Why Ted Lasso became the hit that put AppleTV+ on the map

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Ted talks to Roy while Roy sits in an ice bath.
Ted Lasso and his team captain Roy have a quick chat. | AppleTV+

The series is a gentle comedy about soccer. It’s also a fantasy about nice white guys.

When AppleTV+ launched to tepid reviews and audience indifference in late 2019, the streaming service attempted to put its best foot forward. Its flagship series The Morning Show starred Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, and even a seemingly low-priority title like (the wonderful) Dickinson boasted the well-known name Hailee Steinfeld at the top of the cast list. The one show without big stars — the space exploration drama For All Mankind — at least boasted a cool, grabby premise.

But none of that launch programming has done as well for the service as an unassuming comedy that launched in August 2020, nearly a year after AppleTV+’s debut. Ted Lasso, based on a series of NBC Sports commercials that featured Jason Sudeikis (who also co-created the series) as an American football coach hired to coach an English football team, grew from a warmly reviewed curio to a cult comedy with great buzz to what sure looks like AppleTV+’s biggest hit.

Streaming viewership is notoriously difficult to measure, but Parrot Analytics has tracked interest in Ted Lasso growing over time and eventually topping other AppleTV+ titles. Apple’s quick renewal of the show for a second and third season would suggest this data is closer to accurate than not.

It wouldn’t quite be right to say the world has Ted Lasso fever, but the show has certainly caught on with many different sorts of people. It’s garnered major awards nominations and comparisons of its sweetly unassuming protagonist to Joe Biden. (How driven are those comparisons by the fact that Sudeikis used to play the president on Saturday Night Live? Probably quite a bit, but who can say!) And if anyone in the media wanted to write about the rise in popularity of comfort food TV as the Covid-19 pandemic pushed the world into quarantine, well, Ted Lasso was right there, as many, many, many think pieces have proved.

But Ted Lasso is way more than just a (quite good) cult TV show. It’s also a window into a handful of pop culture trends that have swirled together into one unassuming little package. Ted Lasso isn’t just a show about a coach who cares about his players more than wins and losses. It’s also a show about the way we wish the world would be.

Trend 1: Comfort food TV

Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis, points excitedly at Rebecca (not pictured).AppleTV+
Ted Lasso has finger guns for days.

Remember Schitt’s Creek? If you’ve been alive in North America in the past few years, you almost certainly do. The Canadian small-town comedy became perhaps the TV show recommendation in the early days of the pandemic, especially for quarantined viewers who wanted a show with a lot of episodes that wouldn’t make them think about the grim horrors of the world outside. It rode that buzz to a historic sweep of the Emmy Awards in its final season.

But the Schitt’s Creek boom began long before quarantine recommendation lists and Emmy love. Buzz for the series had been building for years before its 2020 moment in the spotlight, and much of that had to do with the show’s status as “comfort food TV.” Lots of TV discussion over the past year has been focused on “comfort food TV,” on the idea that what we need right now is TV that makes us feel good without asking too much of us.

It’s tricky to define comfort food TV, because what comforts you will probably be different from what comforts me. (I mean, I watch the famously grim The Leftovers when I want to feel more connected to my fellow humans, so …) I would argue “comfort food TV” goes beyond shows that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, because it’s relatively easy to pour on the saccharine sweetness and much, much harder to evoke the feeling of safety that comfort food TV inspires.

There’s a kind of instant nostalgia at the core of a comfort food show: Whether you’re a new or repeat viewer, both its characters and its world feel at once familiar and new, like you’ve already seen this story and are simultaneously discovering its delights for the first time. The best comfort food TV feels like you first watched it when you were a kid, even if it debuted when you were in your 30s or 40s. And by that standard, Ted Lasso might be the best of the current crop of comfort food series.

Here I will say that I really struggle with the concept of comfort food TV and the ways the assumptions of both the form and its biggest proselytizers tend to turn television into a machine that makes you feel only good things. In the past, I’ve defined shows like this as “cutecoms,” for how much they want to make us smile instead of laugh and for how much they prioritize characters being nice to each other over genuine character conflict.

But I (mostly) like Ted Lasso, even though the center of the show is literally a man who is so nice to everybody that he gradually wears down all opposition to him, even within the audience. Sudeikis is a spiky enough performer to give hints here and there that Ted has anger burning inside of him that he mostly keeps in check, but the overwhelming impression one gets of Ted Lasso is that he’s a good dude who wants what’s best for everybody he meets. He’s a fantasy of an American white maleness that actually uses its power and privilege for the good of others. (More on this in a moment.)

My appreciation for Ted Lasso stems from two reasons I think it avoids the pitfalls of most comfort food television. The first is that its setting — the English Premier League — gives the story lots of inherent conflict without having to make that conflict come from within AFC Richmond, the team at the show’s center.

