“I’m a painter now, twelve, fifteen years,” says Shaun, a lifelong Wrexham resident and Wrexham A.F.C. supporter. “Me graddad was a painter, me dad’s a painter… and I fucking hate it.”
This moment, early in the second episode of the new FX half-hour documentary series Welcome to Wrexham, has very little to do with the plot, which is why I feel comfortable quoting it verbatim. It could have been left on the cutting room floor without detracting even a little from the narrative arc. What it accomplishes, though, is twofold. First, it’s another great bit of local color in a show that thrives on these moments. Second, it’s avowedly unsentimental, a surprisingly common approach in a work that theoretically lends itself to sentiment.
The 18-episode Wrexham is the story of Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Ryan Reynolds buying a Welsh soccer club that has fallen on hard times with the dream of bringing them, and the town, back to prominence. Why are they doing this? The question is addressed often, but only answered obliquely. McElhenney is from working class Philadelphia, a lifelong Eagles fan, and feels like he can relate to what a team means to people like him, and those in working class Wrexham. And Reynolds… well, Reynolds has movie-star money, and McElhenney needed him. It’s surely about the making of this docuseries, of course, but there’s something refreshing about the fact that nobody is attempting to wring pathos out of the project. There is at least a part of the motivation that’s left mysterious (as of the first four episodes reviewed)—McElhenney and Reynolds have never been to Wrexham, they don’t seem to particularly like soccer very much, and before this, they had never even met each other in person. The connections, the desires, are tenuous, subtle, and never quite made explicit.
The beauty is, it works wonderfully. McElhenney and Reynolds know it’s about money, the price of things is discussed often, they sack the team’s coach and 10 of its players almost immediately—many of whom, we’re told, will struggle to find the next stop in their careers afterward—and despite the fact that this is a creative investment, they also want to make money eventually. There’s nothing cynical about the show, but nor is this a gawpy real-life Ted Lasso with clockwork tearjerker scenes. And somehow, this direct, honest approach makes the whole production more affecting than it might otherwise be.
I’ll admit to a little bias here—as a McElhenney fan and a sports fan, the concept of him buying an English soccer team in dire straits and trying to lift them up is a formula that seems almost tailored to my interests. Coming into the experience, I couldn’t envision a scenario where this review would be remotely negative. Still, though my instincts were proved right, they managed to surprise me with the product itself. Every documentary is manipulative—the editors put the material together in a way to advance their own narrative interests and heighten emotional impact—but this one feels almost rigorously honest in its depiction of people and reality both in America and Wales.
There, life is tough, and the people are hard-bitten with a humor to match. From Shaun the painter (who greeted the prospect of this Hollywood takeover with the following sentiment: “Fuck off! It’s never going to happen”) to Wayne, the delightfully gossipy owner of the pub where the biggest fans congregate, the locals are depicted as funny and kind, but not the least bit tender. When Shaun tells a friend at the pub that his wife has just left him, the friend laughs and says, “have you got any tissues for him here?”
“It’s a fucking emotional time in me life, this is!” says Shaun, smiling right back and taking a sip of his pint.
It’s funny, but in the next scene we see how devastating the split-up really is for Shaun, and for his children. A scene like this not only hits with greater impact for the stiff upper lip element of it all—not once does Shaun cry—but because it makes the point the filmmakers want it to make, which is that for people like this, the club really is everything. And they have a lot at stake here, too; as Wayne says, “if this goes tits up, we’ll be a laughingstock.”
McElhenney wants to honor this, and he’s dragging Reynolds along; at the same time, he seems to know he’s a dilettante, and Reynolds embraces that. McElhenney fights to be considered sincere—Reynolds describes him as someone who will stay on a phone call until he gets what he wants, and this (plus money) is how he manages to convince a star coach and player from higher leagues to come to lowly Wrexham to try to lift them to their former glory.
If there’s a star here, it’s McElhenney. From my perch, it seems like Reynolds is sincerely in for the project, but is mostly around only when they need to shoot a phone call (one of which was so stilted and awkward that McElhenney joked it was “the draw of phone calls,” to which Reynolds replied, “I’m hanging up now”). It’s McElhenney who wants this the most, and he goes out of his way to get the best people, including a new CEO in Fleur Robinson who stipulated that she only wanted to be shown sparingly in the docuseries.
“I didn’t know that was an option,” Reynolds quipped, but it was for McElhenney. For him, this feels like more than just a novelty, or a vehicle for the FX docuseries; he also has a preternatural need to win. He is, in fact, featured a little less than you might imagine, and you almost get the sense that he’s mostly there to use his and Reynolds’ celebrity to increase the war chest of the soccer team, rather than the other way around. There’s a similarity between him and the Wrexham supporters in the size of the chip on their shoulders, but while they seem to have the very British sense that a life of gloom is their lot, McElhenney is infused with the American success bug. When it infects people like him of lower-middle class origin, it produces these human dynamos who seemingly cannot be stopped from their ultimate aim.
This singular drive, and the buy-in from the town, is the engine of what makes Wrexham such a resounding success. The fear behind the premise is that McElhenney could walk away at any point, while the people who live for their town and their club cannot, and the most heartbreaking possible end for this would be to see the Hollywood celebrities jump ship when the going gets tough. That’s acknowledged right from the start, when McElhenney tells Reynolds that there’s a version of this story where they end up as the bad guys. It doesn’t feel like he could let himself allow that to happen, though. This isn’t just a story of two actors, or a town, or a football club; this is a story of desire and ambition, and how in its purest form it can be distilled into a potent force that carries a momentum all its own. “Promotion” isn’t just the end goal here, but a way of life.
Welcome to Wrexham premieres with back-to-back half-hour episodes August 24th on FX, and will stream the next day on Hulu.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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