Apple TV’s comedy Ted Lasso is a critical darling, with a staggering 20 Emmy nominations to its name for its first season and a slew of awards already on the shelf of its star and co-creator, Jason Sudeikis. The series tells the story of a guileless college-level American football coach who is recruited for an English Premier League team despite his lack of experience in the sport. Initially brought on board by AFC Richmond’s new owner as a way to sabotage the team, the eponymous Ted Lasso soon wins over his colleagues with his folksy and utterly cynicism-free approach to life. Season two currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and season three has already been greenlit. Not bad for a show based on a character designed to plug NBC Sports coverage of the Premier League.
It’s not hard to see why so many people have been won over by Ted Lasso, both the show and the hero. The jokes fly thick and fast but never at the expense of the rich ensemble of characters. There’s an appealing comfort to the series, particularly in the ways that Ted’s gumption and glass-half-full approach to his surreal situation inspires those around him. Having initially been mixed on the series, Variety critic Caroline Framke offered a re-evaluation of Ted Lasso, admiring that ‘above all odds, [the series] chipped away at my skepticism until there was none left […] At a time when just about everything feels catastrophic, there’s something undeniably satisfying about spending some time with good people who are just trying to be the best they can, on and off the field.’ Ted Lasso is Pollyanna with a mustache and none of the cloying sweetness. He’s Paddington-esque in his philosophy, and that’s proven to be exactly what a lot of us need.
It’s proven to be a winning formula for Jason Sudeikis too. Formerly best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, Sudeikis has evolved into a unique kind of comedic leading man. Prior to Ted Lasso, Sudeikis played a lot of jerks and smarmy bros. it’s no coincidence that a tall handsome white man and former college sportsman was the guy who played Mitt Romney for so many years on SNL. A lot of traditionally handsome and tall white guys in American comedy default to playing jerks, partly because it only feels fair to balance out that genetic advantage with a personality fault. Sudeikis certainly followed that path after SNL with films like We’re the Millers and Horrible Bosses.
He was never that guy off-screen, although the focus on his personal life mostly stayed on his relationship with actress-director Olivia Wilde. The pair broke up last year and she quickly went public with some guy named Harry Styles, which inspired a lot of emotions on Twitter. Overall, however, that split has been remarkably drama-free in the gossip realm. There were a couple of minor ‘sources’ expressing shock on Sudeikis’s part over the speed with which Wilde started dating Styles, but then those dissipated quickly and with zero drama. When asked about his private life in a recent glowing GQ cover profile, is never anything but generous and loving towards Wilde, although it wasn’t tough for the nosey among us to read between the lines of the interviewer saying that ‘even he [Sudeikis] didn’t have total clarity about the end of the relationship just yet.’ I’ve seen some people read this as a subtle attack on Wilde and attempt to portray himself as the wronged man. It’s easy enough to extrapolate that from the few things he says about the split in this piece, but I didn’t read the profile as a display of bitterness or ax-grinding (but it is certainly fair to note that, in the case of celebrity break-ups, the woman tends to be labeled the problem more often than the man, and Wilde is currently facing a barrage of vile harassment from some of Styles’ more obsessive fans.) It would have punctured the image had Sudeikis acted less like Ted Lasso and more like, well, a Jason Sudeikis character post-SNL.
Audiences and critics seem keen to play up the idea that Sudeikis is, if not identical to Ted Lasso, then at least very much cut from the same cloth. There are already a number of headlines heralding Sudeikis as ‘IRL Ted Lasso,’ thanks to encouraging words he’s given to fans and the kindness he’s shown to colleagues. journalists, and total strangers. He attended the second season premiere of his own show in a jersey bearing the names of the Black England football players who were besieged with racist abuse following the EURO 2020 final. Audiences are trained to see connections between an actor and the roles they play, something that has its roots in the old studio era wherein actors were cast and marketed as specific types and seldom encouraged to stray from them. Things are more malleable nowadays, but celebrities are still defined by those types, even if it’s simply in oppositional terms. We love it when guys known for playing creeps and scumbags turn out to be lovely people (hello, Jason Mantzoukas and Nick Kroll), but a guy playing the ultimate nice man who’s also a sweetheart in reality? It’s ambrosia.
It’s oft been said that one cannot wring compelling drama from niceness. We hear this claim a lot with characters like Superman as a means to justify the new grimdark, neck-snapping default of America’s boy scout hero. There’s just nothing interesting or thrilling to be found in telling stories about people who are intrinsically good and never have that innate kindness warped into something more brutal. So they say. It’s never been true, of course, but we still have so few mainstream examples that prove such a point. Ted Lasso is that rare beast: a show about a guy who’s good from start to finish, and one where a sunshiny approach to life and its challenges is something to be celebrated rather than sneered at. The showrunners understand the narrow tightrope they’re walking with this concept. Co-showrunner Bill Lawrence explained to Vanity Fair how Ted subverts our expectations with its middle-aged American white guy protagonist. Even Sudeikis admitted to GQ that we should kind of hate Ted, or at the very least be a bit creeped out by him, and that he’s usually the sort of actor who would play the d*ickish version of this man.
I think the world, or at least the social media strain of it, is on the hunt for a nice guy. I mean a genuinely good man, not the smarmy Nice Guy surrounded by red flags that every woman has had too many bad experiences with. There’s a reason the mere phrase ‘Nice Guy’ is now seen with capital letters and scare quotes around it. Fandom doesn’t allow for much nuance with celebrities, preferring to thrive on the binary notion of ‘best person ever’ or ‘problematic sh*t.’ It doesn’t take much for that dynamic to sour either, yet audiences are still keen to find someone who can be enjoyed without baggage or potential danger. There’s something so sweetly, almost naively, hopeful about this hunt, this search for someone who shrugs the binary, even as we seek a new alternative to reinforce in its place. Just look at the hubbub that’s surrounded John Mulaney this past year.
And then along comes Jason Sudeikis: A familiar face with no skeletons hanging out of the closet in plain sight; A family man who’s on great terms with his ex, and one who talks so candidly about his own emotional experiences from that split; A comedian not interested in roast jokes or following his contemporaries into pitch-black humor, one who’s turned the ultimate display of public masculinity — premier league sports — into a playground for kindness and smiles and motivational slogans we actually want to follow. If masculinity is in a crisis then Ted Lasso/Jason Sudeikis feels like a soothing salve to that sickness, especially in the medium of television, which has spent a good two decades being critically defined by the anti-hero mold of Difficult Men that brought us Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and all manner of knock-offs.
Of course, it’s hardly a healthy standard to demand of anyone, and a much harder one to uphold. Ted Lasso is kind of perfect in a way that is hugely appealing but potentially brittle as a long-term storytelling tool. As Judy Berman recently wrote in Time, ‘Why is TV so desperate to create not just a good man, but the best man? Why, when Ted Lasso’s separation comes up, is the only explanation provided that his wife finds his optimism exhausting? Would the whole character crumble if, say, he was just a workaholic?’ A flawed character can still be an inherently good and hopeful person but creating such a figure opens a show and its actors up to some potentially perilous pitfalls. If Ted Lasso f**ks up in a big way, does the show deal with that in a way that prevents him from becoming yet another Difficult Man? If Jason Sudeikis tells an off-color joke or the end of his relationship gets publicly messy, do fans suddenly feel betrayed that he isn’t IRL Ted Lasso? It’s a treacherous route to navigate, for sure. Maybe Lasso/Sudeikis is optimistic enough to endure it.
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