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Welcome to Wrexham review: Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney channel Ted Lasso in surface-level sports documentary

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Welcome to Wrexham review: A tad too rushed to fully involve casual viewers, FX's new sports documentary is best experienced as a showcase for Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney's solid comedic chemistry.

Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney in a still from Welcome to Wrexham. (Photo: FX)

Before anyone else is able to poke fun at them, or question their motivations, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney do it themselves. In the opening minutes of Welcome to Wrexham — a new documentary series about their out-of-the-blue takeover of a struggling Welsh football club — the two have a quiet moment to themselves on the pitch, and wonder if there’s a version of this story that ends with them as the villains.

This sort of self-awareness is crucial. Reynolds and McElhenney had never met in person before deciding, in the middle of the pandemic, that they were going to make a bid for a majority share in Wrexham AFC — the third-oldest football club in the world, clinging for life in the fifth tier of English professional football. In their ‘job interviews’ with the board, they’re repeatedly asked the same question: “Why Wrexham?”

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It’s a question that they are never really able to answer with any sort of clarity. McElhenney speaks vaguely about his childhood in Philadelphia, which he describes as a working class town not unlike Wrexham. Reynolds, on the other hand, invokes his dead father, and suggests that his takeover of Wrexham is his way of giving back to the community — a gesture that his dad would be proud of.

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The fate of the town, we are told, has forever been intertwined with that of the football club. The show’s opening credits unfold over a cover version of Bob Dylan’s flower-power anthem “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” with visuals of Wrexham’s blue-collar population juxtaposed with archival footage of town’s football matches.

It is in these moments that Welcome to Wrexham begins to resemble its primary inspiration, Sunderland ’Til I Die — easily the best football-based documentary series out there. Unlike the far more high-profile All or Nothing franchise — a glorified PR exercise that offers fans access into the inner workings of teams such as Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal — Sunderland ’Til I Die focused on the human interest angle in its documentation of a once-prominent club’s fall from grace. A similarly low-key strategy was utilised in Take us Home, a series that chronicled the iconic Leeds United football club’s resurgence under the leadership of mercurial coach Marcelo Bielsa. Wrexham AFC doesn’t belong to the same world as these teams. It doesn’t even belong to the same universe.

Welcome to Wrexham, in its early episodes, spends a lot of time explaining to the (mostly American) audience not just the basics of football, but also Wrexham AFC’s inconsequential position within the sport. Were it to drop any further, for instance, it would be playing in the semi-professional leagues. While the average player in the English top-flight can earn over $50,000 a week, players in the fifth-tier of English football — which is where Wrexham has been stuck for 13 years — will probably make less than that in a year. For them, playing for their home team isn’t merely matter of pride, but also a means to an end.

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But the show is never able to find compelling story arcs off the field. Or, at least, not the sort of story arcs that feel authentic. Likewise, the show’s attempts to involve longtime fans into the narrative feel rather half-hearted — almost as if it is more concerned with checking the boxes than going where the story takes them. And this is what gave Sunderland ’Til I Die a competitive edge. The show was probably supposed to be something else entirely, but the filmmakers had the good sense to build on what made it special — the people behind-the-scenes.

Instead of tracing the team’s progress (or lack thereof) after Reynolds and McElhenney’s takeover, Welcome to Wrexham chooses instead to tell the story through their outsider perspective. Unexpectedly, Reynolds and McElhenney make for a fine comedic pair, but you can’t help but wonder, for instance, why they aren’t on the ground — literally — more than just the one time. And the concerns about this being an elaborate practical joke, despite their best efforts to deflect, never really go away. Why else would McElhenney install his writing partner Humphrey Ker as not only his liaison, but also the club’s managing director? Even Ker admits in one scene that he isn’t qualified at all for the job; the only reason he seems to have got it is that he is English. This is yet another example of how the show tries to get ahead of obvious criticism, without really examining why it is anticipating it in the first place.

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Welcome to Wrexham could very easily be perceived as a brand-building exercise, or — and this is worse — an additional avenue through which Reynolds is able to promote Aviation Gin. Or, it could actually be an attempt at social service like they say it is. Who knows? Running a football club isn’t a charity though, it’s a business. And it’s clear that’s how Reynolds and McElhenney are running the show after they sign off on the decision to fire most of the players and the entire coaching staff after their first season as owners. Perhaps if the show had leaned into the business of running a football club instead of focusing on the celebrity owners’ perceived large-heartedness, it would’ve made for a more honest viewing experience. But as it stands, Welcome to Wrexham is a surface-level distraction at best, and mildly exploitative at worst.

Welcome to Wrexham
Cast – Ryan Reynolds, Rob McElhenney
Rating – 2.5/5

First published on: 26-08-2022 at 08:32 IST
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