Jason Sudeikis and his Ted Lasso costars on making the feel-good TV hit of 2020
A group of people are confronted with a serious problem, and the clock is ticking. Solving it should be a shared goal and No. 1 priority. Unfortunately, the most high-profile member of the group is a dimwitted narcissist and bully who hoards attention due to family damage inflicted by his father. A small subset hopes to maintain a grip on power and seeks to undermine the whole operation with petty vengefulness. A few folks are at least trying to help. While they don't claim to have all the answers, they are working diligently trying to create an atmosphere for success. If the group could just manage to pull together as a team toward one goal, everyone would win.
As a reality, that tale has been the nightmare known as 2020. As an Apple TV+ show called Ted Lasso, it's been the most soothing pop culture antidote for living in that nightmare.
Starring Jason Sudeikis in a watershed performance as the title character, the underdog comedy chronicles the adventures of an American Division II college football coach from Kansas who journeys to England to coach… football, the original kind. He has never played soccer, does not understand the rules, and is a fish from across the pond — all of which doesn't engender much confidence in his new charges at the AFC Richmond football club. But none of his deficits are a deterrent for Lasso, a walking inspirational poster who is as corny as Kansas in August.
Over the course of the 10-episode first season — with an astonishing jokes-per-minute ratio — we meet the remarkably fleshed-out cast of characters in what is ultimately a workplace comedy a la The Office, with more sweaty men. (Anyone on the fence about watching: You really don't need to know anything about soccer. Ted sure doesn't. Ted to ref: "Come on now, explain to me how that's offside!" Ref: "What?" Ted: "No, I'm serious, how is that offside? I don't understand it yet.")
Once ensconced, Ted meets formidable owner Rebecca Welton (a smashing Hannah Waddingham) and her dutiful, if less than savvy, minion Higgins (Jeremy Swift). Rebecca may not have the best interests of the club at heart, given her feelings for the previous co-owner: her philandering ex-husband, Rupert Mannion (delightfully cretinous recurring guest Anthony Head). We also have Lasso's taciturn and deeply layered assistant Coach Beard (co-creator Brendan Hunt) and the uproariously shrinking violet of a kit man Nate (Nick Mohammed), who loves football but justifiably fears its players. Finally, there are various members of Lasso's new team, including gruff-but-secretly-mushy aging captain Roy Kent (writer-actor Brett Goldstein), self-obsessed star player Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), and Jamie's girlfriend, more-than-meets-the-eye influencer Keeley Jones (Juno Temple).
The first season of Ted Lasso, of course, was conceived and produced before the U.S. entered its current house of horrors. (The character itself, created by Sudeikis and fellow executive producers Hunt and Joe Kelly, dates back to a 2013 NBC Sports promo campaign.) And the series would be considered quality programming under any circumstances in any era. But there is something about the way Sudeikis portrays Lasso —aggressively enthusiastic, invasively kind, obscenely decent, all without sacrificing three-dimensionality — that is striking a deep chord in viewers in this moment of pandemic dread and political division.
The fervent response has not been lost on the team that makes the show, who all actually are working together for success and have been rewarded with not only a second-season renewal, but a third. "I feel like it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," says Goldstein. "Quite early on when it came out, I was outside my front door and the man who lives opposite me ran across the street and he went, 'Ted Blasso! Ted Blasso!'" The neighbor went on to describe himself as a huge fan, exclaiming, "I watched six episodes!" With a chuckle and a raised eyebrow, a still-grateful Goldstein remembers thinking, "And you still think it's called 'Ted Blasso'?" Adds Waddingham, "I do think there's some weird twist of fate that it came out when it did. It just has captured everyone's hearts. It feels like a massive hug."
Everyone on Team Lasso who speaks to EW takes pains to separate the success of the show from current events. "The show predated the pandemic, but the inherent cynicism that was out there in social media and in the ethos did exist," says Lawrence, who has experience marrying punchlines and pathos from his previous shows, including Scrubs and Cougar Town. "We would have conversations in the writers' room that people were so inherently cynical about everything. For instance, if anybody said, 'I'm really interested in going into politics,' I would immediately assume that they were looking forward in some narcissistic way to exploiting the system and stealing from everybody, not that they were someone that wanted to be of service." Even pre-pandemic, the Ted Lasso writers often discussed our nation's prevailing attitude of pessimism, which helped inform the show's ultra-congenial central character. "In a time that seems so cynical," says Lawrence, "to have an optimistic and hopeful show might be of huge value."
