Ted Lasso’s heart is too big to bench [Apple TV+ review]

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Jason Sudeikis is the titular Ted Lasso
Jason Sudeikis is the titular Ted Lasso in the mostly winning comedy series.
Photo: Apple TV

Created for a diverting if not particularly funny web short, Jason Sudeikis‘ clueless coach Ted Lasso now has his own Apple TV+ series. The question is: Is there enough meat on the bones of the premise to support a comedy series?

Like the NBC Sports promos that spawned the character, Ted Lasso is about an American coaching football in England — and being sorta kinda unfit for the demands. Fish-out-of-water, culture-clash comedies are as old as film comedy itself. And there’s certainly potential in the idea of an old-fashioned Southern gentleman dropped into tough-as-nails, hyper-masculine soccer culture. But ultimately, the high-concept stuff isn’t what works in Ted Lasso’s favor. You must get past the show’s premise to get to the good part.

Ted Lasso review

You’d have to have terminal TV brain to look at the painfully mediocre web videos of Sudeikis as a hapless American hired to coach a U.K. football club and think, “This needs to be a full series.” There was barely enough to the one joke to last three minutes, let alone a full half-hour.

Showrunners Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence (whose resume is the epitome of mixed bag: Spin City, Clone High, Cougar Town, Scrubs…) nevertheless believed enough in the former’s performance as the title character to go ahead and give the thing the prestige TV comedy treatment.

Apple TV+ is no stranger to gambling on a vanity project. And while there does wind up being things to like about Ted Lasso, which debuts Aug. 14 on Apple’s streaming service, that is 100% what this is. If not for Sudeikis’ confidence that this character deserved more screen time, there is absolutely no way there’d be a show at all.

A sports show that’s living in the past

Juno Temple gets caught in Ted's lasso
Juno Temple winds up caught in Ted’s lasso.
Photo: Apple TV+

The problems with the show are myriad, but the biggest is insurmountable: Ted Lasso the character isn’t funny. The culture-clash stuff where he learns what it means when the Brits call him a “wanker” all feel ported intact from a 30-year-old scrapped sitcom. The show has time to tweak and augment the arcs of its secondary characters, but there’s just nothing to be done about one-note Ted.

The trouble with a character like this is he has to be likable no matter what, and his big flaws are obliviousness and being too nice. However, he also must be shrewd and calculating to be good at his job, so he comes across a little like Forrest Gump — stupid when it’s convenient but lovable despite it all.

It doesn’t really work, but if you lose the shtick of his being a hayseed goon, you don’t have a show. This is why TV writing is so frustrating. No high concept, no show — and yet there’s almost no high concept that’s charming enough to warrant more than a pilot.

Other characters score

The show brings other joys, including watching Lasso’s team members start to understand each other, and not always in positive ways. Lasso actually playing the hardened and antisocial footballers to get the best out of them is winning stuff.

The other performances prove more likable because they’re all playing normal-ish people with better-drawn personalities. It’s very odd, I must say, to see Juno Temple as one of the football player’s girlfriends. It seemed for a time that she’d always just play runaway 19-year-olds.

Ultimately, Ted Lasso isn’t the disaster I imagined. At the end of the three episodes offered to the press, I was marginally curious what happens next. That is rare for a comedy, and even rarer for an Apple TV+ comedy. Pretty impressive scoreboard, even though it’s a draw, all things considered.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.