Apple TV’s Ted Lasso turns a viral video into a pretty good sitcom
Part-way through the first episode of Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, I realized that internet streaming has killed the fish-out-of-water-comedy. American shows can’t mock how the funny foreigners do things, since they’re just as necessary these days to a global media platform’s success. Lasso could have fallen into this trope, but manages to find another way of getting laughs out of culture clash.
Ted Lasso began life as a 2013 commercial promoting NBC Sports’ coverage of the English Premier League. The five minute sketch saw NFL coach Lasso, played by Jason Sudekis, drafted in to manage a “football” team on the other side of the Atlantic. And it had plenty of winking nods to explain the various differences between American Football and the sport known by that name in the rest of the world.
The clip was popular on YouTube, racking up 14 million views, and NBC Sports brought back Lasso, played by Jason Sudekis, for a follow-up a year later. Then, half a decade later, Apple paid for a 10-episode first series created by Sudekis, Brendan Hunt, writer Joe Kelly and sitcom super-producer Bill Lawrence — the figure behind Scrubs, Spin City and Cougar Town.
The series keeps the basic premise, but builds out a lot of the details, with Lasso now a college football coach parachuted in to revive the struggling Richmond FC. The club’s new owner is the former owner’s ex-wife (played by Hannah Waddingham, best known as Game of Thrones’ shame nun), who won the business in the divorce settlement. And her decision to recruit a know-nothing coach from the US is more deliberate than it seems.
In the first three episodes, which Apple made available for preview, Lasso finds himself thrust in front of the press and then into the league season proper. The club is struggling in the middle of the table with a demoralized, fractious team that does not respect Lasso’s lack of knowledge. Add in a hostile press and behind-the-scenes drama and there’s a lot for Lasso to sort out.
Thankfully the show is funny, with plenty of zingy, laugh-out-loud one-liners that increase as the show picks up momentum. Many of the best lines from the pilot are cribbed straight from the first NBC trailer, and I did wonder if the gags would stop soon after. Thankfully, as soon as the show broadens its focus out to the wider world, and onto the club’s roster of oddballs, it gets funnier.
At the start of 2019, there was a rumor claiming that Apple’s leadership was dissatisfied by the content of the shows it was buying. Anonymous insiders claimed that CEO Tim Cook kept saying that shows couldn’t be “so mean” as part of a push for family-friendly fare. Certainly, Ted Lasso exists as a very loud repudiation of any suggestion that Apple was playing it safe.
The majority of the cast are English and display the sort of profanity-laden dialogue that is taken for granted over here. It’s also pretty mean, with much of the crew openly hostile toward Lasso and toward each other. Richmond’s a leafy London suburb full of one-percenters, but even its children aren’t averse to calling Lasso a wanker whenever they see him, at least at first.
That is, perhaps, the one issue I can see with Lasso: The tone is all over the place, with Sudekis playing Lasso as a magical savant and coasting off the full force of his midwestern charm. Everyone else, meanwhile, is uttering oaths and backstabbing each other as they vie for domination in the cutthroat world of football. Imagine if you dumped JD from Scrubs, complete with his “I learned something today” commentary into Seinfeld or Always Sunny, you know?
The list of commercials and viral videos that enjoyed a successful second life isn’t a long one, especially if you discount the Ernest franchise. In the internet-viral era, there’s been, uh Cavemen (pulled mid-season) and Baby Bob (its second season burned off by CBS in the summer). In fact, Apple TV+’s commission of Ted Lasso makes is the most successful ad-to-sitcom translation almost by default. And if it gets a second season, then you can pretty much say that it’s the standard bearer for all other shows in its genre.
There is one other issue that probably needs calling out, and it’s Apple’s policy toward product placement. Now, when Apple announced it would start making TV shows, I did wonder if every show would exist in a magical world where Samsung had stuck to selling fish. That would have strained credibility in the (co-produced by Ubisoft) Mythic Quest, since game developers are far more wedded to PCs. And, thankfully, the show did actually use (PC rival) Razer machines instead of MacBook Pros.
Ted Lasso did not dodge this bullet, and everyone in the show’s fictional world has an affinity for brand new iMacs. Everyone’s toting around a new, pristine iPhone 11 and every pair of headphones has Beats’ signature “b” on the side. Oh, and someone uses Siri to dial a call, because that’s a thing we all do, right? I get it, but also much like how Sony got too hot-and-heavy with the placement in Casino Royale, you really notice how Apple everything is.
Beyond that, however, I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the series when it debuts on August 13th. If you’re worried that it’s going to be too soccerball-focused, you needn’t, it’s fairly light on any barriers to viewing, and when they talk, they mostly use US-friendly terms anyway.
When a journalist in the press conference announced they worked for The Sun, the rest of the room quietly boo-ed. The Rupert Murdoch-owned paper slandered the victims of the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989 in which 96 people lost their lives. To this day, the paper is treated with wariness in some football circles and the city of Liverpool has maintained a 30-year boycott of the paper. It’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d expect a hat-tip to by a primarily-American TV show, but it’s welcome.
The show has tried hard to hide which real Premier League stadium plays host to Richmond FC. Most football fans will be able to spot that it’s Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace, the team Richmond plays in the second episode.