3.5 out of 5 stars

Jason Sudeikis first played Ted Lasso on NBC Sports to promote their 2013 coverage of the English Premier League. His wife, actress/director Olivia Wilde, suggested Ted was strong enough to headline something of his own, and with Apple getting into television they commissioned a series with producer Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) helping develop it. The result isn’t a hilarious pastiche of elite sportsmen or the inner workings of football management, but rather a goodnatured and amusing character piece.

Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) is the divorced owner of struggling Premier League club AFC Richmond, who hires an American football coach with zero experience of the English game. Her plan is to ruin Richmond’s chances in order to exact petty revenge on her ex, Rupert Mannion (Anthony Head), whose millions helped build the club he still loves. Ted Lasso (Sudeikis) is duly flown into London with his longtime assistant Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt), becoming a fish-out-of-water thanks to culture-shock, angry fans, incredulous tabloid reporters, and a team who have no faith in this moustachioed yank’s ability to help avoid relegation.

One welcome change in adapting NBC’s adverts is the softening of Ted’s personality. In the commercials, he was a loudmouthed and comically inept fool, ignorant of the basics of the sport. In the TV series, there’s only a smattering of that in the first and last episode, but this version of Ted is more wholesome and goodnatured. He sees this job as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference with world-class athletes. His methods are more focused on team-building and player psychology, more than any genius with tactics. Coach Beard handles game strategy, whereas Ted is content to bake cakes for his new boss each morning and be a mediating force in the locker room. The first thing he does is stick the word ‘BELIEVE’ above his office door.

Football is a rich subject to tackle humorously and Ted Lasso touches on a few standard tropes. There’s the handsome David Beckham-like superstar player, Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), whose talent is only surpassed by his narcissism and selfishness. Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) is the ageing captain whose best days are behind him, and whose resentment of Tartt causes lots of fights. The show doesn’t have time to explore many of the others on the team, sadly, apart from Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernández), a Spanish signing with a childish “football is life” enthusiasm for the beautiful game.

Most of the characters aren’t players, they’re friends and staff members. There’s timid kit man Nathan (Nick Mohammed), who can’t believe the squad’s new manager values his frank opinions; Rebecca Welton’s obsequious assistant Higgins (Jeremy Swift), who helps her sabotage Ted’s actions at the club; and glamour model Keeley Jones (Juno Temple), the likeable but dimwitted girlfriend of Tartt who’s “famous for almost being famous”.

It’s a shame Ted Lasso‘s half-hour format doesn’t allow for a deeper exploration of everyone at AFC Richmond. There are times when it seems strange we only interact with two players to any memorable extent. Keeley’s role is also odd, in how she seems like the only ‘WAG’ (wife and girlfriend) hanging around the stadium. In reality, she’d be one of many and entire dramas have been built around Footballers’ Wives (2002-06). And not to get into spoilers, but when Keeley’s purpose changes halfway through, pairing her up with Rebecca as a life-affirming friend felt a little contrived.

However, I understand there are limitations with a series like this and overstuffing episodes with too many characters would be a worse mistake. I just hope season 2 gives other players on the team some attention, as it would be nice to feel like you know this starting eleven by name. And if a few more of them had after-match lives of their own, as it would be nice for Keeley to be with friends and fully represent the social side of the club.

Ted Lasso is the star of the show, of course, so it’s no surprise he’s given the lion’s share of the material and manages to make the series work despite its flaws. Sudeikis portrays Ted as such an honest and optimistic person, which is surprisingly appealing in this day and age. It would’ve been easy to make him an ignorant disaster everyone hated, aiming for the cringe-comedy that’s been in fashion for a few decades now. The decision to avoid that and make Ted a genuinely likeable goofball is oddly more interesting. It’s entertaining to see him win hard-nosed journalists around and melt Rebecca’s icy veneer. The season finds time to develop Ted’s character as a three-dimensional human being, too, with a short arc where his family visit and it becomes clear he needs to divorce his wife in order for them all to move on.

The rest of the cast is decent, with the standout being Phil Dunster as egotistical Jamie Tartt. While it’s unlikely a professional player would ever be as selfish as him (football is a team game after all), Tartt’s a fun example of the hunky northern footballer stereotype with more money than sense. Nick Mohammed is also lovable as “Nate the Great”, and Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) pops up occasionally as Richmond’s odious former-owner, determined to keep playing mind games with his ex. I wasn’t so keen on Brett Goldstein as over-the-hill Roy Kent, however, mainly because his gruff persona quickly became repetitive.

Considering this is a comedy developed by Spin City co-creator Bill Lawrence, Ted Lasso isn’t screamingly funny. The opening episodes repeat gags from the commercials while leaning on well-trodden differences between Britain and America, and the series never becomes a laugh-a-minute riot. A lot of the jokes are signposted or only raise a chuckle, but that isn’t a huge problem. I miss shows where the laughs come from the characters and relationships, without zingers being forced into people’s mouths and making everything seem fake. It’s a difficult line to walk, best exemplified by Only Fools and Horses. Ted Lasso is nowhere near that quality because it’s so larger-than-life, but it’s likewise a comedy where you’d happily watch just to spent time with these people.

A solid first season with no own goals. Ted Lasso could definitely improve and create a richer world at AFC Richmond next time (there were signs of that in the finale with more screentime for the background players). But with so many tropes and storytelling possibilities still going untouched… Apple TV+ has made a low-key hit that deserves to be discovered by more people. Football fan or not.

USA • UK | 2020 | 316 MINUTES • 10 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

writers: Jason Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt, Joe Kelly, Jane Becker, Jamie Lee, Brett Goldstein, Bill Wrubel, Leann Bowen & Phoebe Walsh.
directors: Tom Marshall, Zach Braff, Elliot Hegarty & Declan Lowney.
starring: Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, Brendan Hunt, Brett Goldstein, Phil Dunster, Nick Mohammed, Juno Temple, Jeremy Swift, Anthony Head & James Lance.