Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A vengeful ex-wife inherits a professional sports team she hates and, determined to run it into the ground, pairs an inexperienced coach with a ho-hum squad so that, together, they’ll turn out their worst season ever.
Yes, this is the premise of the 1989 film “Major League,” a sports-comedy classic if not an outright classic sans modifier, and it’s also the basic premise of “Ted Lasso,” the new light comedy from Apple TV+ that’s… really, really good. While a few superficial tweaks mask just how much the latter owes to the former — “Ted Lasso” is about a soccer team, and the former owner didn’t die, he just got divorced — what makes Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence’s series its own enchanting entry in the sports entertainment cannon is the same thing that makes Ted Lasso himself so darn compelling: attitude.
Originally, Ted Lasso was more of a buffoon; as seen in NBC Sports’ ads touting its Premier League coverage, Ted was a blowhard meant to illustrate American men’s mystifying blend of ignorance and confidence, especially when it comes to sports and specifically when it comes to soccer. (Ted’s cluelessness over how to play the game doesn’t stop him from screaming about it, or appearing as an in-studio “expert” for the follow-up video.) This instantly recognizable archetype was built for quick jokes, but may have struggled to be stretched out over three or four seasons. So rather than stick to this quickly sketched character (and producing a border-splitting spoof mocking both versions of football), Sudeikis and Lawrence, along with co-developers Jeff Ingold and Lisa Katzer, tweaked their star into a more relatable American staple: the lovable dad type.
The Apple TV+ version of Ted is still a former Division II football coach who’s never kicked a soccer ball, but now he’s a bright-eyed, big-hearted, eternally positive person — a leader, a friend, and, yes, a father. When he walks into a room, he’s either amiably shuffling or literally skipping; he typically has a gift in hand for whoever he’s meeting, and if he’s abruptly asked to leave, he’ll “rewind” his way out the door. It’s hard to imagine someone better suited to make such unflappable optimism not only charming, but believable; Sudeikis knows just how to shrug off an attack without dismissing its intentions, plow ahead with encouragement without overwhelming his target, and, when his mustachioed grin isn’t appropriate, he can keep the aura of a smile hidden behind his straight face. With all that being said, Ted is never a caricature or even an idealistic impossibility (like Leslie Knope could be in the more exaggerated “Parks” moments); he feels real, which is essential to the show’s compassionate purpose.
Surrounding Ted are a group of amiable, well-defined characters. Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt, also reprising his role from the NBC ads) is Ted’s quiet, eccentric, second-in-command who knows just when to push his head coach on an important point; Nate (Nick Mohammed) is a timid equipment manager holding back a few bright bits of soccer strategy; Jamie (Phil Dunster) and Roy (Brett Goldstein) are the dueling stars of AFC Richmond: one a hotheaded youngster who enjoys the spotlight a little too much, and the other an aging veteran clinging to past glory in his twilight years. Juno Temple is the least thoroughly sketched member of a strong ensemble, and she still manages to steal most scenes she’s in (playing Keeley, a social media influencer who dates Jamie).
Then there’s the evil new owner, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham); the de facto villain out to embarrass Ted and run his team into the ground; the female antagonist in a sport dominated by men, just like “Major League.” Except… that’s not really Rebecca’s role here. Yes, her actions instigate everything that follows, but she’s not a cartoonish scoundrel who the team unites to defeat; she’s a pained divorcee, defined by a sexist culture and isolated because of it. “Ted Lasso” gives her an ample arc, and Waddingham turns in a sensitive performance that emphasizes what Rebecca is feeling even when she won’t allow herself to say the words. Plus, with a cast heavy on men, Rebecca and Keeley form the most meaningful friendship.
“Ted Lasso” could benefit from a bit more from Keeley and from trimming a few minutes from most episodes, but Lawrence crafts such a welcoming space it’s hard to complain too much about overfilling it. To that same end, it’s meaningless to moan over a lack of laughs. Most of the comedy comes from the expressive actors or one-off quips that still drive the story forward. “You beating yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet: I don’t want to hear it,” Ted says to a distressed player. That’s a good line! It’s also a line that, with very slight tweaking, could be more pointed and thus more noticeable. But that’s not reflective of who Ted is or what “Ted Lasso” wants to be. Unlike the ads that preceded it, the goal here isn’t to go viral with lethal one-liners; it’s to deliver an absorbing, heartfelt crowd-pleaser with wit and charm.
One of Ted’s early statements that bites him in the butt is that he doesn’t care about winning or losing (or tying, which he often forgets can happen). He sees his job as helping each and every member of the team, on the field and off, perform their best. Ted’s not a brilliant strategist, and if there’s a major flaw in the first season, it’s that there are virtually no scenes of Ted putting in the work to better understand soccer. (It’s implied that he’s learning, instead of seeing Ted cracking the books or studying a little game tape.) This “life coach” interpretation of his job started when he was coaching kids, not professionals, and Ted is forced to recognize that change eventually. Still, his attitude is everything. Ted wins you over just like he does everyone else; you can believe his team wants to play better for him because you would, too. Like so many great sports stories before it, “Ted Lasso” thrives on the old adage that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game. And “Ted Lasso” plays the right way.
“Ted Lasso” will premiere its first three episodes Friday, August 14 with new episodes available weekly on Apple TV+.