Friends, readers, fellow lovers of television comedy: I come not to praise Ted Lasso, but, well, to dig a little, to try and understand what on earth makes this show click. Because, you see, Ted Lasso — the biggest Apple TV+ success, nominated for more than a dozen Emmy Awards — is not a very good show. Born out of a spoofy television commercial, it’s about a folksy American football coach coming to England to coach soccer. This means many (many) jokes of the wrong-side-of-the-road variety, while Jason Sudeikis, playing the ludicrously cheery and humane Lasso, bakes biscuits to make others warm up to him.
When the show premiered last year, the jokes fell flat. The season’s storyline — a woman inherits a sports team and hires an unqualified coach in order to make it fail — was lifted unashamedly from the 1989 hit Major League. As Ted Lasso, Sudeikis channelled the grating Ned Flanders, the moustached and helpful “Hi-Diddly-Diddly” neighbour in The Simpsons. None of this felt original or exciting, especially considering the adventurous landscape of television comedy today. Yet somehow Lasso sunnily, unexpectedly wore down our cynical defenses.
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I blame it on the biscuits.
I also blame it on the pandemic, naturally. The last year not only saw the world anxious and shuttered in, but also had viewers deprived of their favourite TV shows, with delays in production and release dates. In a year featuring Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Curb Your Enthusiasm, I might not have moved beyond the tired first two Ted Lasso episodes. Starved of immediate options, I did watch the rest of the season, only to be taken aback by the show’s genuinely, overwhelmingly sincere heart. A heart worn befittingly on its sleeve.
Ted Lasso came to us in a summer without live sport. There were no crowds, no cheers, no painfully close scoreboards, no bitterly contested umpiring decisions. Merely watching young boys run their sneakers off on a muddy field, week after week, felt special in the circumstances. It may not have been a Good Show — it hurts how clumsily the pop-culture references are shoehorned in — but it tackled neglected itches that clearly needed scratching. It was old-school comfort television, predictable and trite and ‘feel-good’ in the way most TV comedies used to feel before HBO came along.
(A quick sidebar: I have observed Ted Lasso being compared unfairly to comforting comedies like Schitt’s Creek (Netflix) which provide extreme succour to viewers while also being brilliantly written and performed. Lasso, on the other hand, frequently feels like a show where the makers forgot to switch on the laugh-track — and, in its schmaltzy case, an awwww track.)
If I sound annoyed with the show, it’s because I bought into it. Consider it the wariness of a sports-fan wearing the wrong-coloured shirt, with no chance of making the semi-finals. The second season is a couple of episodes in and seems to have forsaken even its token edge: everybody’s chummy and playing nice, and while Lasso looks certain to have a mental breakdown down the line — telegraphed unsubtly by a newly hired team psychologist — this feels too saccharine to watch.
That first season held a few secret weapons: Hannah Waddingham was superlative as Rebecca, the formidable, icy team owner who was secretly waiting to be thawed. Brett Goldstein took the gruff sportsman cliché and ran hard enough with it to make his Roy Kent actually loveable. Finally, Brendan Hunt, co-creator of the series, plays the deadpan Coach Beard, Lasso’s first mate and best friend who knows just when to cut his enthused buddy off. These were not only memorable performances, but — with each character rolling their eyes at Lasso — audience stand-ins.
That bench-strength of interesting characters is vital, since it takes a while to realise what Sudeikis is doing. His may be a one-note character coming froma barely funny advert, but the actor positively quivers with warmth, like a moustached Care Bear. It’s a charmless offensive. Those around might ridicule Lasso — unforgiving British football crowds chant “wanker” whenever they see him — but he doesn’t mind. There is a generosity of spirit in both performance and character as Sudeikis doles out lessons about making sport less masculine and about taking losses in one’s stride.
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Losing, in fact, may be this show’s biggest win.
When tennis champion Naomi Osaka deserts a grand slam in order to shield her mental health from a media barrage, and iconic gymnast Simone Biles calls the time-off between high-pressure events the best part of her career, this may be the time to reconsider the all-or-nothing sporting mentality built up over generations. In this current context, there’s something to be said about a hit show not only scoring own goals but owning up to them. Ted Lasso gives us something to root for, and it seems strangely appropriate that it isn’t a genuinely great series. They can’t all be winners.
Streaming tip of the week:
The stunning music documentary Summer Of Soul has just come to Disney+ Hotstar Premium. Directed by Questlove, the film showcases the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, and — half a century later — feels as electrifying. It’s wild.