In soccer terms, the football-is-life comedy “Ted Lasso” just won television’s World Cup.
The unabashedly feel-good show (tagline: "Kindness Makes a Comeback") was nominated for a record 20 Emmys – one more than the impossibly catchy “Glee” back in 2010 – and won seven.
“Lasso,” soon to wrap its second season on Apple TV+, took home the coveted statue for Outstanding Comedy Series, and won others for star, co-creator and executive producer Jason Sudeikis for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series and Hannah Waddingham and Brett Goldstein for their supporting roles.
At a preliminary ceremony last weekend, "Lasso" won three Emmys for casting, sound mixing and editing.
"This show's about family, mentors and teachers, about teammates, and I wouldn't be here without those three things in my life," said Sudeikis, accepting his best actor award at Sunday's Emmys. "I am only as good as you guys make me look. It means the world to me to be a mirror of what you guys give to me."
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Back in the prehistoric times of broadcast network dominance, many would have tuned into “Lasso.” Not so in our fragmented pay-by-month streaming era, where Apple has to compete with HBO Max and Hulu, Netflix and myriad other rivals for viewer time and dollars.
So if you’ve never seen “Lasso” and its Emmy bling now has you curious, we’re here with a quick largely spoiler-free overview.
A disclaimer: your guide, while resolutely a fan of gritty backstabbing TV fare typified by HBO's “Succession,” is also a one-time collegiate soccer player with a soft spot for quirky let’s-all-get-along shows exemplified by last year's Emmy fave, “Schitt’s Creek.” Pass the Kleenex. Please.
How did it kick off?
“Ted Lasso” was born of an elegantly scripted joke. Back in 2013, Sudeikis, then wrapping a successful decade on "Saturday Night Live," made a video for NBC Sports to help the network promote its new coverage of English Premier League soccer matches.
The five-minute clip featured a mustachioed, visor-wearing Sudeikis, a proud Kansan, as Ted Lasso, a Midwestern college football coach just hired to lead real-life club Tottenham Hotspur. The gags wrote themselves. Told soccer matches can end in ties, Lasso says if that were the case in U.S. football, “that might be listed in Revelations as the cause for the apocalypse.”
After a second Lasso ESPN promo went viral in 2014, the actor, encouraged by his then-girlfriend, actress and director Olivia Wilde, started to develop the idea of a Lasso-based series with longtime friend and now co-star, Brendan Hunt. The upbeat show debuted in August 2020, a welcome antidote to a tightening pandemic.
Who are the players?
The coaches played by Sudeikis and Hunt have taken over a fictional English team called AFC Richmond, whose newly divorced owner Rebecca Welton (Waddingham) secretly wants Lasso’s presumed soccer incompetence to torpedo the squad in order to get back at her pompous ex. But guess again.
Lasso’s unbridled Americanism both chafes at and ultimately wins over a rainbow-coalition team that includes a grumpy fading star of a captain, Roy Kent (Goldstein); a bratty wunderkind with daddy issues, Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster); and a dashing if homesick young Nigerian, Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh).
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While the focus of the show may be on the struggling squad, impossible to miss is the fiercely independent nature of team owner Welton, her gal-pal and squad marketing manager Keeley Jones (Juno Temple), and – in the current second season (season finale will be released Oct. 8) – team psychiatrist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles). Blending strength and vulnerability, all three women often best the men when it comes to actually learning life lessons.
Why the cheering?
Not surprisingly, Sudeikis’ NBC Lasso videos played like "SNL" short films, two-dimensional sketches that were heavy on laughs mined from the absurdist premise of an American pigskin coach suddenly popped into the hallowed world of English football. That does not a TV series make.
But the quiet genius of Sudeikis and Hunt was in making Lasso’s Mr. Nice Guy nature both a mirror and a riddle. Whether it is his handmade locker room poster (reading simply “Believe”), his makes-you-think twice sayings (“Be curious, not judgmental,” he says, echoing poet Walt Whitman) or, ultimately, his struggles with personal demons, viewers come away challenged to embrace their better angels. Pretty much the opposite of the infamous “Seinfeld” mantra: “No hugging, no learning.”
The feel-good ripple effect of “Lasso” has launched a thousand pop-culture essays. On the cheerleading side are headlines such as “The Strange Bipartisan Appeal of ‘Ted Lasso’” (Politico) and “’Ted Lasso,’ ‘The Great North,’ and the Art of Nice” (The New York Times). On the not-so-convinced side: “Do We Still Need Ted Lasso’s Relentless American Positivity?” (The New Republic). Lasso’s retort to all likely would be to simply offer a smile and his trademark homemade biscuit.
How’s the soccer?
The play on display in “Ted Lasso” is surprisingly and comfortingly realistic, which admittedly may resonate largely with soccer players. But it makes a difference, ultimately helping viewers believe in the struggles of fictional AFC Richmond.
Part of this is done with a mix of special effects and deft editing, allowing for flashy footwork or pinpoint passing to mimic the real thing. It also helps that all cast members were vetted not only for acting chops but also for their athleticism. And then there’s Cristo Fernández, whose character Dani Rojas is always ready with a beaming smile and an exclamatory “Football is life!” yowl. (Fernandez played pro soccer in Mexico. It shows.)
There are inevitable glitches. A pro team has dozens of players, but somehow AFC Richmond seems to have barely 11 players to start a game. And most Premier League teams have massive stadiums, while Richmond’s looks like a local park.
But you don’t come to “Ted Lasso” for the football, of course. You come to live for 30 minutes a week in a pandemic-free fantasy world where people are kind and possibilities are open. And that’s a place worth cheering.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Emmys 2021: Why Jason Sudeikis' soccer comedy 'Ted Lasso' won