Occasionally, it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in culture. This time, critics Kathryn VanArendonk and Nicholas Quah discuss Welcome to Wrexham, the curious reality docuseries slash Rob McElhenney–Ryan Reynolds celebrity vehicle that asks the question: Why would anybody watch two very rich men with little knowledge of football buy a Welsh football club and make a whole television project around it?
Nicholas Quah: What, exactly, is Welcome to Wrexham? I’ve been looking forward to talking this out, because I’m still trying to process this frankly bizarre artifact. Is it, as billed, a docuseries? An elaborate piece of branded content? What are we doing here? I watched all five episodes available for critics in two sittings, and my brain has mostly melted down.
Kathryn, you blurbed the show in a recent issue of The Critics newsletter, where you wrote: “As a show, it’s like watching celebrity gods descending to earth and deciding to fuck around with the mortals because it’s better than being bored.” Could you expand on that?
Kathryn VanArendonk: Why, yes I can! Welcome to Wrexham is a naked Ted Lasso–extended-universe project. It’s not actually connected to that series, but obviously would not exist if Lasso had not paved the way for the premise of Americans who know nothing about British football now being in charge of British football. The twist, though, is that instead of a feel-good scripted TV show that reflects on ideas about vulnerability and male archetypes, it’s real life!
Welcome to Wrexham has ways of shifting and softening and ignoring some parts of that equation, but the key difference here is that instead of being about a regular American guy taking a job at a football club, Wrexham is about two American celebrities buying that football club. I don’t think this makes them any more or less ethical than any other billionaire or corporation that buys a sports team, but does it feel distinctly unpleasant to be asked to celebrate them for doing it? Yeah, it does. Does it help that Ryan Reynolds’s overall persona in this series is an unshakeable blasé snark? It really does not. Did you have the same allergic reaction to this series that I did? Am I alone?
NQ: You are most definitely not alone. I felt all sorts of confused and unpleasant things when I read the premise of the show, but I tried going in with as much of an open mind as possible, believing there could very well be something genuinely interesting or revelatory in the execution of the thing. And while the show’s general (and somewhat generic) sports-doc groove did sink its teeth into me — I’m very prone to liking the genre — I really couldn’t shake the feeling that what I’m watching is potentially morally abhorrent, particularly if left unqualified and uninterrogated.
I think the main thing that bugs me, beyond this being a situation where two men with incredible power have manufactured a scenario in which they can come across as underdogs, is how Welcome to Wrexham feels like both a tool to materially increase the value of the football club and an insurance policy for failure. If this show is successful, it’s not hard to see how that value trickles back to the actual club — more attention, more sponsors, and so on — which would be good for this previously depressed organization (though not for any of its presumably depressed competitors, all with their own stories we’ll never see because North American celebrity gods didn’t decide to bestow their wealth and magic upon them). But what happens if Reynolds and McElhenney really screw this up, or do something horrible with this team that matters so much to its community? The show would almost certainly remain sympathetic to them because we’re primarily given the situation through their lens, and they ultimately control the narrative. There’s just something very unnerving about that.
What do you think about Wrexham as a viewing experience? How does it rate as an actual TV show for you?
KV: As you mentioned, it does hit some sports docuseries beats in ways that are bound to grab anyone who’s susceptible to that genre (which also includes me, even though I am a sports idiot in all other ways). Particularly in episodes four and five, the show wants to shift its focus to many endearing small-town characters around Wrexham: a sweet group of older guys in a band; a lovely disabled woman who’s been given a full-time job working for the football club; a 10-year-old kid who idolizes the players. I am not made of stone. I enjoy spending time with these people!
Wrexham is not great at giving us that time, though. Even episodes largely dedicated to Wrexham residents begin and end with framing scenes of McElhenney and Reynolds, just in case you’ve forgotten that they are here as everyone’s benefactors. There’s almost no room given to any kind of dissenting voice, either, which would be a crucial factor in a better docuseries version of this story. Other than a few broad questions about whether McElhenney and Reynolds are really devoted to this team (they are! They swear!), the series is uninterested in probing their motives in a serious way. And it does not seem to register any tonal gulf between telling stories about the people who live in Wrexham — for instance, a life-long resident and fan celebrating the end of his cancer treatment — and Ryan Reynolds moaning about having to spend money to fix the grass pitch.
All that said, I do think there’s a devil’s-advocate argument to be made here. Let’s take it on faith that their intentions are good, and that for the most part, their investment has been great for this small town in Wales. Does it matter if the TV show is a giant Reynolds-McElhenney propaganda campaign? It’s helping people!
NQ: I tend to read the McElhenney-Reynolds framing devices as a lack of confidence that American viewers will care about Wrexham A.F.C. without the star power and the jokey conceit of two rich guys with little experience in the thing they dove into headfirst. There is almost certainly a good story to be told here about a small football club that’s going through the experience of bizarre new ownership without centering the owners, but for all sorts of reasons, we were never going to get that.
Does it matter if it’s a propaganda campaign? Sure. For one thing, you’re probably never going to get a real or true moment, which matters if you approach this as a docuseries as opposed to an elaborate marketing campaign. (Though, I should say, my brain relaxed a bit when I started viewing the show as a variation of The Kardashians.) For another, even if you do choose to view this as some riff on the travelogue — a window into another place, another country, another culture — it’s hard to get past the fact that the actual people being documented only exist narratively in relation to the Very Crazy Thing that Reynolds and McElhenney have done. Can we count on the show to meaningfully dive into the intricacies of the Welsh economy and its complicated relationship with the rest of the U.K., and how those complex factors ultimately impact the club and the town? Probably not.
I’m curious what you think about the personas that McElhenney/Reynolds have chosen to show us in Welcome to Wrexham. Reynolds, as you pointed out, is pure snark, and how he presents here seems contiguous with just about every other aspect of his public image. But I’m still trying to wrap my head around McElhenney. What’s your read on the celebrity mythmaking aspect of the show?
KV: The whole idea behind the series does seem to come more from McElhenney than Reynolds, in a way that I honestly wish the show were more open about. It was apparently McElhenney’s idea to buy this team, and all the segments about the cultural significance and emotional meaning of sports fandom come from him. He hops on the phone to talk to a reluctant new hire. There’s footage of him waking up very early with his kid to watch one of the games. And he also explains why Reynolds is involved with language that sounds like, “Haha this is so funny, but also it’s true”: He needed someone with more money and more social clout.
In general I find McElhenney’s other work to be more interesting and his celebrity persona more appealing: He writes himself characters that come packaged with blindspots and self-doubts, characters that do sincerely love things even when they’re being jerks about it. That, to me, is the main essence of something appealing, glinting underneath all the self-congratulatory stuff I dislike about this series. He likes to love things, and he’s not embarrassed by that. If only there were any other interrogation of how that impulse plays out, it might be so much more interesting.
NQ: That’s the thing — I, too, really like McElhenney’s work and have always found his creative persona to be genuinely interesting. (Reynolds, not as much. Interesting case study of the modern Hollywood star, though.) I suppose that only makes Welcome to Wrexham more frustrating to watch: There is, perhaps, a universe where McElhenney becomes owner of a sports team, doesn’t construct a whole propagandist reality-TV-esque docuseries around the situation, and eventually processes the whole experience through a TV dramedy or something. No tears should necessarily be shed for the fanciful plights of rich people, but club ownership is an inherently interesting dramatic scenario. Ah well. For now, I guess this is what we have.