Photo: Patrick McElhenney/FX
The new FX series Welcome to Wrexham is a strange little bundle of bafflements. Its half-hour episodes go down smooth but can leave you feeling unsure how to process what you just saw. The first half of its eight-episode run is the expository equivalent of engine-revving, followed by a fifth episode that finally begins to deliver on the promise of its heartwarming premise. Big Name Celebrities Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds are unquestionably the bait to lure viewers into this series, but to say that it’s about them would be far too simplistic. Let’s untangle some of the narrative and structural oddities of this inconsistent yet compelling show, shall we?
So, what’s a Wrexham?
Wrexham is a place, a team, and a proud, hopeful, and frequently anxious state of mind. As you will be reminded many times over the course of the season, Wrexham is a working-class town of about 60,000 in the northeastern corner of Wales, about an hour’s drive from Liverpool and Manchester. Despite its proximity to two major English cities, you would be taking your life ever so slightly into your own hands to mistake Wrexham for being in England. Wales is part of Great Britain, and it’s extremely not England, thank you very much.
Wrexham was hit hard by the near-collapse of coal mining and steel production in the 1980s, and still hasn’t fully recovered. As went the fortunes of the town, so went those of their beloved professional football (soccer) team, Wrexham AFC. Having spent years relegated to professional football’s lowest tier and surviving a series of bad, ineffectual owners, the team goes all in when Hollywood A-listers Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds make an acquisition bid. This could end in triumph or tears, but you should probably bet on a bit of both. As one of the team’s keenest supporters puts it, Wrexham is “a place where people deserve a little bit more than they’ve got out of life.”
Wait, so what’s Rob and Ryan’s connection to a random Welsh football club?
Funny you should ask: There isn’t one! Well, not to start with, anyway, as neither Rob nor Ryan is from Wrexham, and their interest in the Beautiful Game is pretty recent.
Sports were at the heart of Ryan’s relationship with his late father, while Rob is an enthusiastic sports guy in general, and an avid Philly sports guy in particular. As a lifelong fan of the NFL Super Bowl LII–winning Philadelphia Eagles, Rob is very well acquainted with the complex feelings of spending decades loving a team that tends to run out of gas earlier than its fans hope for. For Rob, the appeal of Wrexham is obvious: Both places are a bit rough around the edges, and both draw tightly together as communities in celebration and in crisis. When irascible yet devoted Wrexham AFC superfan Wayne Jones describes the team as “meaning everything to people in this town,” he’s in perfect harmony with Rob’s honest belief that he and Ryan can help the team rebuild and reclaim some of their past excellence.
Both seem to genuinely care about these underdogs, but Rob is the True Believer, getting up at 4 a.m. in Los Angeles to watch Wrexham play live with his son and spending 90 minutes on the phone convincing a prospective manager (coach) to come aboard. Ryan knows that his roles are the Money and Resident Quip Artist. The dude is forever putting himself in the crosshairs with zinger after deadpan zinger, helpfully reminding viewers to find him and Rob ridiculous as they try to do something they do not know how to do.
Who are we supposed to care about other than Rob and Ryan, and why?
This is where Welcome to Wrexham falters in its first half. The familiar stars of Mythic Quest and Deadpool may be the initial lure, but they’re not the reason to continue watching.
Wisely, Welcome to Wrexham invites viewers to get invested in players and fans, but in ways that can feel like a bait and switch. We spend quite a bit of time getting to know veteran player Paul Rutherford, who in his spare time has renovated his very modest house in preparation for the arrival of his third son. By the end of the second episode, though, we’re encouraged to lay a great deal of blame for the team’s lost playoff chances at Rutherford’s feet. The team immediately drops him and ten other players. This sequence provides the lead-in to Rob and Ryan agreeing — from their Los Angeles homes — that it’s time to make some sweeping personnel changes in pursuit of getting promoted to League Two the following season, but did we really need ten minutes of Rutherford-focused footage to get there?
As it continues, Welcome to Wrexham reveals that the true heart of the show is the team’s supporters (fans). Most notable among them is Shaun Winter, resentful housepainter for the town council and doting father separated from his sons’ mother. He’s wonderfully quotable, capturing the bravado and heartache of fandom, but his role in the show doesn’t click fully into place until the season’s halfway mark.
You mentioned something about relegation. Why does that sound so familiar?
