tv review

Ted Lasso Fails Upward, Cheerfully

Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) is a man who knows he’s fallen upward and happily accepts the job anyhow. Photo: Apple TV+

There are a few metrics you can use to judge the success of Ted Lasso, the new Apple TV+ comedy about an American football coach who gets hired to coach in the English football Premier League. There’s at least one reasonable metric that’s also incredibly flattering for Ted Lasso: TV shows based on ad campaigns.

The character Ted Lasso originated as a marketing gimmick for NBC Sports, who wanted to promote some American interest for their new coverage of the Premier League. In 2013 and 2014, Jason Sudeikis played Lasso in a four-minute ad spot, which included some jokes that survived all the way through to the eventual Ted Lasso pilot. (His team will play hard through all four quarters, Lasso announces, before being informed that soccer games take place in two halves.) If you’re judging Ted Lasso on its relative success as a TV adaptation of an advertisement, a category that most infamously also includes a short-lived TV version of the Geico Cavemen, then Ted Lasso succeeds wildly.

The show also succeeds on a different but more valuable metric, a metric that’s especially important in 2020. It’s pleasant! It’s a pleasant show about a nice guy, someone who arrives in the middle of a somewhat dysfunctional and toxic work situation and gradually puts things to right by being the nicest, most considerate, most optimistic possible version of himself. Sudeikis’s TV Lasso is a much sweeter man than his commercial counterpart. And crucially, the show pulls off the most important element of transitioning from a simplistic TV commercial premise. A guy who knows nothing about his job works for four minutes, but does not work for ten episodes, and Ted Lasso invests enough energy in developing side characters and small story arcs that can fill out its originally narrow concept.

The first and most vital task of adapting a Ted Lasso TV show is to come up with some reason for the man to show up as a Premier League coach at all, and the show does this with a simplistic but functional premise that it admirably chooses to mostly forget as soon as possible. Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) is the new owner of Richmond FC, a team teetering on the verge of relegation. Rebecca’s come into possession of this team very recently — it used to belong to her now-ex-husband, and although she ostensibly hires Ted Lasso so he can bring unconventional methods to turn things around for the football club, Rebecca has instead hired Ted for an obvious ulterior motive: Rebecca wants Ted Lasso to destroy the team, because it’s the thing her ex-husband loved most.

This tension propels Ted Lasso through its first several episodes. Rebecca claims to want him to succeed but is really hoping he’ll fail; Ted cheerfully does his best in every situation, often by recognizing when someone else in the room is more talented than he is and quickly elevating their voices. Rebecca’s won over by him, and thankfully she gradually lets go of her harridan, bent-on-vengeance motivation. The players are slowly won over, too. It’s like a slow-motion building collapsing, but in reverse: You expect the physics to make everything fall apart, but on Ted Lasso things tend to magically move into all the right places.

There’s a nice running B-plot of tension between two important players on the team, a plot with a surprising amount of juice behind it even though the two players — Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent and Phil Dunster as Jamie Tartt — look so much alike to me that more than once I lost track of which guy was mad for what reason. There’s a highly predictable but nevertheless satisfying redemption arc for the team’s much-bullied kitman Nathan (Nick Mohammed). Even Ted gets a few solid moments of emotional complexity, which just barely squeak past Sudeikis’s high-key silly Southern accent so the scenes can land somewhere adjacent to poignancy.

The major drawback of Ted Lasso, though, is a different kind of success metric, one that’s less about being an adaptation of an advertisement and more about being a premise imported straight from 2013. Ted’s a perfectly good-seeming guy, absolutely. But as the central idea for a TV show, “unqualified white guy lands a powerful gig and then muddles through on charm and cheer” hits differently in 2020. It’s hard not to think about Ted’s incompetence, especially when everyone roots for Ted even though he still doesn’t understand the basic rules of the game. Ted is a man who knows he’s fallen upward and happily accepts the job anyhow. He has no idea what he’s doing, and assumes from the jump that it’ll be fine. He’s right! For the purposes of the show, it’s completely fine. Even in the moments when he fails, Ted Lasso goes to great pains to reassure us that he’s still succeeded at what’s most important.

Because the show was surely purchased as an adaptation of this specific idea, it’s hard to say there’s anything about the show (the writing, the acting, the overall nice guy mood) that could’ve addressed my deepest reservations about it. Truly, Ted Lasso works hard to be the best version of Ted Lasso it could possibly be. Is it Ted Lasso’s fault that I don’t think anyone’s especially clamoring for Ted Lasso right now? Is it the show’s fault that I’ve lost whatever energy I once had to root for unqualified male protagonists? Can I blame Ted Lasso for existing, even if I also think it’s as well made as any show with a hapless dude protagonist and a Mumford & Sons main theme could’ve possibly been? Probably not. But all the same, it’s hard to shake that impression.

It’s also hard to tease apart my reaction to Ted Lasso and my reaction to its platform. Since its release, Apple TV+ has yet to produce a show that feels really vibrant and bracing and fresh (except Dickinson, that is, a very weird comedy that still doesn’t get the respect it deserves). Ted Lasso’s overall impression is that it’s a fine show arriving in the wrong moment, and that impression holds true for most of Apple TV+’s programming. Taken altogether, the platform, the shows, the ideology, the optimism, the hopeful pleas for decency and goodness being more important than actual knowledge — it all feels like entering a time warp to the recent past.

Ted Lasso Fails Upward, Cheerfully