A man pulls his crying son into a hug and rocks him. “Been here before,” he says. “No effort, no class, no fucking idea!” another man screams. A woman, tears welling her eyes, asks, “Why is it never us celebrating? Why is it never us?” A crowd of fans sings, in unison, a song that taunts their own team: “You’re not fit to wear the shirt! You’re not fit to wear the shirt!”
These are some of the fans of Sunderland A.F.C., a football club in the northeastern England city of Sunderland. Why they care so much and why they are so emotional are at the center of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, an outstanding Netflix reality series that follows the team’s players, coaches, and staff through two dramatic seasons of football and television.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die fits firmly into some well-populated territory in unscripted television. HBO’s Hard Knocks and 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic have taken us behind the scenes of teams before and during their seasons, while Netflix’s Last Chance U franchise has gone deep into college sports to show us the reality of what’s happening, especially to the players.
But the Netflix series has its roots in a show that pre-dates modern reality TV: a 1998 BBC series called Premier Passions followed Sunderland in the 1996-1997 season, after it moved into the Premier League; that show was produced by Stephen Lambert, who went on to found a production company that’s brought us reality TV shows such as Undercover Boss and The Circle.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die is produced by a different company, Fulwell 73, and picks up about 20 years later, during the 2017-2018 season, after Sunderland is relegated from the Premier League to the Championship. The series makes all of these machinations make sense without being pedantic, mostly because it focuses on what’s happening to people. But it also makes effective use of on-screen graphics showing team standings and explaining the consequences of a certain game or scene that we’re about to see.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die’s first season focuses mostly on fans, players, and coaches, exploring this particular fandom and what football means to the people in Sunderland. The second season mostly stays in the back offices as executives try to reinvigorate the team and excite community.
Both seasons lock in to compelling storylines, and both seasons have highs and lows. Even if you knew the outcome of the season, or a player or coach’s fate, the show is still very effective at presenting the events in real time.
Games are tightly edited and enhanced with slow motion and a dramatic score and sound design that slows things down right before the most pivotal moments, ramping up the tension and emotion, and making sure we feel—deeply—what is happening.
It’s so moving that it literally inspired two American actors to buy a UK football club. “I remember the moment. I was sitting on the couch, I was watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die. And I was falling in love with this team and these people and the story,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia actor Rob McElhenney told BBC Sport.
As a result, he partnered with Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds and bought Wrexham A.F.C. late last year—and they have plans to make a documentary (series?) about it.
I will look forward to that especially because, alas, there is no more Sunderland ‘Til I Die on the way, as the team was not filmed during the abbreviated 2019-2020 seasons, nor this year. But the two seasons that Fulwell 73 and executive producers Leo Pearlman and Ben Turner have created are absolutely terrific.
It is easy to fall in love with the people on screen, and that is what this reality series has in common with Apple TV+’s scripted comedy/drama Ted Lasso: imperfect people whose lives we’re drawn into as they try to do their best.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a portrait of long-suffering fans, and the people desperately trying to make them happy. While managers, players, and owners change, the series finds familiar faces that it checks in with across two seasons, including club chef Joyce Rome, who has institutional memory and a deep love for the players she cooks for, and taxi driver Peter Farrer, a fan whose way of describing what’s happening with the club makes him the de facto narrator.
His commentary is about as close as the series comes to having a point of view. There’s a moment of season two that touches on Brexit, and the town’s history comes up, as do the class differences between southerners and northerners. The show could do more to explore those things, but it uses its 30- to 40-minute episodes mostly to just drop us behind the scenes.
While the cameras miss some key moments—and in season two, the access clearly shrinks, or at least the focus changes dramatically—they’re present for some surprisingly intimate exchanges, from contract negotiations to candid discussions among staff and executives.
“You are absolutely integral to making the football club sustainable,” the club’s executive director, Charlie Methven, says during a staff meeting shown in the first episode of season two. “The football club being sustainable is integral to the happiness of the entire city, so you are in positions of huge responsibility and value. This is a meaningful, valuable job; this is what stops people crying in church.”
He tells his staff he wants them to be able to say, “I was part of the team that turned that club around.” Whether they are or not, Sunderland ‘Til I Die does excellent work at making us all feel like part of the team.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die » A-
What works for me
- Incredible access
- Thrilling editing and sound design
- Insight into a specific fandom, a sport, and some universal ideas
What could be better
- Season two doesn’t have as wide an angle
- The title sequence, which some people adore but for me just seems melancholy in a way that doesn’t match the series’ tone
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