While Sudeikis and the rest of the Lasso gang of course wish that the coronavirus pandemic never happened —"Look, I'd rather kids get to go to school and let people go on dates to bars, and high-fives were still roaming free throughout our country"— he understands why the timing feels comforting. "Hope never goes out of style," he reminds. "Hope and optimism and empathy have a good exchange rate." And Sudeikis says he took as much joy in crafting Ted's adventures as viewers have taken watching them: "I know it helped give me focus and something to put all my energy into, by going straight from editing right into the writing of the second season."
Ted Lasso doesn't owe all its success to the fact that the titular hero is a nice guy. "When you make a show about being nice, it can be s---," says Goldstein, who also co-created the recent AMC series Soulmates. "It can be actually quite cynical to go, 'Isn't it nice to be nice to people?' But Ted doesn't exist in a vacuum. He's not one-dimensional. He has a failing marriage. He has panic attacks. It isn't just a fairy-tale world where everything goes right. And it's how he responds to those challenges that show us empathy and kindness and the things that we don't see a lot [on TV]."
Especially not during the platinum age of TV antiheroes (see: Don Draper, Walter White, Villanelle, etc.). Modern comedies, meanwhile, feature a lot of doofuses — sometimes lovable (Michael Scott), occasionally malevolent (Gob Bluth) — with unearned self-confidence. "I believe the reason so many people are responding to it is because you feel it when you watch it. You go, 'They mean this,'" says Goldstein.
Sudeikis certainly does, calling Ted "the best version of myself." In the original NBC sports promo, Lasso was a little broader, louder, more unpleasant — a gum-cracking American-abroad stereotype. "We were just inundated with those type of characters," says Sudeikis. "People that you're like, 'How does this person still have this job?'" But as he workshopped the character for the series, he began to sculpt him into the man we saw this season.
"I have said for many moons that the worst combination of a human man is one that's ignorant and arrogant," says Sudeikis, who grew up in Kansas like his alter ego. So, he and his collaborators set out to make a character with a crucial difference: ignorant but curious. "That's my father," the actor explains. "That's probably many of our fathers. And it's probably how I am to my kids. But that was the unlocking of the character."
Once the trio of Sudeikis, Kelly and Hunt — the latter reprising his role from the promos as Coach Beard — hooked up with Lawrence, they set about surrounding themselves with a group of writers and performers (and several writer-performers) to complete their tableau. Goldstein was hired for the writers' room, having previously worked on an unaired pilot with Lawrence in 2017, Spaced Out. He decided only at the last minute to suggest himself for the role of the perpetually angry Kent, who turns into a teddy bear around his 6-year-old niece, Phoebe (Elodie Blomfield). "We thought he was hilarious," Lawrence says of Goldstein, who is a major comedy star in the U.K. (Check out his Love Island parody "Lone Island," which he dubs his "magnum opus.")
By his own admission, Goldstein isn't much of an athlete. "I would rate my TV football skills as an amazing achievement by the editors," he says. But he did have one other crucial area of expertise in common with many of his collaborators: a love of musical theater. There are multiple references to musicals on the show, including nods to The King and I, West Side Story, and, naturally, Oklahoma! (we assume they'll get to South Pacific in season 2). "I can still sing Les Mis in French because I saw it randomly in Paris the first time," says Lawrence. "I went from point guard [in college] to playing the Boy, a.k.a. Matt, in The Fantasticks," adds Sudeikis, who's also the hard-rock enthusiast responsible for the Van Halen and Poison references.
