You could hear that the new Apple TV+ sitcom “Ted Lasso” is based on a pair of one-joke video promos, made for NBC Sports, and have a “What is the world coming to?” moment. But that would just mean you had forgotten about “Cavemen” (2007), based on a series of Geico ads, or “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest” (1988), an outgrowth of local spots featuring the supremely annoying Ernest P. Worrell.
I haven’t, which is why I can state with some confidence that “Ted Lasso” is not the worst television series based on commercials. And with the recent debuts of “Intelligence” on Peacock and “Wild Bill” on BritBox, it’s not even the worst comedy this year about an American who comes to Britain for work and struggles to fit in.
Admittedly, those are low bars to cross, like not being the worst pumpkin spiced latte. And “Ted Lasso,” which debuts Friday with three of its 10 half-hour episodes, does not clear them with much room to spare. You won’t forget the line prominently placed in the credits, between writer and director, that reads, “Based on pre-existing format/characters from NBC Sports.”
The pre-existing protagonist is Ted Lasso, a small-time American football coach hired to manage a British soccer team and played in both the commercials and the series by Jason Sudeikis. The ads, made in 2013 and 2014 to promote NBC’s coverage of English Premier League soccer, mocked Lasso’s utter unsuitability for the job and gave no indication of why he was given it.
Now that Sudeikis and the sitcom veteran Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs,” “Spin City”), among others, have built a series around Lasso, they’ve filled in some of those gaps. There’s a screwball reason for Lasso’s hiring: Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), the owner of the fictional AFC Richmond club, wants the team to fail to spite the former co-owner, her soccer-loving ex-husband. And there’s a sentimental reason: Lasso is giving his own wife (Andrea Anders) some space by moving to London while she stays in Kansas.
You can predict most of the sports-comedy heartbreak and uplift that flow from these premises — the big games, the locker-room speeches, the drunken road-trip hookups, the selfish players coming around. What you wouldn’t guess, and may be continually stunned by, is how determinedly cornball the show is. It’s as if Sudeikis et al. foresaw the chaos and terror of the summer of 2020 and wanted to prove that America could do something right.
In its relentless positivity and commitment to making its audience comfortable while maintaining a sheen of pop-cult knowingness, “Ted Lasso” is the dad pants of sitcoms. It contains some of the foul language and snickering sexual humor that streaming allows, but they’re an excuse for Sudeikis to goggle his eyes and purse his lips in a way that says Lasso is wholesome enough to notice but cool enough not to make a thing out of it.
While it plays out the clichés of both the inspirational sports tale and the fish-out-of-water comedy — Lasso struggling to understand the offsides rule, Lasso not knowing how hot the Indian food is going to be — the show bathes us in folksiness, from Marcus Mumford’s twangy music to Lasso’s endless supply of aphorisms and down-home-ish observations.
“That fella looked like a kitty cat when he gets spooked by a cucumber.” A player is “more open than the jar of peanut butter on my kitchen counter.” “You beatin’ yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet. I don’t want to hear it.” These take the place of jokes, but they’re presented so straightforwardly that even if you feel like laughing, you’re not sure if you should.
Sudeikis, a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, has a preternatural ability to commit to the slightest wisp of a character, and he’s believable and even likable as Lasso, a character who makes no sense except as an avatar of a mythical Midwestern good-heartedness. (With his strong sense of self and his propensity for launching into stories no one wants to hear, Lasso is like a bizarro-world version of the cynical drunk played by Hank Azaria in a much better sports sitcom, “Brockmire.”)
And while it’s hard to really care about whether Lasso will win over the scheming, foul-mouthed Brits and keep Richmond from being relegated, the shopworn story has been filmed and assembled with style and professionalism. Half of the episodes were directed either by Tom Marshall, the primary director of the terrific Michaela Coel series “Chewing Gum,” or by Declan Lowney, who directed the first season of the terrific Chris O’Dowd series “Moone Boy.”
The show works overtime to present Lasso as a non-ugly American (except for his aversion to tea), a winning package of old-fashioned Kansas values and mostly woke sensitivity. He’s also, if you look more closely, just a nice guy whose life is complicated by an embittered, scheming woman (the club owner) and a wishy-washy, unappreciative woman (his wife), and who finds solace with other men. To borrow a phrase, that’s kind of like Woody Allen playing the clarinet.