Sure, there are players who don’t get along, and AFC Richmond’s owner, Rebecca (a terrific Hannah Waddingham), hires Ted to tank the team her ex-husband loves so much. (She got the team in the divorce settlement.) But Ted doesn’t have to work that hard to win over even the most skeptical people around him.

And yet, because Ted Lasso has one foot solidly in the sports story genre, “the team comes together to do something great” is already inherent to the storytelling. It doesn’t matter if everybody on AFC Richmond loves each other, because there will always be external sources of conflict, like a better team out there for our heroes to have to face off against. The temptation with comfort food TV is to remove conflict almost completely. But Ted Lasso has found a way to have its low-conflict cake and eat it too, with a healthy dollop of rousing football matches.

The second reason for my appreciation of the series rests with co-creator Bill Lawrence, whose career writing television now spans almost 30 years and who created his first series — the Michael J. Fox vehicle Spin City — all the way back in 1996. (His fellow Ted Lasso co-creators are Brendan Hunt, Joe Kelly, and Sudeikis.) Prior to Ted Lasso, the series Lawrence was likely best known for was Scrubs, a comedy where conflict between the characters existed but took a back seat to the life-and-death stories coming through the door of its hospital setting. He’s also created or co-created Cougar Town, Clone High, and the short-lived Rush Hour TV series.

Suffice it to say: Lawrence knows what he’s doing when it comes to creating comedies that aren’t devoid of conflict, but where the characters are all likable and often tend to like each other, too, while not getting bogged down in more sentimentality than is absolutely necessary. Ted Lasso benefits from his skill telling these sorts of stories.

Trend 2: Stories about unlikely communities

The players from AFC Richmond gather around Dani Rojas to celebrate his big goal.AppleTV+
AFC Richmond celebrates an unlikely goal in the first season finale.

For the past 20 years, conversations about TV have been dominated by shows about singular perspectives. Most such shows have taken the form of antihero stories — dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Weeds. They’re shows about people who rub up against the boundaries of society in ways both obvious (breaking the law!) and more subtle (breaking social codes!). They’re often wildly entertaining, and they kind of took over TV for a decade there.

It’s important to note that the “antihero show” wasn’t a brand new phenomenon when The Sopranos debuted in 1999. TV antiheroes go all the way back to the beginning of the medium, and All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, an antihero if ever there was one, was one of the most popular TV characters of the 1970s. In the ’90s, hits as varied as Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, and The Simpsons all offered spins on the trope. But the antihero wave of the 2000s seemed as though it was pushing back against a trend of nice, wholesome television about people being nice and wholesome to each other (think most family sitcoms of the ’80s and ’90s, particularly the Full Houses of the world). Even if that wasn’t quite accurate, it’s not as though TV wasn’t full of largely bland shows about niceness and hadn’t been for much of its history.

Throughout the 2010s, however, the antihero show slowly started to lose its luster. For one thing, there were just so many of them. For another, there were only so many ways that creators could come up with to tell stories about bad people doing bad things, especially once those stories started to lose the moral dimension that made them so compelling in the first place. A companion trend began to rise: the ensemble comedy about an unlikely community coming together to do something great.

Probably the most influential show of the 2010s in this regard is NBC’s Parks and Recreation, a lighthearted comedy about the world of small-town governance. The series began as a more cynical take on public functionaries, before turning on a dime in its second season to become a series about good-hearted people trying to make their little town a better place. Parks and Recreation debuted in 2009 and ended in 2015, and somewhere around the midpoint of its run, its characters all became so nice to each other that the show could sometimes feel almost conflict-free. But viewers were so happy to have a place where everything was nice that they almost didn’t care.

Oddly enough, Cougar Town, which Lawrence co-created and which also ran from 2009 to 2015, underwent almost exactly the same metamorphosis. It began as a raunchy-as-network-TV-would-let-it-be sex comedy about a middle-aged woman (played by Courteney Cox) who hooks up with a younger man in the show’s pilot. But “older woman sleeps with younger men” very quickly revealed itself to be a weak center for a show, so Lawrence and his fellow creator Kevin Biegel evolved Cougar Town to be much more about the friend group in the little Florida community where the show was set. The show eventually became so nice it could sometimes rot your teeth, but its fans (including me, for much of its run) loved the “found family” aspect of it all.

In the intervening years, shows about unlikely groups of people doing big, unlikely things have only grown more popular. The Good Place saw a motley band of ne’er-do-wells overhaul the afterlife and become better people in the process. Schitt’s Creek followed a family of assholes who helped turn around a weird little town … and became better people in the process. The core of these shows is always the same: People who aren’t great set out to do a seemingly impossible thing and become better people in the process.

By and large, that description fits Ted Lasso, too, except that Ted is, uh, a pretty good guy from frame one. AFC Richmond is a team that faces the threat of relegation (which would mean its record was so bad that it dropped down to a less prestigious league, only to be replaced by a team from that less prestigious league — we should do this in American sports). Its players are wracked with personal conflicts. Its owner wants to tank the team on purpose just to piss off her ex. And there’s a bona fide love triangle playing out between two players and the model girlfriend of one of them.

