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The third season of 'Ted Lasso' basks in the glow of its quirky characters

Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso.
Apple TV+
Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso.

How you feel about the latest — and possibly last — season of Apple TV+'s hit comedy Ted Lasso, likely depends on how you feel about the characters in Ted Lasso.

That's because star/co-creator/executive producer Jason Sudeikis and his crew spend a lot of time this season savoring the quirky, familial vibe of the show's signature personalities — serving up longer episodes at 43-50 minutes each, creating more complex storylines and cooking up new characters who have their own unique stories going on.

Nick Mohammed, Anthony Head and Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso.
/ Apple TV+
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Apple TV+
Nick Mohammed, Anthony Head and Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso.

As the third season opens, Sudeikis' breathtakingly optimistic coach Ted Lasso is dropping his son off at Heathrow airport, returning him to America after a visit. The exchange prompts Ted to rethink his decision to leave a career in college football and lead a scrappy soccer team in Britain — where he still, inexplicably, doesn't understand many of rules and doesn't know who the biggest star players are.

Ted's about to face off against his former assistant, Nick Mohammed's unctuous strategist Nate Shelley, who left Ted's team AFC Richmond in a jealous rage to become head coach for a rival team owned by the self-absorbed Rupert Mannion — ex-husband of Richmond's owner, Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham).

Juno Temple and Hannah Waddingham in Ted Lasso.
/ Apple TV+
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Apple TV+
Juno Temple and Hannah Waddingham in Ted Lasso.

I expected this season to focus on the rivalry between Ted's determinedly folksy good nature — he disagrees with one of his coaches by saying "I beg to differ, Claudia Schiffer" — and Nate's darkly insecure hostility. But the first four episodes of the season made available to critics don't spend much time on the competition between the two — even though the teams eventually play a match against each other.

Instead, we catch up with many different characters — from Juno Temple's chirpy publicist Keeley Jones, who has started her own publicity firm, to Brett Goldstein's superstar player-turned coach Roy Kent, who makes a fateful decision about his relationship with Keeley. Regret is a common theme this season, as various characters reconsider roads not taken and choices made, pondering the imponderable question of whether they would have been better leaving well enough alone.

Ted seems to have his panic attacks from last season under control, with a nod to continued therapy sessions. But he's still struggling with a sense of melancholy, as he wonders whether his time in Britain is worth being apart from his family as they move on without him.

Roy, in particular, grows sad after AFC Richmond plays against the team he retired from, despite the fact that fans of the opposing team gave him a hero's welcome. He admits, part of him wonders if he shouldn't have stayed in the game longer, enjoying his time on the field, instead of leaving the sport before his skills deteriorated until he was let go.

"A lot of folks think it's better to quit than be fired," Ted tells him, leaving little doubt he was also talking about something else. (Can't say exactly what because — spoilers. But its huge deal for Roy.)

For those who find such obvious signals in a character's journey irritating or amateurish, this third season will likely be a tough slog. Characters here often reveal themselves in ways few people actually do in real life, offering emotional speeches with perceptive insights into how they're really feeling, beneath the façade they usually present to the world.

But if you're a fan who enjoys Ted Lasso's extended family of characters and how they bounce off each other — yes, there is a moment where every member of the coaching staff names their favorite character played by Julie Andrews — then you'll savor every minute of this season's long stretches spent hanging with people in ways that often advance the show's actual plots only incrementally.

The toughest challenge for established TV shows focused on a family — connected either by blood or through work and friendships — is to find new, believable ways of separating that family over the course of a TV season and then reuniting them.

It's one reason why I suspect Sudeikis has been telling press the show's current storylines will wrap up with this third season. The goodwill that binds these characters this season is nearly palpable. And as fun as it is to bask in the glow of entertaining characters who enjoy each other, it's not often the source of deeply compelling television, especially long term.

Despite Sudeikis' talk that this season wraps up the story he wanted to tell, Apple TV+ hasn't said for sure if Ted Lasso will end here. And, so far, it's tough to see if the fun and funny moments from these first few episodes will rise to fuel a truly great TV conclusion, if it does.

But it remains a measure of Ted Lasso's quality that even a gentle end to these characters' journeys would be better television than most series these days can muster.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.