Ted Lasso Has Lost Its Way

As it’s racked up viewers and accolades, a charming workplace sitcom has transformed into a bloated prestige drama.

A landscape photo of Ted Lasso, Coach Beard, and Roy Kent from the TV show "Ted Lasso"
Colin Hutton / Apple TV+

Midway through watching “Sunflowers,” a nearly feature-length episode of Ted Lasso that juggles five separate plotlines, I wondered aloud, “When exactly did this show turn into a prestige drama?” Yes, the script still has plenty of jokes—though few of them deserve more than a low chuckle, and many characters are little more than caricatures. But as it’s continued to draw viewers and accolades for Apple TV+, this Emmy-winning comedy has pivoted further and further away from the genre to which it supposedly belongs, devolving into ham-fisted, novelistic nonsense.

When Ted Lasso first emerged as a sleeper hit in the summer of 2020, it was the gentle hug audiences needed in the middle of pandemic lockdown, a familiar fish-out-of-water tale about a nice man infecting the cynical world around him with his niceness. Like most people, I was at first skeptical: The show expanded on a character—a cheery American football coach hired by a flailing U.K. soccer team—that its creator-star, Jason Sudeikis, had first portrayed for an NBC commercial. (“Based on a semi-well-known ad” is not exactly a compelling hook.) But Ted Lasso’s first season earned its massive hype; it was a well-constructed workplace sitcom that built out its central character’s leadership strengths step by step, methodically depicting how Ted’s emotional intelligence more than makes up for his lack of tactical acumen. The show’s propensity for “niceness” was radical and surprising, somehow allowing it to generate laughs while dodging conflict.

Every episode was also half an hour long, which is typical for sitcoms—something that Ted Lasso is, even if it isn’t shot on an overlit Hollywood soundstage in front of a live studio audience. One of Season 1’s best episodes, “Biscuits,” is 29 minutes long. The big finale, “The Hope That Kills You,” is a roomy 33, but I forgave that, given the solid work that co-creators Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt, and Joe Kelly had done in developing Ted’s world at the fictional club of AFC Richmond. The following season also won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, but it showed signs of bloat, with episode lengths ballooning from 30 minutes to 49 by the end of the run. The plotlines themselves began to sprawl too, extending beyond the workplace of the team in order to give each character more screen time.

Season 3, which debuted on Apple TV+ in March and is rounding into what may or may not be a series finale, is a pure example of the excesses that can flourish on streaming television. The show has no time slot to worry about, and none of the formal or thematic constraints of network television. Perhaps that’s why its episodes have settled into such supersize lengths, with “Sunflowers” running an ungodly 63 minutes. Its storytelling feels similarly slack, with characters taking whole seasons to have the slimmest emotional realizations.

The initial pitch of Ted Lasso is genuinely intriguing: It’s Major League crossed with Paddington, a tale of a sports team trying to sabotage itself by bringing on someone who seems incompetent, but then experiencing surprising success through the power of his overwhelming friendliness. In the first season, Ted’s guileless charm is often mistaken for stupidity, and there was a real sense of discovery for the audience in seeing him win over his colleagues—including the egotistical star Jamie Tartt (played by Phil Dunster), the grumpy veteran Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), the embittered owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), and the shy but secretly brilliant kit man Nate Shelley (Nick Mohammed).

Now, in Season 3, these supplementary characters have all become the stars of their own shows. Ted Lasso is no longer a workplace sitcom but a universe of workplace sitcoms, drifting from a football club to an upstart PR firm to another (more evil) football club to a pair of local restaurants. Scenes are devoid of jokes and filled with dopey, self-important monologuing on the issues of the day. Rather than have any conflict, characters offer endless hugs and wan smiles, all under the watchful mustache of Mr. Lasso, whose retinue of dad jokes feels noticeably phoned in.

Part of the problem is that the show seems narratively frozen until it can give long-running plotlines their obvious resolutions. Ted has spent three seasons fretting over being separated from his son in America; surely a reunion is in the offing, once he’s achieved what he can at AFC Richmond. The end of Season 2 saw Nate betray his former boss and join a rival club owned by Rebecca’s villainous ex-husband—but every time the show checks in with him, it’s obvious that all he needs is a pat on the back from Ted. One of the most tiresome and misguided storylines of the previous season saw Keeley Jones (Juno Temple), the club’s former publicist, start her own PR firm and begin dating a venture capitalist who had invested in it—an obviously ill-advised decision that still took many hour-long episodes to work through and undo.

The question any workplace sitcom faces is how much to stray from the status quo; audiences need some sense that things can change, but not so much that the show’s formula is threatened. Lawrence, the show’s co-creator, is a veteran of this world, having worked on series such as Spin City, Scrubs, and Cougar Town, all of which knew not to abandon their core settings and stars. But they were also all 30-minute network shows that had to pump out episode after episode. Ted Lasso might have debuted as a sitcom, but it now obeys the freewheeling standards of premium dramas, pushing its episode lengths to make grand social statements about depression, workplace dynamics, and the changing standards of 21st-century masculinity.

The show isn’t incapable of being insightful, even in its latest, most pretentious form; Roy Kent can still bust out a sharp monologue, especially about the limits of male egotism. But it has stopped being as funny, which for me was its primary reason for existing. Rumors abound that if Sudeikis departs the show after this season, it could remain at Apple in a new form focused on the football team and the remaining characters. Perhaps then it could return to its workplace-sitcom roots, mixing sports humor with some light interpersonal drama. Just one suggestion: Keep the running time to half an hour, please.