Soccer detractors will tell you the game is just two teams running from one end of the field to the other for 90 minutes. Every so often, a player might foul another or someone might flop and fake an injury, but a critic would label those diversions in an otherwise meandering competition. The third season of Ted Lasso ironically invites the same complaints as its series’ central sport: There is a formlessness to its concluding go-round that mirrors the “Soccer is just 22 people jogging” gibe, a sense that the show is running down time until its end. “Doubt can only be removed by action,” Dr. Sharon Fieldstone tells Ted in the premiere episode, “Smells Like Mean Spirit,” but both Lasso and the series named after him seem uncharacteristically unsure where to go next.
Ted Lasso’s first season blew up during the COVID-19 lockdown, as the unpretentious (or aggressive — YMMV) optimism of Jason Sudeikis’s American-transplant soccer coach hit a chord with audiences who seized on his “Be kind” messaging. The second season complicated Ted’s relentless cheeriness, both by turning certain characters, such as assistant coach Nate, against it and by digging into the causes of Ted’s anxiety and aversion to therapy. That sophomore year was divisive, offering up sentiment about how important it is to be good, compassionate, and supportive to others while showing that Ted wasn’t quite as adept at those qualities as the show had led us to believe. Taken together, the two seasons examined our assumptions about whether happiness and success are the same thing: Can Ted be fully content as AFC Richmond’s manager if his family is on the other side of the world? Can he be fully present as a father if he’s driven by professional ambition? By ending at a place where Ted had a clear professional foe (Nate, who absconded to a manager position with rival team West Ham United) and a sympathetic personal crisis (the emotional weight of being separated from his son, Henry, who lives in the United States with his ex), Ted Lasso’s second season set up a third installment that could further deepen the coach’s conflicting motivations at the office and at home.
“Smells Like Mean Spirit” does address those story lines: Henry comes to visit for six weeks (which we don’t see — only his departure gets screen time), and Nate revels in his heel turn by mocking AFC Richmond during a televised press conference. Ted is in turmoil, and the push-pull of yearning to be closer to Henry and keeping up a positive face in response to Nate’s glib nastiness will shape episodes to come. But this third season of Ted Lasso also seems to be settling into an odd duality: The series is stuck treating Ted’s refusal to educate himself about his job like an aw-shucks asset and the soccer itself like an afterthought. Weeks of matches are sped through later in the season (four episodes were provided for review); in a particularly exasperating episode, the second half of a game proceeds in disastrous fashion because Ted Lasso presents the sport as if matches weren’t dynamic experiences in which coaches and players can change tactics as they go. After a second season that challenged its own narrative, the series’s resurgent refusal to deviate from a “Ted is always right” theme feels like an ideological backslide. Narratively, Ted is lost trying to figure out why he’s still in London; structurally, Ted Lasso is amiss figuring out what kind of show it wants to be and what storytelling priorities it wants to hold on to in its final act.
The season premiere encapsulates this clumsiness with a trio of plots that strain incredulity so fully they almost veer into caricature. All the pundits have placed AFC Richmond at the bottom of the preseason Premier League rankings, but Ted — whose only new soccer-related knowledge comes from weeks of playing FIFA video games with Henry — doesn’t draw up new plays or run extra practices to prepare the team. Instead, he sends the Greyhounds into the London sewers to teach them about operating as one interconnected system, a message that apparently could only be communicated by comparing players to plumbing. (I’m convinced this entire plot was written just to have Phil Dunster’s Jamie Tartt debut a lyrical pronunciation of poop as “pooh-paye.”) And though the media mocks the subterranean field trip and Nate publicly calls him “shitty,” Ted wins the reporters back with his customary self-deprecation and pop-culture references: “I’m not a great coach … Regarding my panic attacks, I’ve had more psychotic episodes than Twin Peaks.” Is Ted being performatively disparaging or authentically honest? The series refuses to be definitive one way or another, so the effect is of Ted Lasso giving us a pat on the head — a placation more than anything else.
This isn’t to disparage the second season’s focus on mental health, which brought together sports psychology, toxic masculinity, and customary American optimism to probe at Ted’s surfacing contradictions. But the third season is laying such a didactic track for Ted’s more enlightened, uniformly positive influence on the Greyhounds that its various subplots feel like they’re treading water until they’re hit by the Lasso effect. In “Smells Like Mean Spirit,” everyone who deviates from Ted’s methods is proved wrong, from Nate calling a reporter “stupid,” then realizing that aggression didn’t get him the attention he wanted, to the win-hungry Rebecca begging Ted to “fight back” against negative perceptions of the team, then being humbled after she sees the impact of Ted’s emphasis on community building. In later episodes, Roy, Coach Beard, Jamie, and Keeley all have moments when their mimicking of Ted’s behavior improves the situations they’re in. That’s nice, but it’s also a diminishment of what makes these characters so unique. This pattern of flattening human behavior to a rigidly bifurcated treatment of right and wrong is pervasive and pernicious, and its repetition gives the series a double layer of intra- and extratextual inevitability. The end is near, and even as Ted Lasso questions its titular character for “sticking around,” it can’t stop indulging his goofiest choices, his ego, and the most simplistic reading of his ethos. That’s a hat trick, but it doesn’t mean Ted Lasso is on track to win.