How on Earth Is ‘Ted Lasso’ Actually Good?

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

Remember those Geico caveman commercials? As far as insurance ad campaigns go, the Geico cavemen weren’t the most insufferable spots in the world: They were occasionally kinda funny and certainly more tolerable than ads for The General, who needs a long overdue retirement. Still, I doubt that most people—even someone who thought these 30-second spots were the funniest damn thing in the world—would argue that the idea of Neanderthals living among us and working office jobs is ripe sitcom material.

But that’s what really happened in 2007 when ABC unveiled Cavemen, turning a bit from a series of insurance commercials into a full-fledged sitcom. Unsurprisingly, Cavemen was a disaster. Not only was the show critically panned and canceled after one season, but only six of its 13 episodes even made it to air. (Perhaps the most shocking part of Cavemen, in retrospect, is that Nick Kroll was one of the primitive leads; he acknowledges it was “universally reviled.”) If there’s a moral to the Cavemen fiasco, it’s a rather simple one: good commercials don’t necessarily make for good TV shows. Unless, it seems, you’re Ted Lasso.

It was hard not to be skeptical when AppleTV+ first announced Ted Lasso. Even with the pedigree of veteran showrunner Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town, the tragically short-lived Whiskey Cavalier), there didn’t seem to be much there in terms of a series. The “character” of Ted Lasso, as one-dimensional as it was, originated from a couple of NBC promos when it acquired the television rights to the English Premier League. The idea was that an American football coach, played by Jason Sudeikis, was hired as the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur. Most of the jokes stemmed from Lasso being out of his depth, from one sport called football to another. (Ted Lasso is unaware that you can end a soccer match with a draw, among many other things.)

Now don’t get me wrong: They’re funny videos! It’s a shame that NBC stopped after making only two, especially when the second Ted Lasso video ends with him announcing that he was hired to manage Leicester City—right before the real-life club would go on to produce one of the great sporting miracles of our lifetime by winning the Premier League. (The Lasso Effect, baby!) Nevertheless, I’d have put money down on AppleTV+’s Ted Lasso being as bad as the streamer’s dystopian series where Jason Momoa is a blind warrior named Baba Voss.

Well, I have to eat my words. Ted Lasso the sitcom … seriously rules. The series has no right to be as good, funny, and moving as it is. And yet I devoured all 10 episodes in a single day while frantically messaging my editor in disbelief that this is one of my favorite new shows. As far as TV productions go, this might as well be Leicester City winning the Premier League.

The series makes a few changes from the original NBC format. Instead of taking over a big-name club like Spurs, Sudeikis’s Lasso is hired to manage the fictional AFC Richmond, who are described as perennially mediocre Premier League mainstays. A real perennially mediocre Premier League mainstay is Crystal Palace, and sure enough, AFC Richmond takes the club’s color scheme—and the series even filmed its stadium scenes at Palace’s Selhurst Park. (Adding to the mindfuck is Ted Lasso’s confirmation that Palace still exist in the show’s universe, since they are Richmond’s first opponents during the Lasso tenure.) There’s also some explanation given for why an American football coach with no soccer experience would be hired for the role: the club’s owner, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), just underwent a messy divorce with her philandering billionaire husband. She wants to tank the club—the thing her ex loves most in the world—via relegation as payback.

The only problem with Rebecca’s plan? Ted Lasso is essentially the Mister Rogers of managers. What he lacks in soccer expertise he makes up for with constant optimism, which infects the club from ownership on down. Along with breaking down Rebecca’s steely resolve—mostly through kindness and giving her delicious homemade biscuits—Lasso wins over the locker room, including the grumpy legendary-but-deteriorating captain and an arrogant budding superstar loanee. (The arrogant player, played by Phil Dunster, is being loaned out from the Abu Dhabi empire known as Manchester City. Appropriate.)

Soccer managers’ ability to succeed can often depend on how well they can balance their tactical acumen with handling the myriad personalities of the locker room; Lasso falls on one extreme end of the spectrum. He doesn’t understand the offside rule, but by the end of the season, everyone at AFC Richmond is willing to run through a wall for him. It’s a clever pivot from the Lasso of NBC, who tackles his ignorance of the sport with a hint of arrogance and entitlement. Here, Sudeikis brings much more charm. As series cocreator with Lawrence, the Saturday Night Live alum isn’t just cashing an Apple check. Ted Lasso is very much a star vehicle, allowing Sudeikis to showcase real depth and honest-to-god humanity.

By the end of the pilot, we learn why Lasso would uproot himself from coaching Division II college football in Kansas and manage a sport he knows nothing about: He’s heading for a divorce and hopes giving his wife space—in the form of thousands of miles between them—can salvage things. The scene in question gives us only Lasso’s side of the phone conversation. It’s a quietly moving showcase for Sudeikis, and the first of many times Ted Lasso will tug at your heartstrings, showing how soccer can be a lifeblood, an escape, a coping mechanism, and a way to tamp down your anxieties until they bubble up to the surface.

I’m really not kidding. As far as first seasons of a sitcom go, when it can take time for characters to jell—Parks and Recreation didn’t fire on all cylinders until Season 3—Ted Lasso feels like a genuine triumph. From Lasso on down, there’s a real depth to the ensemble, who are all given complete arcs throughout the season. The cockiness and selfish attitude of the loanee, Jamie Tartt, stems from a toxic relationship with his father; the aging captain, Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), struggles with his bodily limitations at the tail end of his career; the timid kit manager Nate (Nick Mohammed) slowly grows out of his shell and speaks up about his (effective!) ideas about how to improve the team.

My only real complaint, as a self-professed soccer obsessive, is that the series never really goes into the nitty-gritty of football management. I don’t expect Lasso to gather his team and be like, “All right, y’all, let’s go out there with a 4-3-2-1 wide Gegenpress and a high line,” but explaining the how of his success outside of being very likable in the locker room will help some with the suspension of disbelief.

But hoping that Ted Lasso will take some cues from the Ben Affleck Alcoholic Basketball Coach Movie and throw in some meatier soccer details in Season 2 is just me picking nits. Ted Lasso is, somehow, a charming sitcom with room to grow. I honestly can’t wait to watch more? That something so promising could be born out of a couple of television spots, however, should be viewed as the exception to the rule—much like an American football coach excelling at managing a Premier League club.

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