first, the oligarchs came for football, then it was the oil-rich states. Now, Hollywood money has arrived on the scene. Last year, the American actor Rob McElhenney and the significantly more famous Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds bought Wrexham AFC, a Welsh side playing in the lowest tier of professional football in the UK. True to their showbiz roots, the actors’ stewardship will take the form of an FX docuseries called Welcome to Wrexham, which premiered last week. This is the beautiful game in the age of Ted Lasso.
To be completely candid, some – OK, much – of my objection to watching the guy from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and his buddy Deadpool take over a football team before they’ve mastered the rules is visceral. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a North American footie fan without high-profile bozos celebrating a goal long after – like, really, really long after – the flag goes up (“Someone needs to explain the offside rule to the A-listers ,” quips the commentator on a viral clip of Reynolds punching the air after a disallowed goal in the FA Trophy final at Wembley in May; it’s been watched millions of times. Later, David Beckham did just that.)
But there’s a moment in the second episode of Welcome to Wrexham, which picks up before Reynolds and McElhenney have completed the purchase, that typifies the utterly bizarre tone of what’s happening here. “Not sure what to get your special someone this holiday?” McElhenney asks, looking directly to camera. The footage is grainy, like he’s making the video on a laptop in his Always Sunny makeup trailer.
Then Reynolds, who appears to be self-filming against a different blank wall, joins in: “Tired of them opening the same old scarf or sweater? Try Ifor Williams Trailers.” He delivers the last bit in what I think is supposed to be a lightly comic Welsh accent, but it’s definitely giving leprechaun.
As it turns out, Ifor Williams Trailers, who have been Britain’s leading livestock trailer manufacturers for 60 years, are Wrexham’s primary local sponsor. So as spoofy as the video feels – the egregious mispronunciation of “Ifor” has got to be intentional – it’s also dead serious. Van Wilder wants you to buy a tractor.
The segment is surreal to the point of absurdity and yet earnest to a fault, which works well as a description of Welcome to Wrexham‘s two-episode premiere in general. The show has the energy of an extended commercial, but what’s it selling and who’s supposed to buy it?
Pegged to an audience that may not know that “nil” means “zero” – there’s an infographic to clarify in the pilot – the show’s clearly not made with football fans principally in mind. Unlike the Amazon series All or Nothingwhich serves up dishy, fly-on-the-wall footage from inside some of the world’s most famous locker rooms, Wrexham leans more heavily on the town itself for its narrative than the team.
But the hopelessly romantic story of a post-industrial market town that’s put all its faith in a football club never achieves enough specificity to really sing. If Green Lantern had bought Woking or Dorking or Maidenhead, just to name a few of Wrexham’s upcoming fixtures, you get the sense they’d have made the same exact series. Come meet the local publican, with additional interviews from the down-on-his-luck decorator who never misses a match. Just change the color of the scarves.
Because the A-listers, when you get down to it, are really just shilling themselves as the kind of guys you should trust. Reynolds and McElhenney, who’d never met in real life before they pooled their money into a town they’d never visited, spend a lot of time on their own story. And they tell it in the grating key of unflinching sincerity.
Rob is a rich guy from working-class Philadelphia – a city 10 times the size of Wrexham – who nevertheless feels kinship with the sport-loving townsfolk. We even tour his childhood home. Ryan is an extremely rich guy from Vancouver who maybe like sports; just watch as he walks the firm pitch at the team’s Racecourse Ground, pontificating about all the great men who’ve come before him to this hallowed stadium.
For the sake of Wrexham supporters, I hope these dudes are serious. (As an Arsenal fan, I know something about the pain of waiting for American money that never quite materialises.) But rather than convince me that Reynolds and McElhenney are more than football tourists, the provincialising show has me worried that they’re the worst kind: people who insist their own experiences have prepared them for something totally foreign.
“Welcome To Wrexham”is on Disney+ in the UK and Hulu in the US