Adapting a TV show from an ad is definitely not “so easy a caveman could do it,” to use Geico’s old slogan. In its unending search for properties that audiences will already be familiar with, Hollywood has tried to expand commercials into series a few times with dire results. It wasn’t only that the shows felt like extended versions of the original commercials; it was also that they failed to develop creatively beyond their cynical origins into something more dimensional.
The first to come to mind is, of course, ABC’s “Cavemen,” a 2007 sitcom based on a series of Geico insurance ads that was famously awful. It turned a trio of cavemen, made up with suburban-Halloween-level hairiness, into members of a minority mistreated by — not kidding — “sapes,” or homo sapiens. Also in the Hall of Shame for series based on ads: CBS’s “Baby Bob” from 2002, the talking infant that was adapted from an ad for FreeInternet.com, and CBS’s “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!” from 1988, which was inspired by Jim Varney’s character Ernest from a number of local ads in the 1980s.
These shows were no better than “$#*! My Dad Says,” the 2010 sitcom based on a Twitter feed, for similar reasons. There’s just not a lot of room for characterization within the time limits and the creative confines of an ad. Characters in ads are usually built to be one-joke creatures, to make a quick impression and give the viewer a good feeling about the product. Indeed, a commercial might suffer if its central figure is too expansive to be understood in less than 30 seconds or so. The goal of a commercial is to sell, to plant positive associations in the viewers’ consciousness, not to stimulate them in broader ways or lead them into an ongoing story line.
So I am truly surprised by “Ted Lasso,” the new Apple TV+ series based on the fish-out-of-water character from promos for NBC Sports in 2013-14. Played by Jason Sudeikis, Ted was created as a thick American football coach from Kansas City who takes over a British soccer team despite knowing nothing about soccer. NBC had started airing England’s Premier League matches and developed the commercials to help make cola-loving Americans feel comfortable digging into a tea-loving country’s sports world. And the ads received more than 20 million views on YouTube.
Now, six years later, Sudeikis’s Ted is the lead character on a comedy, and it’s really pretty good. In figuring out how Sudeikis beat the odds, it may be important to note the he and Brendan Hunt, who plays his fellow coach on the show and in the ads, got help in the journey to Apple TV+ from a pair of writer-producers well-versed in TV comedy, Bill Lawrence and Joe Kelly (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Detroiters,” “Saturday Night Live”). Lawrence is best known for what I consider one of the best comedies of this millennium, “Scrubs,” and you can detect his influence on “Lasso,” with its deep bench of side characters, its heart, and its slick, happy tone that, at moments, organically, turns a bit sad.
Wisely, the creative team decided to let go of the obnoxious American persona and make Ted sweet and smart, too. He’s a dogged optimist, a bit like Leslie Knope on “Parks and Recreation,” but he’s no dummy. He uses others’ perception of him as a dummy to his advantage, as he tries to pull a failing English soccer team together for some wins. We’re not just laughing at the same joke over and over, as in “Look how inept this guy is” — a quality that can work in a commercial setting. The show’s Ted has different facets, including his issues with his wife, who is back in the States. He really is a good coach, with a touch of Eric Taylor’s football-isn’t-really-about-football approach from “Friday Night Lights” in his DNA. He plays the teammates off one another like a master chess player or, you know, The Dad of the Century.
The ensemble is big, and they provide some of the best moments. Hannah Waddingham is particularly engaging as the wealthy team owner who hired Ted in the first place, for reasons I won’t spoil here. She’s the conniving villain of the piece, until we begin to understand the reasoning behind her motivations and meet her estranged husband (the real villain, played with nefarious glee by Anthony Head). Juno Temple is a burst of fun as the girlfriend to the team’s best — and jerkiest — player. These and the other supporting characters give the show an overall sunniness.
“Ted Lasso” is doing well enough on Apple TV+ to have already gotten renewed for a second season. I hope that, given Hollywood’s copycat complex, the success of the show doesn’t inspire other ad-based TV series in a rush to repeat success. I’m in no hurry for the backstory of the Geico Gecko, or the dystopian journey of the Peloton lady, or a perky look at Progressive’s Sad Sasquatch. Don’t make us regret enjoying this pleasing anomaly.