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American hopes to charm Brits in soccer series ‘Ted Lasso’

NEW YORK – Jason Sudeikis was a huge sports fan growing up in Kansas, especially basketball. Not so much that game where you kick a ball into a goal.

“The beautiful game? I didn´t get it a couple of years ago. I thought, `Well, good for them for getting that nickname.´ But now I get it,” he says. “While I have a very shallow understanding of soccer, I have a deep appreciation for it.”

Sudeikis artfully mines his ignorance of the sport in the new Apple TV+ series “Ted Lasso,” in which he plays an American football coach who takes charge of an elite British soccer team despite having little knowledge of the game they also call football.

“You could fill two internets with what I don´t know about football,” Lasso admits to shocked English journalists when he’s unveiled as the new coach of fictional West London club AFC Richmond.

Sudeikis’ Lasso may be a fish out of water, but he’s relentlessly optimistic and kind, armed with homespun wisdom in the face of hostility. “You don´t know what you´re doing!” is the only printable chant lobbed his way.

Sudeikis and executive producer Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs” and “Spin City”) fleshed out a three-dimensional Lasso from the character first created for NBC Sports to sell Americans on coverage of English Premier League soccer.

“One of the reasons that Jason and I connected on this is we both felt – this was pre-pandemic – that, `Man, it was such a cynical world out there that we could use a really optimistic and hopeful show.´”

While the NBC version of Lasso was a bit of a buffoon, the new series adds depth, with the hero estranged from his wife and people constantly underestimating him. He and his right hand man, played by Brendan Hunt, try to help the players realize their potential and sort out their romantic lives.

Lasso inherits a mediocre and divided team, with an aging veteran and a hotshot youngster snipping at each other. “When it comes to locker rooms, I like them just like my mother´s bathing suit – I only want to see them in one piece,” Lasso says.

The character is an amalgamation of several people Sudeikis has met, including a kindly basketball coach in high school and the revered basketball coach John Wooden. “Ted is just the best version of myself,” he says.

Hannah Waddingham, the English theater star, plays Lasso’s steely new boss with murky motives for hiring an amateur American football coach to run her soccer team. But like all the roles in the series, viewers will see her go deeper and reveal a full gamut of emotions.

“Everyone has their light and shade. Everybody gets an up and a down several times over,” Waddingham says. “The lesson is never ever judge a book by its cover.”

When he was initially approached about the job, Sudeikis said the creators had a volatile, angry coach in mind for Lasso like Bobby Knight, but the “Saturday Night Live” alum preferred honey over vinegar.

“I had more fun playing the version of the coach like this,” he said. “The sunny version of me. Like having two beers on an empty stomach, doing some day drinking. There’s enthusiasm. You say, `Let´s go for it!'”

Lawrence said the creators were reaching back to the idea of a moral and kindly American: A good-natured guy with a twinkle in his eye who is smarter than he shows. “That hadn´t been in the zeitgeist in a while. So it´s fun to try it again.”

Sudeikis said being a father to two young children helped fuel his attempt to create something genuine in these snarky times. “The hopefulness in it was something that I´d just been thinking about and mulling over in my own life.”

“Ted Lasso” arrives when the political discourse in both America and the United Kingdom is often dominated by ignorance married with arrogance. Sudeikis hopes the series can be an antidote.

“Ted is ignorance plus curiosity,” he says. “I think that curiosity has no native tongue. That´s just about staying open and not letting cynicism and apathy and divisiveness rule your decision making.”

Lasso throws himself into local English culture with gusto – downing pints in the pub and adapting to its large cereal – but never joins the British love for tea, which he calls “hot brown water” and “pigeon sweat.”

During the season, he learns more about soccer, but some things continue to elude him, like the rules for offside and the idea of tie games. “If God wanted games to end in a tie, she wouldn´t have invented numbers,” he says.

Lawrence and Sudeikis both hope the show serves as a valentine to the various mentors in their lives who steered them in the right direction when they were young.

“The stuff that sticks with you when you get older is those certain coaches, teachers or influential adults in your life that gave you a little push that you needed. I´m hoping that´s what Ted Lasso ends up being.”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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