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The Identity Crisis of ‘Ted Lasso’

AFC Richmond tries to balance winning and culture in the show’s third season—while the series at large seems headed toward its end

Apple / Getty Images / Ringer illustration

While a soccer club getting promoted to the English Premier League is always a cause for celebration, it also marks the beginning of a new challenge. A recently promoted side can’t rest on its laurels if it wants to avoid finishing in the bottom three and dropping right back down to the lower division. As a result, clubs either have to decide to go all in with the group of players that got them promoted in the first place, or they can funnel resources into bringing in fresh faces with more experience competing at soccer’s highest level. (In its return to the Premier League this season, Nottingham Forest opted for an extreme version of the latter strategy, signing an unprecedented 30 new players since the summer of 2022.)

In facing this decision, many teams that get promoted undergo an identity crisis—and the fictional AFC Richmond of Ted Lasso is no different. Richmond is back in the Premier League at the start of Ted Lasso’s third season: an impressive achievement that is somewhat undermined by all of the pundits picking them to finish last. But while Richmond returning to its underdog status keeps things interesting for Ted Lasso on screen, there’s also been plenty of hand-wringing over the series off-screen.

As Ted Lasso is the crown jewel of Apple TV+, Apple is understandably hesitant to bid farewell to the show, even as all signs point to the newest season being its last. It doesn’t get any clearer than star and cocreator Jason Sudeikis saying, and I quote, “This is the end of this story that we wanted to tell, that we were hoping to tell, that we loved to tell.” (Apple not explicitly promoting Ted Lasso’s third season as the end of the show has the same vibe as someone insisting that they didn’t split up with their partner, they’re just taking a “break.”) All told, there is a lot of noise surrounding Ted Lasso both on the pitch and in the discourse, and the series has responded by embracing a new ethos: go big or go home.

After spending the summer break with his son, Ted Lasso (Sudeikis) openly ponders why he’s still coaching a soccer team in London, an admission that takes on an almost meta quality given the show’s uncertain future. What’s a lot more certain is that Richmond are facing an uphill battle to stay in the Premier League, which puts them in stark contrast to West Ham United, a powerhouse now managed by Ted’s prodigious former assistant Nate (Nick Mohammed). Nate’s second-season heel turn—complete with a physical transformation that’s part José Mourinho, part Leland from Twin Peaks—would be enough reason for Richmond and West Ham to develop a rivalry. But there’s also the small matter of the club’s respective owners. For Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), there’s no greater incentive for Richmond to succeed than the fact that her philandering ex-husband, Rupert (Anthony Head), is the new owner of West Ham. The same impulse that led Rebecca to hire Ted two seasons ago—a Major League–esque ploy to spite Rupert and his Richmond fandom by bringing in someone who’d never coached soccer—now compels her to help the team win at her ex’s expense.

Once again, there is an interesting friction at the heart of Ted Lasso between the intense demands of the sport and the eponymous coach who cares more about the well-being of his players than wins or losses. But the ambition of trumping West Ham, in particular, means that Rebecca and other key figures at Richmond are willing to go against the Lasso Way™. Case in point: When a mercurial superstar named Zava (Maximilian Osinski) becomes a free agent at the start of the season, Richmond is hell-bent on securing his signature, despite the player’s reputation for caring only about himself. (Zava is an amusing stand-in for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a larger-than-life figure who likes to refer to himself in the third person.)

It goes without saying that the biggest concern about Zava potentially joining Richmond is his attitude destroying the selfless culture that Ted has built. Relatedly, one wonders whether Rebecca wants to sign Zava for the good of the team, or whether her determination to get one over on Rupert’s West Ham, who are also interested in the player, is clouding her vision. At the same time, Richmond could be doomed to repeat history if the club doesn’t try something new. (For all of Ted’s infectious enthusiasm, Richmond were still relegated during his first year in charge.)

That same philosophical predicament applies to Ted Lasso’s third season overall, which is caught between giving fans the familiar feel-good vibes that made the series an Emmy-winning sensation and delivering an ambitious expansion of its world. To that end, the show is juggling the workplace dynamics of three different settings this season: Ted and the rest of the gang at Richmond, Nate handling his new managerial duties at West Ham, and former model Keeley (Juno Temple) starting her own marketing firm. Balancing all these story lines goes a long way toward explaining why the third season carries such bloated running times: of the four episodes provided to critics, all of them run over 40 minutes, and one even hits the 50-minute mark. Just as Coach Lasso is a long way from Kansas, Ted Lasso is a long way from its half-hour sitcom roots.

Whether this development is encouraging or not might come down to what individual viewers want out of this series. There’s a world in which Ted Lasso coasted entirely on its wholesomeness, becoming a successor to sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Recreation, where the joy of watching the show is seeing characters you like spend time together. But to Ted Lasso’s credit, the series clearly cares more about pushing the story forward with its overarching message of self-improvement, even if it means putting the characters through more hardship. (That being said, these Season 3 running times are like someone turning in an essay that’s double the original word count—there’s no shame in having an editor trim the fat!)

Some fans might’ve been upset when Nate broke bad at the end of last season, but Season 3 underlines that the character’s antagonism comes from a place of deep-seated insecurity, leaving the door open for redemption. (I would bet my life savings on the Nate Redemption Arc happening by the end of the season.) Then there’s Rebecca, falling into the same trap she did in the first season when the prospect of revenge against Rupert clouds her decision-making. Similarly, just because Ted finally opened up to a sports psychologist about his panic attacks doesn’t mean he’s impervious to setbacks, especially when his loved ones are across the pond and moving on with their lives. Ted Lasso’s heartwarming moments—rest assured, there’s still plenty of those to go around—might be what reeled viewers in when it premiered toward the start of the pandemic, but the show is at its best when that boundless optimism is pitted against genuine adversity.

In a strange way, that means Ted Lasso is now effectively contradicting itself. On the one hand, the series keeps trying to shake up its status quo by introducing new conflicts and characters; on the other, it argues that change isn’t always a good thing, especially if it comes at the expense of our principles. There should be a lot more clarity as to what kind of show Ted Lasso wants to be by the season finale, which could very likely double as a series finale. But until then, the Ted Lasso mindset is at something of a crossroads: a show aiming to go big before going home for good.