Coming late to this party, it was only the unequivocally enthusiastic recent review by Lucy Mangan in The Guardian
that brought on curiosity about Ted Lasso
, and even that was for Season two, which began streaming on Apple TV+ at the end of July. Other reactions to this difficult-to-describe series have been less laudatory, snide, embarrassed even.
Nevertheless, to begin at the beginning with Season one, last August. What is Ted Lasso
? A character, a situation comedy, a psychological study? Latterly, much has been written, but here's the pitch: an angry divorcée (Hannah Waddington) whose settlement includes ownership of a fantasy premier league football club, AFC Richmond, determines vengeance on her two- (or three- or four-) timing ex (Anthony Head) by running his beloved team into the ground. She hires a coach of American-style football (Jason Sudeikis) to come to England and coach Richmond, despite the fact that, or, really, because, he is clueless about soccer. She has not reckoned with the unabashed good-heartedness of a man for whom 'sincerity' is his middle name: Coach Ted Lasso.
This could fall effortlessly into the category exemplified by the trope of theatrical creations facing impossible odds: 'we can do the show right here!' But it doesn't, and a slew of serious awards – Golden Globe, Emmy nominations, wins for the actors, almost all of whom are British – suggests that there is more going on than a ridiculous precis would suggest.
First, the dialogue. Jason Sudeikis has done his time – starting in 2003 – as writer and comedian on Saturday Night Live
(SNL), and played a number of roles in television and film that allowed him to experiment with different characterisations, not always pleasant, often in comedy. For Ted Lasso
, he has developed and written the series with a team that also includes the English actor Brett Goldstein, who plays Roy Kent, an ageing (i.e. over 30) footballer for Richmond in the series.
Where SNL takes the piss out of just about everyone, from presidents to movie stars, Ted Lasso
is the opposite. It asks its audience instead to 'Believe' – which is Coach Lasso's motto – in goodness and optimism. The script has wit and intelligence, a mixture of American and English humour, and each type has its high and low points. The unexpected sophisticated literary references (well-known Esquire
journalist, books, poets) in passing will amuse those who notice, as will the nods to other television shows, such as Cheers
. This is balanced against some very bad jokes – but timed so well it is impossible not to laugh – and drunken cries of 'wanker' down the pub.
Second, there is the structure of Ted Lasso
. It isn't just a comedy; it is a carefully constructed, you could say 'theatrical' series, divided into interlocked parts, all of which are in motion at once, each brought into close focus at the right moment. For instance, there is a kind of 'Greek chorus', which is the group of rowdy, vociferous pub regulars, where the good-hearted but fierce lady publican is played by Annette Badland (Outlander
). They are the disillusioned and the disappointed, the doubting fans who despair at the new coach. They are a counterpoint to the sometimes hapless, one could say hopeless, optimism of Ted Lasso and his second in command, the laconic Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt, also on the writing team).
Into this mix is thrown the toxic anger, hell-bent on sabotage, of Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddington, Game of Thrones
), all spike and gloss, but covering over a badly fractured, fragile woman. A foil to her is provided by her bumbling club administrator, Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift, Downton Abbey
, still in butler mode), always wrong-footed, terrified by her tantrums and afraid of losing his job if he actually speaks his mind.
Third, of course is the team. Here is where the dialogue and the structure coalesce, because within the team are the various relationships that give Ted Lasso
its huge appeal. AFC Richmond isn't really a team at all. It is a collection of individuals all pulling in different directions, hence its lack of success, one might surmise. Ted himself is the axis around which the relationships revolve and spin off. His own with his wife, back in the States, is in serious trouble; he and his boss Rebecca are on totally divergent paths, each destined to destroy the other's ambitions; Rebecca and her ex-husband clash in exchanges that are at once sharp but funny.
This may be a story ostensibly about a football team, but the women are far from sidelined, often one step ahead. Everything is leavened by the humour and almost unbearable positivism that Ted maintains. Within the Richmond team, each man is given the opportunity to build his own character. From Nathan Shelly (the team's kit man, 'Nate the Great', played consummately by Nick Mohammed) to the team's captain, Roy Kent, the story astonishingly manages to make each man memorable. Brett Goldstein (as Roy) carries the underlying message of the series, which is that machismo does not maketh the man.
What is going on here, however briefly, is the tale of inner lives, the hopes dreams and confusion of simply trying to make sense out of what life has dealt them. Coach Ted seems to be an eager, modest and forgiving soul, but in fact he sees through them all. If he weren't so nice and good at baking, one might call him Machiavellian. But he actually cares, and we
The great strength of Ted Lasso
is the way in which the different parts play out, moving inexorably together, perhaps not quite as expected, nevertheless satisfactorily. Winning obviously matters, and Richmond are desperate not to be relegated, but the focus is more on each player gaining a sense of themselves, sadly lacking to start with.
Take Roy Kent, just about hanging in there as a decent player, with a dodgy knee, more worried about his standing than about how to pull the team together. As a motivational ploy, Ted hands out books to each player, not to do with football or inspirational reading as one might expect. Instead, he has sussed out what each man needs to focus on, and for this he puts into Roy's hands an award-winning children's book from the 1960s called A Wrinkle in Time
. Not hard to imagine Roy's reaction to this. Other books are equally quirky. In reading it as a bedtime story to his niece, Roy realises what the core message of the book is, and how it relates to his role as captain.
Central to Season one is the relationship between Roy and Keely Jones (an out and out scene-stealer role by Juno Temple, of The Dark Knight Rises
) the on/off girlfriend of his teammate and younger, rising football star Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster). Temple as an actor is a terrific team player herself as Keeley, good with the 'boys' and serious about friendship with Rebecca. Thus, there are cross-relationships always at work: Roy and Ted, how to create a team; Ted and Rebecca, how not to create a team; Keeley and Jamie, going down; Roy and Keeley, coming up; Keeley and Rebecca, girls together.
Back at the pub, the 'Greek chorus' expresses strong negative opinions, but the landlady begins to see the light. Richmond as a team starts to pull together (of course), and the audience also feels drawn to support this supposed football club. Yet, what pleases most is the interplay off the field, where winning takes the form not of point scoring but of greater understanding of what it means to deal with adversity and admit that being human humbles you, but that's okay. Whether Season two can keep up the pace remains to be seen.