If you’re familiar with relegation, you’re probably recalling it as the specter looming over the first season of an obscure little show called Ted Lasso. Relegation is a poor-performing football team’s demotion to a lower tier of competition at the end of the regular season. The two teams at the bottom of the table fall one tier, while a number of the highest-ranked teams are promoted to the next tier up. Relegation is the shared trauma of Wrexham AFC and its supporters.
Over the last few decades, Wrexham AFC has been relegated a mortifying three times. For the last 13 years, they’ve been stuck playing in the National League, which is the lowest tier in professional U.K. football. In the Queen’s English, the technical term for this chronic state of affairs is “quite bad,” which in American English translates roughly to, “I am prostrate with shame and fury, and must go into seclusion to grieve the terrible fortunes of my beloved team, whom I also hate.”
A relegated team can work its way back up to a higher league, but the lower a team drops in the tiers and the longer it remains there, the further out of reach promotion becomes, mostly because of money. Premier League teams have financial resources that National League teams can only dream of. As we learn in the Welcome to Wrexham series premiere, average salaries in the Premier League are about 100 times those in the National League. Excellent players, the kind who could propel a team to promotion, can choose to play for considerably more money in the higher tiers. And in the main, they do.
The challenges of recruitment, retention, and player development on a meager budget often lead to difficulties in building a championship-winning team who play well together as a team. It can be a vicious and demoralizing cycle. As Spencer Harris, the volunteer director of Wrexham AFC, puts it, “Getting out of the National League is the hardest job in international football.” No pressure, lads!
Are you 100 percent sure you aren’t talking about Ted Lasso?
A fair question! The similarities between the shows are unavoidable: You’ve got your colorful characters, your big-hearted team of underdogs whose supporters draw heavily on the team’s performance as the bedrock of their identity and mental well-being, your know-next-to-nothing but enthusiastic and quippy North Americans, and your dread of relegation. It’s easy to imagine Ted himself showing up in this series.
But beneath the veneer of enticing similarities, the distinctions are stark: Ted Lasso’s AFC Richmond is a well-funded (and imaginary) Premier League team in a sparklingly delightful and much-awarded sitcom set in swinging London. There’s reason to hope that we’ll see the Greyhounds claw their way back to the Premier League by the end of the show’s third and final season. By contrast, Wrexham AFC is an underfunded real team of real players facing real problems in a small town hundreds of miles from London. Try to imagine a professional sports team based in the U.S. relying on full-time volunteers for many key roles. Their players scrape by on meager salaries in an economically and emotionally depressed town, many of them knowing full well that this is as prestigious as their sports career is likely to get.
If you’re looking for a sports show that’s a close analog to Welcome to Wrexham, two better bets are Sunderland Til I Die on Amazon Prime and Basketball or Nothing, the award-winning 2019 Netflix docuseries about the fortunes of the Navajo Nation’s Chinle High School Warriors.
So if Rob and Ryan don’t need to know anything about football to own the team, do I need to know about football to watch this show?
Welcome to Wrexham is about football the way Friday Night Lights was about (American) football. It’s really about what a specific football team means to the community it belongs to. As long as you know that soccer and football are the same thing and that Wales is not in England, you’ll be fine. You’re more likely to run into difficulties understanding the regional accent, but that’s what subtitles are for.
Relegation, stacked odds, a depressed hometown: All of that sounds like a bit of a bummer. And this is a lighthearted, feel-good documentary? Are we laughing at them or with them?
To attempt to prevent Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds from cracking wise at every opportunity would be to attempt to prevent the sun from shining, so Welcome to Wrexham is often funny. The show invites viewers to laugh quite a bit, but not at Wrexham AFC players and never at the team supporters, who are treated with sincere reverence at all times. The jokes are made by and about the whimsical rich dudes from L.A., very frequently and capably, at their own expense.
Cut to the chase, already! Is Welcome to Wrexham worth watching?
Do you believe? Do you well up just a tad whenever you hear “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”? Are you indulgent enough to wait for this unsubtle show to find its groove? If so, you’ll be won over by Welcome to Wrexham’s sincerity and big heart, shown to their best advantage in episode five, airing September 7, with its vignettes of superfans of all ages, interwoven with game footage and comments by some of the players. High-scoring player Paul Mullin is particularly philosophical, noting that “in life, everything is just a memory.” His real job, he says, isn’t scoring goals, but creating “memories for other people, so they have something they can tell their grandkids and children about.” On Welcome to Wrexham, fans, players, Rob, and Ryan all want the same thing: to make and to share match-day memories, good or bad, for the love of the game.