Ted enters that space and turns the team into a team, and if his successes don’t always translate to their performance on the field, the show’s argument is that whether they win or lose shouldn’t matter. If we’re all getting along and having a good time, isn’t that what really matters? It’s a fantasy, but it’s one that felt particularly pointed when the series debuted in summer 2020.

Trend 3: Nice white guy wish fulfillment

Ted and Rebecca have a chat in front of a wall showing off AFC Richmond’s past glories.AppleTV+
Ted and Rebecca talk out their plan for the team in the show’s first episode.

The thing about Ted Lasso is that it’s an antihero show.

I don’t mean that Ted himself is an antihero — clearly he’s someone we’re meant to emulate. What I mean is that Ted Lasso is about a man who enters a system that’s resistant to him, then forces that system to change to accommodate him, all through sheer willpower. Ted Lasso and Tony Soprano have diametrically opposed aims, but they both remake the world in their image.

Ted Lasso also presents an idealistic view of how the powerful rich white cis straight men who our American system so privileges could and should carry themselves. Ted Lasso overcomes everybody’s resistance through being a genuine and nice man. But that, perversely, speaks to the privilege he has within the system he is part of.

When Parks and Recreation tried the same with Leslie Knope (a powerful and eventually affluent white cis straight woman), it always had to couch her persistence in tones of “Sure, she’s annoying, buuuut …” Ted Lasso takes a few faint stabs at “people roll their eyes at Ted!” but by the middle of its first season, he’s won over even the press that taunted him mercilessly when he took over the team. It’s a bit wild, and again, it’s clearly a fantasy. But it’s a fantasy that speaks to something people long for right now.

Ted Lasso can remake the world in his own image because we intuitively understand that guys like him create and recreate the world every day. It’s just that, usually, they’re doing it for their benefit and not anybody else’s. That does not appear to be the case with good ol’ Ted. One reason Ted Lasso has been compared to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is that Biden very consciously positioned himself as someone who was kind and decent when running against Donald Trump. We’re supposed to see much the same in Ted, a good man who cares about people before he cares about wins and losses. But kindness and decency only go so far. We all know this, and if we didn’t, watching Biden’s legislative agenda crash up against Republican intransigence in the Senate is a harsh reminder.

As I’ve watched Ted Lasso’s first season (twice now!), I’ve thought a lot about one of Lawrence’s longstanding policies on the sets of his TV shows: the “no asshole” policy (also sometimes called the “no jerk” or “no douchebag” policy). Lawrence described it thusly in 2009:

Anyone that’s worked in Hollywood for more than a few years has at least fifty stories about some horrible human being — and not just actors — that they had to work for and cater to. … One thing that got burned into my head from personal experience is I am not going to ever work with or promote the careers of people that act shitty to people who are beneath them on the totem pole. … I did it just out of not wanting to work with assholes anymore. And the cool thing, in television specifically which is so much about chemistry is that if you put a cast together of good people that are friendly and get along with each other, … it shows through and audiences pick up on it when they watch. And when they don’t, they can see it too. I really believe that.

In a weird way, then, Ted Lasso is also a series about Lawrence implementing the “no asshole” policy on every TV show he works on. It even features a midseason plot where Ted benches the team’s star because he’s being too much of a glory hog.

Lawrence’s policy is great. The handful of times I’ve visited the sets of his shows, I’ve really gotten the sense that all involved were happy to be there and working, instead of simply collecting a paycheck. Even Lawrence’s shows that were less successful from a creative standpoint still boasted largely supportive on-set environments. I wish more people with his level of power in Hollywood would implement similar policies on their own projects. (To be sure, it’s worth being skeptical of whether Lawrence’s sets are truly that idyllic, but go with me here.)

But it’s worth noting that Lawrence’s ability to implement a “no asshole” policy stems from the fact that he’s a powerful Hollywood producer, and powerful Hollywood producers have traditionally been given carte blanche. They’ve also tended to be rich cis straight white men. Both of these tendencies are changing glacially, due to a diversifying audience and the slew of revelations about horrible and powerful men that have spilled out in the wake of the Me Too movement.

In that sense, Ted Lasso isn’t really a show about changing the world through the power of kindness. It is, very specifically, a series about what it might be like if a powerful white man looked at you and heard you and wanted to help you out. It’s a series about what might happen if the deference we’re so frequently asked to show to the powerful were returned in even the tiniest of amounts, and it’s a show that asks us to imagine a better world that can only result if the people who’ve long been in power suddenly start being nicer and more inclusive and more compassionate and so many other things. It’s a really good and sweet and funny TV show — as well as a fantasy of how we wish the world could be.

It is, in other words, comfort food: good and wholesome and satisfying but ultimately a little nauseating in excess. Eat too much and you might forget there are other kinds of food, too.