in a fish-out-of-water/underdog sports comedy.

Like so many underdog sports stories, Apple TV+'s new half-hour comedy Ted Lasso is primarily a reexamination of "winning." Is there victory in self-improvement? In coming together as a team? In uniting a disconsolate fanbase? Absolutely!

To some degree, reviewing Ted Lasso is, for me, a reexamination of what defines a "successful" comedy. I laughed very rarely while watching — a minor problem especially in the first two episodes, which feel more punchline-driven than the rest of the show. But isn't there success in generating affection for a large cast? In stirring up smiles and swells of emotion? In finding yourself truly invested in both characters and the show's central sporting franchise after 10 half-hour episodes? Absolutely.

Based on a character created for a series of NBC Sports Premiere League soccer promos, Ted Lasso was adapted for TV by star Jason Sudeikis and Scrubs mastermind Bill Lawrence. It's the story of boundlessly enthusiastic American college football coach Ted Lasso (Sudeikis) who, fresh off a Division II championship at Wichita State — home, in real life, to no football team — is hired to lead a generally mediocre Premiere League soccer team, AFC Richmond.

The original promo character was defined by his proud ignorance of all things soccer and, indeed, the series version is also oblivious on nuances of the game, like the offsides rule, as well as rudimentary elements. (And that's before you get to the myriad words that are different in British English and American.) But Ted and his coaching companion Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt, part of the show's development team) are eager to learn.

Now why, you might ask, would somebody so unqualified be hired for what is, in England, an extremely high-profile position, one subject to constant and often hostile media scrutiny? Well, the team's owner (Hannah Waddingham's Rebecca) is in the middle of a noxious divorce, and her philandering husband (Anthony Head in mustache-twirling guest turn) loves AFC Richmond more than anything — so Rebecca has decided to destroy the team, starting at the top.

If that causes you to go, "Man, that sounds a lot like Major League!" and then you look at icy blonde Waddingham (nearly unrecognizable as the "Shame!" nun from Game of Thrones) and say, "Man, she looks a lot like Margaret Whitton from Major League," these things aren't unintentional. Ted Lasso is a series that's full of love for underdog sports tales, and as you look across the show's myriad supporting characters — including Brett Goldstein as aging former star Roy Kent, Phil Dunster as young hotshot Jamie Tartt, Nick Mohammed as overlooked team attendant Nathan and Juno Temple as Jamie's D-list celebrity ("I'm sorta famous for being almost famous") girlfriend Keeley — you'll probably be able to spot counterparts and comparisons for them in other sports films and shows. A lot of the fun of Ted Lasso is seeing how it utilizes familiar archetypes and tropes, and when it decides to play away from them.

The greatest asset that Ted Lasso has is duration: 10 episodes allow the series to dig pleasantly deep into Rebecca's psychology, keeping her from becoming just a stock villain, and does the same for Keeley, who's much more than a standard Page 3 bimbo. Waddingham and Temple's performances and the relationship between their two characters became one of my favorite surprising parts of the show. If the plot of Ted Lasso surely could have unfolded in a 90-minute feature, the arcs for Roy, Jamie and Nathan are much more believable in this space and format.

Ted Lasso himself ends up being a tough but fascinating character because of Sudeikis and Lawrence's decision to have his defining characteristic be optimism. It's amusing how many of the punchlines from the NBC Sports shorts make it into the series, but how differently they play when the motivation for the character is an earnest excitement to make the most of a new adventure, rather than a vaguely jingoistic ignorance. This extrapolation of Ted Lasso lets Sudeikis very effectively play sweetness and vulnerability, even if the results are less outright amusing. The choice to adapt the character in a way that leads with his humanity at the expense of laughs is probably smart for sustainability (though the success of Brockmire as a similar sketch-to-series expansion proves that it's possible to do both).

The first couple of episodes lean probably too heavily into "Two countries separated by a separate language" gags built around things Ted doesn't know about his new home and his new sport. As the show progresses, the writers settle into a rhythm that lets the fish-out-of-water humor feel less forced, making it easier to concentrate on all of the show's other pleasures — from Marcus Mumford's distinctive music to the steady developing of the AFC Richmond fanbase and some of the team's secondary players.

Even if the show's ability to capture on-field action is a little hit-or-miss, by the end of 10 episodes, I was getting misty over the team's results and over the journeys of several characters. That, ultimately, means more to me than whether or not I'd qualify Ted Lasso as "hilarious." A little big-hearted sporting hopefulness might be more important at this particular moment.

Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, Brendan Hunt, Jeremy Swift, Juno Temple, Brett Goldstein, Phil Dunster and Nick Mohammed

Created By: Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence

Episodes premiere Fridays on Apple TV+ starting with the first three on August 14.