Welcome to Wrexham Somehow Surpasses Itself in a Brilliant Second SeasonPhoto Courtesy of FX TV Reviews fx hulu
It can be very difficult for American sports fans to wrap their minds around the sentimentality and community of European—and particularly British—soccer. The idea of grown men and women singing songs, of whole towns uniting around a club, and the general sense of camaraderie that seems to flow outward from the club to everyday life is at least a little foreign. (As is the dark side to it all, the capacity for violence, but we’ll put on that hold for a moment.) There is a way in which this hits us in an uncomfortable place, because the tone can almost veer into corny territory, but it’s clearly also something that a lot of people crave, judging by the imitation soccer culture that keeps growing, especially in our cities.
And it occurred to me, watching the fantastic second season of FX’s documentary series Welcome to Wrexham, that this potentially awkward balance is one of the chief challenges that the creators have to navigate from episode to episode. How do you honor the resilient spirit of this Welsh town, whose fortunes had declined in concert with the diminishment of its soccer club, while co-existing with the specifically unsentimental outlook of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, the two very funny celebrities who bought the club and made it their goal to restore its former glory?
It was a task they made look easy in the excellent first season, and through the four episodes made available to critics ahead of the second season’s premiere on September 12th, it’s a pleasure to report that they’ve succeeded beyond even my very lofty expectations. A perfect example comes in the first two episodes. At the start, Rob and Ryan are preparing for a short visit from the King of England by taking etiquette classes in Los Angeles, all while trying and failing to weather the British government’s bureaucracy as they seek funding to build a new section of the stadium. (Plus, there’s the whole matter of falling short of promotion out of the National League in year one, and the prospect of being “fucked” if they can’t make it out this time.) Then, in the second episode, the focus shifts to a young fan with autism whose journey parallels the obstacles faced by the autistic son of the team’s star striker, Paul Mullins. From the remote but entertaining detachment of the first episode, we’re plunged into the depths of emotion, and if you’re like me you’re probably going to cry your eyes out—particularly at the stunningly conceived finale.
All elements manage to exist in harmony, which is quite a feat for a show that bounces around thematically in its attempt to detail the competitive ups and downs of the men’s team that is the heart of the project, to profiling the people and institutions of the town itself, which are the heart of the team. From the rise of rival Notts County to the entire episode dedicated to the excellent women’s team who are themselves fighting for promotion, the subject matter merges seamlessly, adding color and drama to the big picture even when it seems far removed. The story of two American stars buying a down-on-its-heels Welsh soccer team and infusing the club and town with renewed spirit is pretty damn good all on its own, but if anything, the near-perfect premise might overshadow the magnificent filmmaking and storytelling on display in the show. By recognizing the potential caprice and novelty of the undertaking—they’re happy to address the cynicism and jealousy displayed for the project by fans of other teams, for instance, and one of the club’s executives, the hilarious Humphrey Ker, refers to Rob and Ryan as “Hollywood jerk-offs”—they reach a kind of truth that dodges the pitfalls of mawkish sentimentality and simply tells a series of incredible stories with a skill that you can only describe with a word like “sublime.”
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, even though the central narrative is probably going to be spoiled for a good percentage of its viewers. The show necessarily comes out after each season is complete, and if you want to know whether Wrexham achieves its ultimate goal of promotion, the answer is a Google search away—it already happened. You can count me as one of the people who followed their season with interest, and knows exactly how it plays out. What’s brilliant about the episodes released to critics, though, is that this knowledge does nothing to diminish the joy of the viewing experience.
It’s hard to resist the comparison to Ted Lasso, but while it can be a facile analogy, I think there’s something interesting there; Lasso‘s first season was (at least to me) a near masterclass in balancing sincerity and comedy, and then it fell flat on its face into a pile of schmaltz that rendered it almost unwatchable. You can see how easy it was to make that mistake if you take the praise about your sentiment too much to heart and decide to turn up the dial. But as you might predict from a project helmed by the guy who co-created It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Welcome to Wrexham is absolutely not falling into that trap. They keep reality and humor and competition squarely in the driver’s seat, which means that in those times when they want to hit you in the gut with pure emotion, they’ve earned the right.
And man do they hit you—to the point that your significant other might wonder incredulously why you, a heartless man, is tearing up again. This is the point in the review where, fresh off the viewing experience, a gushing review risks coming off like a piece of FX promotional material, but the truth is that I just can’t find anything even slightly negative to say. If you haven’t yet committed to Welcome to Wrexham and are feeling the itch, I’d only advise that it probably helps to be a sports fan and it probably helps to like the two protagonists in the first place, but it’s also true that none of that is necessary. When the adornments are stripped, only the telling of the story remains, and I’m not sure there’s another show out there, fiction or non, that tells it better.
Welcome to Wrexham premieres Tuesday, September 12th on FX and streaming on Hulu.
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