“Ted Lasso,” Apple TV+’s latest original comedy, is kind of like a hybrid of the baseball comedy “Major League” and those folksy “aren’t Brits delightful” comedies of the late ‘90s like “Waking Ned Devine” and “The Full Monty.” It gets most of its initial mileage from the affable charm of its star, Jason Sudeikis, who finds a way to turn the title character into someone who is genuinely likeable instead of merely playing aw shucks heartland stereotypes. The show is undeniably slight, but it’s quite simply a comedy that goes down easily, a piece with optimism about the human condition that feels honest instead of manipulative. It may be light on originality, but Ted Lasso himself would argue that it’s big enough on heart to win the game.
As a rule, no one should ever expand advertising campaigns into anything more, but that’s how “Ted Lasso” started life. Sudeikis worked with NBC Sports to create the character, who appeared in a series of promos designed to sell Americans on watching the Premier League on the network. Lasso is a college American football coach from Kansas, a runaway success there who has been recruited by the Richmond Football Club to guide them in a sport he knows ridiculously little about—his deep lack of familiarity with even the basic terminology admittedly feels a little forced and silly in early episodes.
As Lasso’s marriage is falling apart stateside, he decides to give his wife even more space than she was probably looking for in couples therapy. All he brings with him across the pond is his right-hand man known only as Coach Beard (a deadpan funny Brendan Hunt), and a heavy dose of Midwestern optimism. Lasso believes that his ability to work with people, to bring them together off the pitch, will get him over the learning curve and the high degree of criticism in the British sports press and fan base. Anyone who has seen a sitcom knows he’s probably right.
Of course, any American coach imported to coach British football must be there for a nefarious reason, and it’s revealed in the premiere that Lasso was hired because team owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) wants the team to fail. The only thing that Rebecca’s philandering husband (played by the great Anthony Head of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame) loved more than his many mistresses was his football team, and so Rebecca considers the inevitable failure of the Lasso regime to be an act of vengeance. Not only will these lovable losers fail, but they will do so in spectacular fashion. It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that Ted will win over his team and even Rebecca before long. As a journalist says at the end of episode three, “I can’t help but root for him.”
And that sentiment is really the driving energy of the show. Sudeikis may be the easiest to root for, but there’s a genuine likability with which he infects the entire cast before long. Waddingham finds impressive levels to her character beyond the early villain role; Juno Temple is absolutely charming as a player’s girlfriend, an actress who is “sorta famous for being almost famous”; Brett Goldstein is great as a veteran player with anger issues that Lasso shapes into an actual team leader; Nick Mohammed somehow makes a bigger impact here than on Peacock’s “Intelligence,” which he co-created. None of these performances are groundbreaking, but the entire cast walks a fine tonal line in that the show never becomes the saccharine, manipulative sitcom it easily could have been in lesser hands. It can sound silly to praise a show for not being as maudlin as it is on paper, but there’s something impressive in how much Sudeikis knows how to thread the needle in a way that makes Lasso and the show that bears his name feel three-dimensional instead of the caricature he easily could have become in lesser hands.
Co-creator Bill Lawrence, who co-wrote the pilot, has delivered this kind of character-based comedy before on shows like “Scrubs” and “Cougar Town.” Those shows often leaned into obvious sources of humor and physical hijinks, but they did so with just enough honest affection for their characters that fans didn’t mind. “Ted Lasso” is driven by Sudeikis, but it fits that Lawrence model in that supporting characters are allowed rich backgrounds and subplots too. After all, football and comedy are both team sports. And if people are drawn to “Ted Lasso,” it will be for Sudeikis first, but for his supporting ensemble not long after.
There’s a version of “Ted Lasso” with a little more bite to its comedy, something that recognizes the cultural differences between Wichita and Liverpool in a way that feels less superficial, and even dissects the rabid sports fan culture that calls Lasso a “wanker” every time he makes a public appearance. The cultural differences here often feel remarkably superficial, especially when one considers there are players on the Richmond team who are supposed to be from all over the world. But comedies often take time finding their best rhythm as the writers figure out how to write for their ensemble and refine their overall tone.
One of the joys of the first season of “Ted Lasso” is to watch it become more than a one-joke, one-man piece, and it feels like that growth will continue if Apple TV+ doesn’t consign this team to relegation. “Ted Lasso” is a show about a man finding his rhythm and makeshift family on the other side of the world. There are some growing pains in the first season, but don’t give up on this team. [B]