As an American living in Britain, I should love Ted Lasso. When you first move, it’s fun to compare what’s different in the UK and the US. You talk to new friends about cereals that have different names; funny idioms that sound Midwestern; the things you’re taught at school, such as skewed versions of revolutionary history and, in Ohio, abstinence.
But then you get bored – because it’s boring. You quickly realise that there’s only so much mileage you can get out of compare and contrast, especially when trying to form real bonds with new friends or make romantic connections. For this reason, it should be obvious that Ted Lasso, Apple TV’s fish-out-of-water series about an American managing a British football team, has no legs. And yet, it’s one of the most celebrated shows running today – with near-universal critical acclaim – for reasons I couldn’t tell you.
The very premise of Ted Lasso makes no sense: Ted is an American football coach (played by Saturday Night Live alumni Jason Sudeikis) who has only ever worked at university level. But despite this inexperience, he has just been hired to manage the made-up Premier League team, AFC Richmond, as it faces relegation. The viewers soon discover that his controversial hire – the fan uproar over which is portrayed with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer – was the conniving plan of the club’s new owner, Rebecca Welton (her cheating ex-husband supports the team: she hopes to punish him by destroying the thing he loves most).
The show was originally based on a promotional video Sudeikis created for NBC Sports entitled “An American Coach in London” (an idea that is fine for a four-minute clip and works less well stretched out in 40-minute stints over ten episodes a season). It has an audience rating of 96 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes – a status reserved for Oscar winners and timeless classics – and has been nominated for a gobsmacking 20 Emmy Awards for its first season. It is near-impossible to find a review that isn’t glowing, all commending its “joyous”, “heartwarming”, “honest” approach to the trials and tribulations of sport and life (“especially what we need during these unprecedented times!”). This praise should suggest that Ted Lasso clears the obvious hurdles its hokey premise presents. Watching it, I was baffled to find this was far from the reality.
Much of the plot, jokes, and dialogue revolves around the fact that Ted is from Kansas (similar to Sudeikis himself, who created and writes the show) and is folksy – cloyingly warm with a hammy Southern accent and a cartoonish moustache. He approaches the players with kindness and empathy; a contrast from what they’re used to from typical Premier League managers. The rest of the cast – footballers, WAGs, management staff and sport reporters – are archetypes seemingly written by Americans whose only brush with present day Britain is through viral Lad Bible videos, The Crown, and Love Island (even setting aside the borderline offensive portrayal of Nigerian players and British curry houses). These characters behave according to an American understanding of how awed and inspired Brits must be by American insight and perseverance.
The show is clearly built for an American audience. Any British swearing is assumed to get a laugh: “tits” and “wanker” are thrown around in nearly every episode. (American exceptionalism creeps in as well – in the first season’s finale episode, the team scores a last-minute goal by adopting American football positioning out on the pitch.) It’s hard to get through a scene without a joke about how the US is simply different from the UK (“You don’t know who Jimmy Buffet is?”; “Tea is horrible!”) or a bit of dialogue purely written so that Ted can say an idiom that will sound hick-ish to his British colleagues (“When it comes to locker rooms, I like ’em just like my mother’s bathing suits. I only wanna see ’em in one piece.”) The plots are ludicrous – which would be fine, if they were funnier. The opening scene of series two sees the team’s mascot – a dog – inexplicably on the pitch during a match and killed during a penalty. Another character – a player for Manchester City – leaves his club to go on a Love Island knock-off because his dad said he wasn’t scoring enough goals.
If the humour falls flat, viewers should at least be left with the deeply moving character development fans and reviewers rave about. But each episode functions like a predictable sitcom – all of its emotional moments are sewn up quickly, and there is not much of a continuous narrative arc across the series. In the first episode of the new season, player Dani has his “yips” cured after a single session of therapy, while club owner Rebecca realises what she needs from dating (after a traumatic, publicly humiliating divorce) in just one instance of watching couples in a coffee shop. Ted Lasso almost exclusively leans on sudden epiphanies for all of its emotional development – a lazy choice that ultimately makes for jarring viewing.
Already, the second season of Ted Lasso has managed to top the slavering praise it acquired for its first. It has a Rotten Tomatoes critic rating of 99 per cent, with most reviews arguing it has built on what was good in season one, but made it better. Constantly praised for celebrating the best of human nature, for me this series shows nothing close to the reality of kindness and kinship at all. If Ted Lasso did what reviewers promised then it would be great. But all I saw was passable television that relies on hackneyed tropes to fool audiences into thinking their hearts are warmed, when really they have only been numbed.
[See also: The genius of Jennifer Coolidge]
This article was originally published in August 2021. Ted Lasso season 3 premieres new episodes each Wednesday on Apple TV+.