close read

What’s Happening to Nonfiction Sports Storytelling?

Photo: FX

In the early moments of Welcome to Wrexham, Hollywood actor Rob McElhenney surveys his humble childhood home in South Philadelphia, his voice-over explaining his decision to pair with another Hollywood actor, Ryan Reynolds, to buy a modest Welsh football club — despite both having little to no experience with football or Wales.

McElhenney establishes his lifelong relationship with sports and tries to draw a connection between Philly and Wrexham, framing the cities as getting a similarly rough shake. “Even though I’ve never been there, the town reminds me of Philadelphia,” he says of Wrexham (his first visit is eventually captured on-camera). “I feel like I know those people. Like I’ve grown up with those people. I am one of those people.” Earnest and saccharine, McElhenney draws from his modest roots and the power of sport to align his plight with your sympathies. His argument isn’t particularly convincing if you stop and think about it, but in the moment, you sorta, kinda buy it.

When it’s not focused on Reynolds and McElhenney, who are deployed as if the show were afraid it would lose the audience’s attention without their recurring presence, Welcome to Wrexham possesses the aesthetic sheen of a conventional sports docuseries. The production observes various goings-on at the club in the naturalistic vein of All or Nothing or Sunderland ’Til I Die, chronicling its ostensible subjects — the Wrexham football club, its new owners, its personnel, and the surrounding town — as they battle for promotion into the higher and more lucrative English football leagues. Earnest interviews with die-hard fans are routinely deployed for emotional stakes. The treacly music gives minor Ted Lasso. There’s some amount of class-gazing happening with Wrexham’s condition as a postindustrial city foregrounded as a point of documentary interest, recalling similar dynamics in Cheer and Last Chance U. Calling Welcome to Wrexham a pastiche wouldn’t exactly be accurate, but it’s not not pastiche either.

I’m not immune to Wrexham’s pleasures. It leans hard and effectively on the allure of dependable sports-genre beats and, at its most interesting, tickles the part of the sports-fan brain that fantasizes about being a general manager: This is how you rebuild an organization, manage expectations, go after that promotion to the upper leagues. And, look, the celebrity voyeurism isn’t bad either — I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of McElhenney’s plush kitchen. But it’s hard to look past the synthetic quality of the entire affair. As with Reynolds himself, you’re likely never going to get a real or true moment onscreen with this thing.

As the documentary boom of recent years presents more and more nonfiction offerings, the docuseries itself has become commodified, resulting in the general flattening of experience and aesthetic. Within the sports-docuseries subgenre, another perhaps more pernicious trend emerges: nonfiction storytelling as prominent marketing vessels for its subjects. This is by no means a new phenomenon; HBO’s Hard Knocks, which has been following American football teams through preseason-training camps since 2001, has always functioned as a robust advertising campaign, if not for the team being profiled, then for the NFL as a whole. But the rapid rise and public recognition of Drive to Survive as a meaningful source of growing Formula 1 interest in the United States feels like a watershed moment for this understanding of sports docuseries as marketing vehicles. As much as the popularity of Cheer elicited a necessary conversation about cheerleading’s toll on the bodies of its athletes, you have to think it was also almost certainly one of the more prominent advertisements for the sport in recent memory.

Welcome to Wrexham sits at the terminus of these trends. The presumed pitch for the show’s success is fairly straightforward to imagine: FX gets a few months of cost-friendly programming and a platform to maintain its relationship with McElhenney, who’s now toggling between FX (with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Apple TV+ (the growing Mythic Quest universe), while Reynolds and McElhenney get a novel way to grow the brand of their newly acquired football asset. Meanwhile, Wrexham AFC fans benefit from whatever publicity emerges from the show. The production itself gets a leg up from the entire arrangement as it answers a solid question of how it might break out in an increasingly crowded docuseries market: literal star power. You have to admit, Wrexham is a feat of program development.

But Wrexham isn’t a work that documents in any meaningful sense. No matter what the production ironically or sincerely suggests itself to be (it’s never clear), it’s ultimately a God-tier piece of branded content — or, more specifically, a genuinely innovative spin on an unscripted reality show in the vein of The Kardashians. In a sense, Wrexham represents a perfection in the modern art of influencer reality-inversion, the bleeding out and spreading of kayfabe across the docuseries landscape like butter on bread. Whenever the show breaks away from its intriguing club drama and returns to various Reynolds-McElhenney high jinks, it creates a dissociative effect; watching the duo pal around as they tour the country or pull in famous friends to attend games is like watching a parody of a show within a show, except the whole thing seems to be played for sincerity. That constant toggling places a hard cap on any authentic relationship one might feel with the actual people who make up Wrexham AFC, an ever-present reminder that the only reason we care about this club at all is due to the largesse of two Hollywood actors.

Even in an era filled with docuseries fluff, Wrexham is perhaps the first to truly cross a Rubicon of sorts. To an extent, all sports docs are the product of negotiation with the powers behind the subject matter. Concessions might be made for better access, but it’s traditionally the priority of the production to preserve some sense of objectivity. However, given the very nature of its construction, Wrexham pushes past the veil of the objectivity pretense into a new place entirely. To a viewer who loves documentaries for their glimpses into reality, the effect might be vicious, as if Reynolds and McElhenney stiched a shiny suit out of a battered corpse. But as someone who embraces this cold, dark entertainment world for what it is, I can’t help but feel admiration. I gaze into the abyss of Welcome to Wrexham, and I suspect I see the future.

What’s Happening to Nonfiction Sports Storytelling?