FX’s The Bear is immediate and visceral, opening in a kitchen with cooks who don’t trust each other, don’t work well together, all trying to do their jobs, shouting, clanging, clashing. It’s been the breakout TV show this summer for many reasons, including just how every meticulously crafted every aspect of the show is—the writing, acting, directing, editing—but also for how effective it is at immersing us in its characters’ immediate experiences.
Welcome to Wrexham (FX, Wednesdays at 10, Thursdays on Hulu) opens in a similarly chaotic moment: in a crowd, in the middle of a street, people holding up their phones and waving, mobbing swarming Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds and Always Sunny in Philadelphia creator and actor Rob McElhenney, police holding them back, cameras jostling.
The show jumps back in time, and we’re in the actors’ houses before a fall 2020 Zoom meeting, for which Reynolds has set up his laptop on an upside-down Purex box, his iPhone propped against a coffee mug, and as he tells us he’s sweating. Celebrities: their Zoom calls have the same awkward setups as ours! Also on the call is McElhenney. They’ve never met in person, but now they’re pitching themselves as the new owners of Wrexham AFC, the oldest football club in Wales.
McElhenney fell in love with football, decided to buy a club, but realized, as he tells the camera, “I have TV money. I needed movie star money. More than that, I needed superhero movie star money.” A few DMs later—they met via social media—a partnership was born. So was this documentary series, which began filming before the purchase: a prescient decision and one that enables intimate access to two actors.
That access takes us into places such as the editing room of Netflix’s The Adam Project, and into the actors’ heads. Reynolds shares how his father was only interested in his success at sports, and how his “unquenchable thirst for validation” from his father has persisted even after his father’s death. McElhenney shares footage of him celebrating the Eagles’ Super Bowl win, and “what it meant to an entire community of people.”
In Wales, Humphrey Ker, an actor and writer who’s Rob’s friend, takes over as the team’s executive director, and we’re in the room when he meets the players, most slumped back in their chairs, wearing red shirts, black athletic shorts, and skeptical looks on their faces. They laugh as he leaves and the door closes, but the camera is out in the hall, too.
Too often in its opening episodes, Welcome to Wrexham is literally outside the room, unable to immerse itself in the town or the club, and thus gets kicked out from The Bear-level interiority into more traditional documentary space.
It’s very well-crafted even when using more standard conventions: sit-down interviews, graphics, the drone shots that are required by unscripted television law. The graphics that explain football and British slang to us American dummies are at least cheeky.
One problem for Welcome to Wrexham is that it follows in the shadow of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, an outstanding two-season Netflix show that followed a team and a town beaten down over the years as it tried to come back from relegation. With embedded cameras deep in the back office, it was privy to some amazing moments, and also followed people in the community.
Welcome to Wrexham does that, spending time with a bar owner, two friends and fans who sit outside a coffee shop, a painter with kids who ties his mental health to Wrexham.
A camera is literally inside a food truck as its proprietor and customers talk shit about a player named Rutherford. But we don’t meet Rutherford until the second episode, and one scene at his house is not enough to create connection with a player who may or may not lose his job of the team does not make the playoffs.
That disparity in access is most noticeable with the actual football. When the players are first introduced, they’re just a blur of talking heads, and then bodies on a field, which makes it hard to care about their successes or failures. Halfway through the second half-hour episode—FX is releasing two a week—tells us the manager, Dean Keates, will get sacked if they don’t make the playoffs. Yet we don’t know him.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die repeatedly created—for me, as someone who doesn’t watch or care much about soccer—absolutely riveting scenes of games, building tension and stakes leading into them, and then compressing footage to make the games swift and dramatic.
Welcome to Wrexham does not summarize Wrexham’s games as well, nor does it amp up the stakes for individual games or for the people we’re seeing. Instead, they’re left to tell us about what is happening: “The atmosphere has just been electric inside the ground, and I think just the positivity and vibrancy, what Rob and Ryan have brought to the area, you can feel it,” a coach says, and I don’t know if we can.
The editing jumps past most of the dramatic decisions, which I assume is because cameras were not there to actually capture it. After they hire a new CEO for the team, Fleur Robinson, Ryan Reynolds tells us that “she’s so smart that she asked not to be featured much in the documentary.” He pauses and adds: “I didn’t know that was an option.”
The most intimate access is in Los Angeles with the actors/owners, not in Wrexham, with the players and staff. Again, to be in rooms with Reynolds and McElhenney is often fascinating, whether it’s a conversation about problems with the pitch or Rob and his kid eating breakfast before watching a game at 4:30 a.m.
Welcome to Wrexham is thoroughly watchable, and has clever ways of presenting the footage it does have. (It’s produced by Boardwalk Pictures, which has also produced Last Chance U, Cheer, and Chef’s Table.) Other shows have access but are so clunky technically that they’re hard to watch, or just boring. Welcome to Wrexham is a playfully packaged journey into new territory for the actors, the athletes, and the community.
It’s far more diverting than a Ken Burns plod through history, and while the four episodes I’ve seen don’t openly interrogate what it means for rich American white male celebrity owners to buy and run a team from halfway around the world, the editing does some subtle but sharp editorializing.
There’s a sequence that slyly cuts from the opulence of Reynolds and McElhenney’s lives and life in Wrexham, where Reynolds rolling around in Rob’s back yard for a TikTok video and comments that the grass feels like cashmere, to a modest Welsh house. Five players share that space, which is appointed with furniture that seems fit for a frat house, and they talk about their struggle to pay—and how much money their new star player is getting. Suddenly we’re in the home of that star player, Paul Mullins, and while his home is new and bright, he talks about how difficult it is to see people online guessing and reacting to his salary, and explains that what brought him to Wrexham was the ability to be close to his young kid.
The sequence is a tour de force in contrast and empathy, inviting us to see the world from inside their experience. The more Welcome to Wrexham does that, the better the show becomes.
Early on, Rob McElhenney says, “There is a version of the story where we are villains.” Ryan Reynolds replies, “That’s usually the story in my head.” The glimpses inside their heads and on-stage seats for some of the action while that story unfolds result in frequently enlivening reality TV.
Welcome to Wrexham
A fascinating subject that doesn’t use its access well enough B–
What works for me:
- The behind-the-scenes scenes
- The playful approach to the material
- The subtle editorializing through editing
What could be better:
- Better development of characters
- Better editing of the actual football
- More interrogation of the ideas