But it was Goldstein who was most breathless upon meeting Waddingham, an award-winning veteran of the West End in shows like Spamalot and Into the Woods. "When I met her on day one at the readt-hrough, I was like, 'F---ing hell, oh my God,'" he says, still sounding starstruck. Waddingham laughs and says good-naturedly of her castmate, "He was fangirling like a bitch, is what he was doing." The actress is likely used to that type of geeking out: Waddingham was Septa Unella on Game of Thrones, a.k.a. the "Shame Nun" who tortured Cersei and came to a doubtlessly brutal end at the hands of the Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane. ("She was just doing her job making this revolting, incestuous person atone for their behavior, thank you very much," Waddingham says in defense of Unella.)
Waddingham adores being part of Ted Lasso. "They're giving me scripts that are so beautifully vulnerable and just leaving her heart splattered all over it," the actress says of her character, whose icy demeanor begins to thaw over the course of the season. "Then the next thing is something so funny." She particularly enjoys the female friendship between her character and Temple's Keeley. "That was Jason observing me and Juno falling in love with each other from day one," she says.
While she loves Temple, Waddingham does reveal, however, that the biscuits Ted brings her every morning for "Biscuits with the Boss" taste like "a ceiling tile. Me eating the biscuits and enjoying them is the greatest acting job of my life."
And for anyone who might be curious, the casting of Rebecca's ex-husband with Anthony Head as another character named Rupert — as was his beloved Giles the Watcher on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — was pure coincidence. "We did not realize till after the fact," Lawrence says. "We thought he would be great, playing a little against type as a truly villainous, reprehensible character that you would still believe could charm people." While Buffy may not have been the key, there was still something supernatural about it, according to Goldstein. "We'd written Rupert as a character, but it hadn't been cast," he recalls. "It existed for a long time in the writers' room and in the scripts. And the day he appeared in that scene in the gala in episode 4 and he says, 'Sorry to interrupt,' he's so f---ing perfect I said to Jason, 'This is like magic!'"
It's easy to fall in love with the lot of Lasso's cast, and Sudeikis himself admits that he gets a lift from playing Ted's more chipper side. "Look, I'm not Daniel Day-Lewis, but even when I played this real awful human being in this movie Colossal all day for eight hours, it really took its toll," he says. "So, the inverse has got to be true." He likens the experience to wearing BluBlockers, the tinted-sunglasses infomercial phenomenon in the '80s. "Remember putting those on as a kid? You'd be like, 'Whoa, the world looks so vibrant.' The greens were green, the blues were blue, the sun didn't hurt your eyes, so your pupils would get bigger. It's the same thing people have when they do mushrooms. And so if you see the world through Ted's point of view, you're like 'Oh wow, yeah.' It's a fun way to move through the world."
Sudeikis will get to keep moving through Ted's world for some time. In addition to a nice bit of job security for everyone involved, the two-season pickup allows the actor-writer and his co-creators to execute a vision they've already mapped out. "It's a neat way to write," says Lawrence. "Jason was obsessed at the start with planting things early, like the biscuits in the second episode or the army men. It's such a good thing to know that the three years are happening, as he's planting things in."
Perhaps Sudeikis willed the renewals into being. The actor confesses that, much like an ex "accidentally" leaving something at their old partner's place, he did happen to store a duffel bag in the production office. It's got an Xbox and some cast MetroCards, he says, and some other stuff "almost like a time capsule, just for like 'when we return.'"
Though no one is willing to offer a season 2 preview at this point — the writers just finished the new scripts, and shooting starts in January — Goldstein can say one thing unequivocally: "We're not going to do corona[virus]. I can tell you that." A blissfully ignorant Waddingham can't wait to see what happens next, even if it comes with some pressure now. "All of us must be thinking, 'Don't screw it up,'" she says with a laugh.
As for what may lie beyond a third season of Ted Lasso, no one knows for sure. But, Lawrence already has a plan. "I'm going to try to convince Jason that Ted Lasso should be a tennis coach, or something else," he says. "I'll try not to be too transparent in my agenda."
While the ending of the first season isn't exactly cheery for the club, like Rebecca, we believe in Ted. If you look at the opening credits, you'll notice something: As he sits down in the Richmond stadium, the seats change color. Such is the transformative power of the Lasso way. It was true for those who watched this season, and we're betting it will be true for Richmond in 2021. And we can only hope it's soon true for reality, too.
Video courtesy of Apple TV+.