The identity crisis of ‘Ted Lasso’

While a football club being promoted to the English Premier League is always a reason to celebrate, it also marks the beginning of a new challenge. A newly promoted team cannot rest on their laurels if they want to avoid finishing in the bottom three and dropping back to the lower division. As a result, clubs must either decide to go all in with the group of players that got them promoted in the first place, or they can use resources to bring in fresh faces with more experience of competing at football’s highest level. (In its return to the Premier League this season, Nottingham Forest opted for an extreme version of the latter strategy, signing an unprecedented 30 new players since the summer of 2022.)

Faced with this decision, many teams being promoted undergo an identity crisis – and the fictional AFC Richmond of Ted Lasso is no different. Richmond is back in the Premier League at the start of Ted Lassothird season: an impressive performance somewhat undermined by all the pundits picking them to finish last. But as Richmond returns to its underdog status, things keep getting interesting Ted Lasso on the screen there has also been plenty of hand-wringing over the series off-screen.

As Ted Lasso is the crown jewel of Apple TV+, Apple is understandably hesitant to say goodbye to the show, even though all signs point to the latest season being its last. It doesn’t get any clearer than star and co-creator Jason Sudeikis saying, and I quote, “This is the end of this story that we wanted to tell, that we hoped to tell, that we loved to tell.” (Apple does not explicitly promote Ted Lasso‘s third season as the end of the show has the same vibe as someone insisting they didn’t break up with their partner, they’re just taking a “break”.) All in all, there’s a lot of noise around Ted Lasso both on the field and in discourse, and the series has responded by embracing a new ethos: go big or go home.

After spending the summer vacation with his son, Ted Lasso (Sudeikis) openly ponders why he’s still coaching a soccer team in London, an admission that takes on an almost meta quality given the show’s uncertain future. What is much more certain is that Richmond face an uphill battle to stay in the Premier League, putting them in stark contrast to West Ham United, a powerhouse now managed by Ted’s wonderful former assistant Nate (Nick Muhammad). Nate’s heel turn in season two – complete with a physical transformation, that is share Jose Mourinhopart Leland from Twin Peaks– would be reason enough for Richmond and West Ham to develop a rivalry. But there is also the small matter of the club’s respective owners. For Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), there is no greater incentive for Richmond to succeed than the fact that her nefarious ex-husband, Rupert (Anthony Head), is the new owner of West Ham. The same impulse that led Rebecca to hire Ted two seasons ago—one Major League– a ploy to defy Rupert and his Richmond fandom by bringing in someone who has never coached football – now forces her to help the team win at her ex’s expense.

Once again, there is an interesting friction at the heart of Ted Lasso between the intense demands of the sport and the eponymous coach who cares more about the well-being of his players than wins or losses. But the ambition to trump West Ham means in particular that Rebecca and other key figures at Richmond are willing to go against the Lasso Way™. Case in point: When a mercurial superstar named Zava (Maximilian Osinski) becomes a free agent at the start of the season, Richmond is intent on securing his signature, despite the player’s reputation for only caring about himself. (Zava is a hilarious stand-in for Zlatan Ibrahimović, a larger-than-life figure who likes to refer to himself in the third person.)

It goes without saying that the biggest concern with Zava potentially joining Richmond is his attitude destroying the unselfish culture that Ted has built. In connection with this, one wonders if Rebecca wants to sign Zava for the benefit of the team, or if her desire to get one over at Rupert’s West Ham, who are also interested in the player, clouds her view. At the same time, Richmond may be doomed to repeat history if the club does not try something new. (For all Ted’s infectious enthusiasm, Richmond was still relegated during his first year in charge.)

The same philosophical predicament applies to Ted Lasso‘s overall third season, which is caught between giving fans the familiar feel-good vibes that made the series an Emmy-winning sensation and delivering an ambitious expansion of its world. To that end, the show juggles workplace dynamics in three different settings this season: Ted and the rest of the gang in Richmond, Nate handling his new management duties at West Ham, and former model Keeley (Juno Temple) starting her own marketing firm. Balancing all these storylines goes a long way toward explaining why the third season has such bloated runtimes: of the four episodes given to critics, all run over 40 minutes, with one even hitting the 50-minute mark. Like Coach Lasso is far from Kansas, Ted Lasso is a far cry from its half-hour sitcom roots.

Whether this development is encouraging or not may depend on what individual viewers want out of this series. There is a world in which Ted Lasso completely kissed its health and became a sequel to sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Recreation, where the joy of watching the show is seeing characters you like spending time together. But to Ted Lassos credit, the series is clearly more interested in pushing the story forward with its overarching message of self-improvement, even if that means putting the characters through more hardship. (That said, these Season 3 runtimes are like someone turning in an essay that’s double the original word count—there’s no shame in letting an editor trim the fat!)

Some fans might have been upset when Nate broke badly at the end of last season, but Season 3 emphasizes that the character’s antagonism comes from a place of deep-seated insecurity, leaving the door open for redemption. (I’ll bet my life savings on the Nate Redemption Arc by the end of the season.) Then there’s Rebecca, who falls into the same trap she did in the first season, as the prospect of revenge against Rupert clouds her decision making. Likewise, just because Ted finally opened up to a sports psychologist about his panic attacks doesn’t mean he’s impervious to setbacks, especially when his loved ones are across the pond moving on with their lives. Ted Lasso‘s heartwarming moments — rest assured, there are still plenty of them to go around — may be what roused viewers when it premiered against the onset of the pandemic, but the show is at its best when that boundless optimism is juxtaposed against real adversity.

In a strange way it does Ted Lasso now effectively contradicting itself. On the one hand, the series keeps trying to shake up its status quo by introducing new conflicts and characters; on the other hand, it argues that change is not always a good thing, especially if it comes at the expense of our principles. There should be a lot more clarity about what kind of show Ted Lasso want to be at the season finale, which could very likely function as a series finale. But until then, the Ted Lasso mindset is at something of a crossroads: a show aiming to be big Before going home forever.

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