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The fantasy of Ted Lasso and the reality of Jason Sudeikis

The Jason Sudeikis-Olivia Wilde breakup changed the way watching Ted Lasso feels.

Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso.
Apple TV+
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On the just-premiered third season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV+’s feel-good hit comedy, the big theme is about handling the bad things people say about you. Each character is facing cruel gossip and slander from former friends. The underdog British soccer club at the center of the show has to weather a cruel press narrative from pundits who predict they’ll finish their season in last place.

It takes advice from sweet Ted Lasso, the fish-out-of-water American football coach played by co-creator and star Jason Sudeikis, for the team to figure out how to cope with it all. After a patented Lasso pep talk in the season premiere, they’re able to conclude that other people’s opinions are “just poopy.”

This preoccupation with how to handle what people are saying about you has some extra resonance right now because Sudeikis has been facing an unfriendly publicity narrative for the past year. And that narrative complicates the sunshiney fantasy Ted Lasso plays with so adeptly.

The fantasy of Ted Lasso is: What if a man you expected to be toxic was actually good? What if he was honorable and kind and devoted to helping people become better versions of themselves? What if he was the new masculine ideal, showing us ways of being a man that were worth aspiring to?

But over the long hiatus between seasons, Sudeikis went through an extremely messy public split from his former fiancée, Olivia Wilde, with whom he shares two children. Sudeikis’s public reactions to the split were neither criminal nor violent, but they were suggestive of more malice and vindictiveness than anything sweet, fictional Ted would ever dream of.

That’s a problem for Ted Lasso, which consistently encourages a slippage between Sudeikis and his saintly character. Just this week, Sudeikis went to the White House in character as Ted Lasso to talk about mental health. In a 2021 GQ profile, Sudeikis posed for the photoshoot in character and told the interviewer that while he thinks Ted is “the best version of himself,” his friends say, “No, that is you. That is you. That’s not the best version of you.”

“It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever made,” Sudeikis said.

In the publicity narrative of the show, Sudeikis and nice-guy mustachioed Ted are supposed to be one and the same. So then what do you do when the figure who’s supposed to represent the new masculine ideal turns out to be just another flawed human being?

How Ted Lasso became the ideal man

Ted Lasso was not originally a paragon. When the character first emerged in a 2013 NBC ad campaign announcing that it would be airing Premier League soccer games, he was a blowhard.

Like the Ted Lasso who stars in the TV show, 2013 Ted Lasso is an American football coach who’s been hired to coach a British soccer team despite knowing nothing about the sport. The similarities tail off there. While the later Ted strides into the UK with an optimistic smile and an aw-shucks humility, Ted Lasso in 2013 affects a stern, no-nonsense glare, even as it becomes painfully obvious he has no idea what he’s talking about. He roasts his players for their exercises and their gear. “You get those in the women’s section?” he demands witheringly when one player admits to wearing three-quarter-length pants.

The Ted of 2013 is a classic Jason Sudeikis character of the time. Sudeikis came up on Saturday Night Live, where he made the most of his 6-foot height and square jaw by largely playing jerks. One of his recurring bits was titled Two A-Holes (“Two A-Holes Work With a Trainer,” “Two A-Holes at a Crime Scene,” “Two A-Holes Buy a Christmas Tree”). He developed a type for himself: a white man far more impressed with himself than he has any right to be; a man who is so convinced he is living up to the masculine ideal of his era that he begins to burlesque it. The original Ted Lasso was a perfect iteration of the type, a jingoistic buffoon of the sort we’d all gotten used to mocking during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Between the creation of Ted Lasso in 2013 and the premiere of his show in 2020, however, the comedy landscape changed dramatically. Cringe comedy went out; wholesome comedies about becoming a better person came in. Michael Schur, who created Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place was the critical darling of the moment. The classic Sudeikis character would make no sense in such a landscape. He had to change.

When Sudeikis premiered his kinder, gentler Ted Lasso in 2020, he was playing hard against type. The extent to which he was playing against type, though, was not immediately apparent. The Ted of Apple TV+ looks at first like nothing but a more cheerful version of his predecessor, an amiably incompetent bumpkin spouting folksy dad jokes and comically over-the-top optimism. It’s only gradually, over the course of the first season, that it becomes clear that Ted is the real thing. His optimism is not misplaced. He might not know anything about soccer, but he really does know how to help people become better versions of themselves. One by one, nearly every villain Ted encounters melts and reveals the wounded child at their core — a child they can heal if they only follow Ted’s advice.

This was the twist reveal that helped make the show a smash hit to a pandemic-traumatized nation: The man you thought would be a jingoistic blowhard is actually kind, nurturing, and trustworthy. He is a soft masculine ideal you can count on after the Me Too movement knocked down our old idols. He is the kind dad to Trump’s mean stepfather.

Ted Lasso would complicate this fantasy almost as soon as it introduced it. We learn that Ted’s sunniness covers deep wounds, that his marriage fell apart because his wife couldn’t get him to open up about his pain. Ted has panic attacks. He is traumatized by his father’s suicide. He doesn’t trust therapy. One of the protégés he gently encourages and uplifts reveals a cruel sadistic streak that all Ted’s coaching fails to curtail.

