Have you ever let someone else win a game? There are times we are compelled to go easy on someone: from bowling loose and wide against a friend who needs encouragement, to letting a bewitching girl score against you at FIFA. Sometimes it can even be a misplaced sense of loyalty; the number of times I have let a CPU-powered Michael Schumacher overtake me on track…. As Mohammad Azharuddin would attest, it’s not hard to lose on purpose. You fumble a bit. You get beat up. You score some own goals.
The third season of the much loved Apple TV+ comedy Ted Lasso starts out with a whole bunch of them, as Lasso—played by Jason Sudeikis—pre-empts insults thrown at the character. Sitting at a press conference, he hands the media one-liners and jabs against himself, easy headlines he knows they will lap up. “I look like Ned Flanders doing cosplay as Ned Flanders,” says Sudeikis, echoing what TV critics have pointed out ever since the character first appeared. These own goals are, of course, a self-aware attempt at deflection from the show’s creators but they also signal something simpler and lovelier. This is a show that takes it easy on us.
I enjoyed the first season of Ted Lasso, found the second season tedious, and, halfway through the new (and possibly final) season, I am pleased to report that I am enjoying it much more than I expected. The show has leaned deeper into what makes Ted tick, and, in that unravelling, we viewers find nuggets for ourselves: things we could try to do and things we absolutely mustn’t do. One reason he is rated a ludicrous five-stars on Über, for instance, is that sometimes when drivers look particularly tired, Ted offers to drive. His is a uniquely good-natured cautionary tale.
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The plot machinations are nothing we haven’t seen before—in fact, much of the playbook seems generic to the genre: Plot devices and character types come from Major League (1989), Rudy (1993) and A League Of Their Own (1992). One arc in the new season, about a prima donna superstar joining the underdog team, seems to be cribbed straight from Club De Cuervos (Netflix), a Mexican football comedy I have recommended heavily in the past. In fact, given its warmth and constant underdoggedness, Ted Lasso shares much DNA with the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings, where the great John Candy led a bunch of Jamaicans through a bobsled adventure.
Lasso—who still doesn’t understand the off-side rule—may not be the best man for the job but Sudeikis, who endows the character with both folksiness and wisdom, is certainly the right actor. There is always a sense that Lasso knows more than he lets on, and it’s because Sudeikis is so self-aware with pauses and reactions that he can balance out this preposterously affable football coach who happens to be emotionally stunted, yet holds witty and insightful pop-culture opinions. He calls Jackie Chan the greatest working actor—and it’s hard to score against that.
Therefore, Lasso texts Flanders-y things like “should be a doozy” while also spouting clever, vaguely mischievous lines like: “Y’all pointing more fingers than Ganesha giving directions.” Ted Lasso has always walked a tightrope between schmaltzy and sarcastic and the third season feels the most sure-footed. Developed by Bill Lawrence, Sudeikis, Brendan Hunt and Joe Kelly, the show has found a snappiness to the writing that really works.
Also read: ‘Club De Cuervos’, a great comedy about football and family
However, in its urge to play nice, the show relies too heavily on spoon-feeding and spelling out, always making sure the audience has understood the joke or the point to a scene. A clever line is almost always undercut by two reaction shots too many, while sharp visual gags and plot turns are lingered on too long to make them fool-proof. As a result, the show, with episodes averaging 40 minutes, often feels long and predictable.
There are fine performers on this team—Hannah Waddingham continues to dazzle as team owner Rebecca, Brett Goldstein’s Roy Kent is more than a swearing grouch now—but there is no edge. Let’s just say that if Ted Lasso were a football team, it wouldn’t be leading the English Premier League (it may, in fact, be more like Wrexham AFC, the football club spotlighted in Welcome To Wrexham, a cheery but unimpressive docuseries about a football team owned by comedic actors Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds).
As I had written after the show disappointed me last year, that may not be a bad thing.
“Sport,” says a pompous journalist. “It’s quite a metaphor.” Lasso immediately interjects: “It also makes for a heck of a nickname.” He then waits till the journalist leaves so Ted can sign off: “Goodnight, sport.” The joke is a clean scissor-kick, nothing but net, hit exactly where the scorer had promised. There are comforts to be found in a series that determinedly plays nice, at the cost of being predictable. Even its familiarity serves as a reminder. Depending on where we are standing, sport may indeed be many things, but the other way around matters more. It’s less important to see a sport than to be a sport.
Streaming Tip Of The Week
What better time to celebrate our own Oscar winners? Kartiki Gonsalves’ touching film, The Elephant Whisperers (Netflix), won Best Documentary Short at the 95th Oscars. Also, composer M.M. Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose won Best Original Song for Naatu Naatu, from RRR (Disney+ Hotstar).
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.
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