With Hollywood’s writers on strike and the studios threatening to replace them with A.I., we ought to be grateful for every minute of handcrafted content we get. But I’ve taken to letting out a sigh every week when a new Ted Lasso arrives and my eyes head right to the episode length: 48 minutes, 58, 63. A show that began as a pleasant pandemic companion has become a weekly exercise in good-natured excess, the equivalent of a date who keeps showing up at your door with a 4-foot stuffed animal.
Ted Lasso’s enlargement has been taken as a sign of both its growing ambition and its lack of direction, proof that it has either outgrown or lost sight of its sitcom roots. But humor was never the show’s driving force, and over the course of its third and probably final season, the moments when it reverts to setup-punchline form have felt increasingly forced, as if it’s trying to reassure its audience that it’s something it never was in the first place. When it’s revealed that Roy, the team’s perennially gruff player-turned-coach, and Keeley, their preternaturally peppy PR whiz, have ended their romantic relationship, Ted’s second in command, Coach Beard, lets out a falsetto yelp, and Ted himself faints dead away. It’s the kind of applause-milking exaggeration you’d more likely associate with an old-fashioned three-camera sitcom than a streaming dramedy, only here there’s no studio audience to blame it on.
No one seems more conflicted about what’s going on with Ted Lasso than the show’s fans, who have been warring on Reddit over whether its third season has been a huge disappointment or whether it’s unfair to pass judgment so early. Defenders have taken to parroting the first-season speech in which Ted cites Walt Whitman’s “Be curious, not judgmental”—a phrase Whitman never actually uttered—or pleading, as in the title of one post that earned thousands of upvotes, “Y’all gotta Believe a little here and let them tell the story.” Others roll their eyes and admit, “I’m starting to hate those phrases now.” It’s a show that preaches not just the importance of believing in yourself, in a team, and in an ideal, but in your capacity to do so—and your capacity to hear Jason Sudeikis say “I believe in believe” without having to stifle a snicker. Letting go of that isn’t easy—some disillusioned viewers have likened die-hard fans’ unquestioning zeal to the blind adherence of members of a cult—and it seems to have the show’s disciples shuttling between hoping for a last-minute comeback and feeling that they’ve been had.
It’s a push-and-pull that reflects the issue at the core of the series itself. For all that Ted Lasso wants to change, the show also seems deeply terrified of changing, raising serious topics and then scurrying back to safety before the credits roll. In this season’s seventh episode, “The Strings That Bind Us,” Nigerian player Sam publicly attacks a British cabinet minister for making anti-immigrant statements, and his restaurant is trashed by racist vandals; in the show’s second season, he sparked controversy by criticizing the team’s main sponsor, an airline whose parent company was exploiting oil reserves in his home country. Given how rarely African characters are given a prominent role in American TV shows, both plotlines felt like a rare opportunity to explore fresh territory—but in both cases, the storylines were neatly wrapped up by the end of the episode, never to be mentioned again.
This week’s episode, in which closeted player Colin butts heads with the team’s captain, Isaac, is at least the fruit of several weeks’ worth of clumsy track-laying: The season’s third episode showed Colin at home with a man after spending the night; the sixth found him sneaking off to a gay bar after an away game in Amsterdam, where he got some advice from the team’s openly gay biographer, Trent Crimm; and in the eighth, he was inadvertently outed when Isaac found photos of past boyfriends on his phone. In the ninth, “La Locker Room Aux Folles”—the clunky title itself feels like a holdover from the pre-recap era when they were rarely used off-set—Isaac seems openly repulsed by Colin, yanking his arm out of a pre-match huddle when their hands inadvertently touch, and so discomfited by the subject even being raised that he wades into the stands in the middle of a match to assault a fan who yells a homophobic slur at him.
It feels oddly retrograde to devote an entire episode of a contemporary sitcom to the dilemma of whether professional athletes can be around a player they know is gay, and the show tries to have it both ways, giving Ted an impassioned speech about the importance of supporting Colin’s sexuality and not just condoning it, then having Colin deflate it by pointing out that belonging to a marginalized and historically persecuted group is not the same as rooting for the Denver Broncos. You can tell how serious the episode is about confronting homophobia by the fact that the fan’s slur is drowned out by the sound mix so that all we hear is the opening “F,” and that it turns out Isaac isn’t homophobic at all, just mad that Colin didn’t trust him enough to come out. That doesn’t come close to explaining why Isaac would recoil at Colin’s touch, but never mind—this is Ted Lasso, and everything is fine. It’s hard to gin up much conflict on a show where no one of import is allowed to be bad. Even the once promising “evil Nate” story set up at the end of Season 2 petered out after a few episodes, and Ted’s frustrated former kit man now breaks into a smile when he sees his old rival in the stands. (The only exception is Nate’s sleazy billionaire boss Rupert, but he’s barely been a factor of late.)
Besides, it turns out the real issue isn’t Colin being gay at all. It’s that it’s none of your business. When Roy heads to the press room to answer questions about Isaac’s behavior—and, not to worry, the team won the game even though they were down a man because he got ejected, and Colin played especially well—he tells them an anecdote about an old teammate who was bounced out of the sport for attacking another player, only to reveal later that his wife had recently had a miscarriage. The point being, you never know what another person is going through, and even if that person happens to be famous, you don’t have a right to know. This turns out to have nothing to do with what set Isaac off, but after consecutive episodes hinging on phone hacking and celebrities’ right to privacy, you have to wonder at what point in the production process the now-infamous alleged texts between Sudeikis and his ex-wife Olivia Wilde were leaked to the British press.
Ted Lasso’s third season was reportedly plagued by delays as the writing shifted focus numerous times, and after years of saying this would be the show’s final season, Sudeikis and company began to prevaricate, saying only that it would be a conclusion to this particular story. (At the season’s premiere event in March, press were strictly instructed not to raise the subject.) It’s possible that the third season’s diffuse focus is a way of trying to set characters up for a potential spinoff, or just a Garfield Minus Garfield version of Ted Lasso itself. But the fizzled-out storylines centered on Keeley and Rebecca have shown that they’re not developed enough to be the center of their own narrative universe (and the writing for female characters has been particularly flat this season). No matter how much fans might wish it, it’s become hard to believe that there’s enough Ted Lasso left to fill three more episodes, let alone another show.