Yet the central potency of the Ted Lasso fantasy remains undiminished throughout the show. Ted is not quite perfect, but his flaws appear mostly in ways that make him more interesting and attractive, like one of the glamorous antiheroes of the 2000s with a Kansas accent and dorky socks. When he leads the cast in lifting up their hearts in song — twice! — we are supposed to take the moment(s) as sincere, even aspirational. In the moral structure of the show, Ted’s niceness is the ideal to which we must strive, and only Ted comes close to truly accessing it. He might not be able to heal himself, but like Christ, he can still heal almost every other character he comes across.

What happened with Jason Sudeikis in real life between seasons two and three makes that fantasy even more complicated than it was on the show.

The past year of gossip has made Jason Sudeikis’s public image messy

To understand what went down in Sudeikisland last year, we’re going to have to get a brief grounding in celebrity gossip. Here’s the backstory: Jason Sudeikis and the actress and now director Olivia Wilde were together from 2011 until 2020. Both had been married and divorced once before they met. They announced their engagement in 2013, and over the next few years had two children. In November 2020, they announced that they were splitting up “amicably.”

Over the course of the next year, however, rumors began to emerge alleging that Wilde had in fact cheated on Sudeikis with pop star Harry Styles when she directed him in the film Don’t Worry Darling and that this infidelity had precipitated the breakup. The story picked up progressively more momentum as the Don’t Worry Darling press tour transformed itself into a scandal-ridden train wreck, but it briefly looked as though Sudeikis might be able to skip the drama entirely.

Then, in April 2022, Sudeikis had Wilde served with custody papers while she was onstage at ComicCon, promoting the film. In statements shortly after the incident, Sudeikis said he had never intended for Wilde to be served so publicly and did not condone the server’s choice to go after her while she was onstage; Wilde said Sudeikis had “clearly intended to threaten me and catch me off guard.”

“It was not something that was entirely surprising to me. I mean, there’s a reason I left that relationship,” she later told Variety.

“A messy move for king of kindness Ted Lasso,” concluded Vulture.

In October 2022, the plot thickened when Sudeikis and Wilde’s former nanny, Erika Genaro, gave a scorched-earth interview to the Daily Mail, complete with screencaps of text messages threads apparently made with her employers.

Among other claims, Genaro alleged that Sudeikis spent his nights drinking and ranting that Wilde was “fucking someone else” to Genaro; that he became so inconsolable when he saw Wilde making her “special salad dressing” for Styles that he followed her out into the street to film her and then flung himself under Wilde’s car to try to prevent her from driving to see Styles; that he flew into a drunken rage, threw Genaro out of the house, and fired her without severance after he found out that she’d emailed Wilde; that afterward he prevented Genaro from collecting unemployment by claiming she’d resigned.

Perhaps most damningly, Genaro included a photo of a text Sudeikis sent her shortly before throwing her out of the house in which he uses a hashtag with Ted Lasso’s favorite catchphrase: “#Believe.”

Both Sudeikis and Wilde strongly denied Genaro’s claims, calling them “false and scurrilous.” In February of this year, Genaro filed a wrongful termination suit against them.

None of what Sudeikis has been accused of here is, on the scale of Hollywood scandals, overwhelmingly evil. However, it also cannot be described as aspirationally kind. It’s more of an a-hole move than a Ted Lasso move, very human and perhaps a little toxic.

Ted Lasso is closely linked with Sudeikis, who is supposed to represent Ted in real life. Now, that link is a little messier than it used to be.

As Sudeikis’s public image has grown, so has his show’s self-seriousness. In its first season, episodes clocked in tidily at the half-hour mark; now they’re a bloated 45 minutes or longer. As we make our way into the third season, episodes frequently end with a bleak cut to credits over Ted looking lonely and isolated.

The divorced energy, too, is off the scales. Ted’s ex-wife has a new boyfriend this season, and Ted gets to make a righteous speech about how he should have been informed earlier while his ex-wife listens in penitent silence. Ted nobly refuses to admit that his former protégé has hurt him by saying mean things about him to the press, even though his loving friends urge him to start a confrontation, in what feels very much like a plotline written by someone who would like credit for only saying mean things about his ex in publicly leaked private text messages, thank you.

The press gets its comeuppance as well. Gruff former soccer star Roy reveals that he carries around a news clipping of a mean opinion piece written about him when he was a 17-year-old new player. The journalist who wrote it apologizes, saying regretfully that at the time he was trying to make a name for himself, but now he sees that he only ever saw the worst in people — unlike, the implication goes, Ted, who always looks for the best.

The show’s defensiveness here suggests some flaws in its idealism that it hasn’t yet managed to work out. The show seems to feel certain that Ted’s model of kindness is almost always the correct approach to life, and that Ted himself is almost always right. He is never the one who needs to apologize for his conduct; other people are. If Ted Lasso’s nanny sued him for wrongful termination, you can bet it would turn out that she was part of a nefarious plot against him, not that he actually was a bad boss to her. If the masculine ideal that Ted Lasso is currently selling us is one who must always be acknowledged as morally righteous or else everyone else around him is wrong, is that an ideal that it’s always worth aspiring to?

Ted Lasso is a thoughtful show, and it’s been successful before at subverting themes it seemed initially to be playing straight. So I don’t want to say that Ted Lasso is playing the Sudeikis drama hamfistedly, or that this season has irrevocably dropped the ball. The four episodes of the new season I’ve seen don’t have enough information to make that claim.

What I will say is that the Sudeikis gossip narrative has tarnished the fantasy of Ted Lasso as a soft masculine ideal, the fantasy that once gave this show its wings. It has the rest of the season to prove it can do the job without them.