Even before COVID-19, television pitch meetings were getting a little weird. Make a TV movie about a European song contest that almost no one in the U.S. has seen? How about a parody of late-Communist Romanian cop movies? Or a drama about female soldiers in Syria? Thanks to globalized everything, nothing's off the table. And when multiple streaming services meet a sudden scarcity in content caused by a pandemic, well, let’s just say that most anything that can get made will get made.
This brings us to Ted Lasso, a comedy series from Jason Sudeikis, Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, and others. Dropping today on Apple TV+, it’s the fully-drawn-out version of a gag hatched years ago in a soccer promo for NBC Sports: An American football coach from Kansas named Ted Lasso is, for some reason, hired to manage Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. You may have seen it when it aired in 2013:
The idea was to introduce American fans to the world sport through its biggest league. Mission accomplished! But someone couldn’t let go of this idea of Ted Lasso. Hey! What if Ted doesn’t just last a cup of coffee — er, tea — in English football? What if he somehow is allowed to spend a season running a club in a sport he cheerfully claims to know next to nothing about?
That is the pitch for Ted Lasso, the show. It got made, and here’s the best part: it works.
It works because some serious comedy writers are on the team and have made improvements to the Ted Lasso cartoon from the NBC ads (or as the network legalese actually describes it, “the pre-existing format and characters from NBC Sports”). As anyone who tried to watch Space Force knows, pairing a funny comedic actor with a very funny comedy producer does not guarantee funny funny print the money. Based on the first three episodes, though, co-creators Sudeikis, Lawrence, Joe Kelly, and Brendan Hunt are off to a great start.
In this version, Lasso no longer manages Tottenham Hotspur but the entirely fictitious AFC Richmond. Why is he here? Because the new owner, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), who extracted the club from her philandering ex, wants to take AFC Richmond from its decades of unrelieved mediocrity into the entirely new depths of humiliating awfulness. She wants to “torment” and “torture” her ex, using a specific torture device and method that British viewers will better understand and which I'd rather not quote here.
Anyway, who better to kill off Richmond than someone who doesn’t know a lick about non-pigskin football? Enter Ted Lasso, the folksy coach of Wichita State. Ted is no loser — he’s just taken the Shockers to the NCAA Division II title and made himself a popular highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter (and I must say SportsCenter’s Scott Van Pelt does a very realistic sell job on fake Ted Lasso). But his professed ignorance of the game, his second-tier coaching status, and his oft-stated belief that he doesn’t care about winning or losing — one of many American sporting clichés you’ll hear uttered on this show — convince Rebecca that she’s found the man to captain this ship to the bottom of the sea.
It’s basically a Producers setup. And certainly the first two episodes of Ted Lasso don’t give much hope that Ted is going to stop Richmond from the dreaded relegation — that’s where your club finishes in the bottom three of the Premier League and is booted into the second division. All the while, Ted keeps on spouting locker-room bromides. To one of his rising stars, a moody Nigerian transfer named Sam (Toheeb Jimoh), he asks, “You know why the goldfish is the happiest animal on earth?” Sam, who is smarting from an insult delivered by another player in practice, shrugs. “Got a 10-second memory,” Ted says. We get Ted's point, Sam does not, but at least he's polite about it. Other players, not to mention the local media, treat the American with utter contempt, usually to his face.
But Ted Lasso is not a man easily deterred. With his faithful sidekick, Coach Beard (played by show co-creator Hunt), he plans to rebuild this team from the inside out. To him it's the locker room, not the field, I mean pitch, where games, um matches, are won or lost. So you know where Ted Lasso is going from there. The question is, will you follow? Is this kind of Midwestern optimism embodied in a cornpone coach too sappy to watch? Will you follow the show’s tonal shifts from laugh-out-loud exchanges (like when Ted asks his server at the pub what a wanker is) to the heart-tugging scenes, like when Ted places his nightly calls back to his wife and kid in Kansas?
I’m going to bet you do. For one thing, we just saw Jurgen Klopp (albeit a highly accomplished footballer) effect just such a turnaround at longtime soccer mediocrity Liverpool. For another thing, Jason Sudeikis has nailed this part, which is basically a light caricature of the Midwestern sports coach. That’s probably because he’s seen more than his share. Sudeikis was a star basketball player in high school who then got a scholarship at a Kansas community college, which he proceeded to squander by flunking out … of a Kansas community college … making his one of the more amazing odysseys to SNL (a story I was privileged to tell back in the day).
Ted Lasso has a strong supporting cast that includes Brett Goldstein as Roy, the team’s insecure captain; Phil Dunster as Jamie, leader of one of the locker-room factions that Ted must deal with; and Nick Mohammed as Nate, who has that role every sports comedy needs — the locker-room rat who is on staff for no apparent reason, gets picked on by the players and always winds up being the hero.
And again, the writing is sharp and fresh. Remember that line from the Ted Lasso promo clip above, where Ted learns that his team will play opponents in Wales and Scotland, and this blows his mind because he thought he was in England?
“How many countries are in this country?” he asks.
“Four,” comes the response.
Well, that joke reappears in the show, but now Ted zings back, “Kinda like America these days.”
The first three episodes of Ted Lasso premiere on Apple TV+ today, with additional episodes dropping weekly.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.