I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: Sports remains the best reality show of them all.
With real-time stakes and no real script, the thrill of sports is their ability to be both wildly unpredictable and unpredictably wild. Sports deliver action and emotion in equal measure, always ready to test our nerves and grip our hearts. Thus it is little wonder that sports consistently delivers as scripted television, too, inherently capturing life’s dramas, big and small.
When the two combine?
In the case of “Welcome to Wrexham,” it’s a (ahem) home run.
As the holiday season descends upon us, perhaps you have some extra time to sit in front of your screen and are searching for something to watch. Look no further than the delightful documentary series that recently wrapped its second season on FX (also available on Hulu), which tops my list of binge-worthy options.
The show chronicles the investment by Hollywood stars and friends Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds into the downtrodden but plucky soccer club in the North Wales city of Wrexham. Mired for more than a decade in the fifth-tier, National League level of club play, Wrexham needs to win its division to rise to League Two, or three tiers removed from the famed Premier League. Season 1 ended in the sort of oh-so-close disappointment that any runner-up team knows all too well, setting the stage for a second season fueled by determination.
But as much as the show is ostensibly rooted in the quest for promotion, its magic is found in the stories of the people on and around the team. The magic is in the real people who fight for themselves, on the pitch or off it. From players Paul Mullin and Ollie Palmer, top-flight talents who could be playing elsewhere, to resident pub owner Wayne Jones and superfan Millie Tipping, locals whose blood runs with Wrexham’s, the stories are captivating and heartfelt.
Jones’s stewardship of The Turf is treated with the same respect as McElhenney’s and Reynolds’s stewardship of the team, as it should be given The Turf’s seniority over Wrexham AFC, which happens to be the third-oldest club in the world and whose home field, the Racecourse Ground, is the oldest standing international stadium. Watching the affable Jones handle a new wave of worldwide visitors after the breakout first season is delightful.
But even better is the second episode of Season 2, which is dedicated to raising a child with autism. Told through the eyes of Mullin and his son Albi, who has autism, or the kind-hearted grown-up Tipping, who describes her autism as not to be seen as a disability, but as a superpower, the episode is powerful in its representation of the autism community, never more so than in muting all sound while showing Millie attend a raucous game with her headphones on.
The stories don’t end there. There’s the player whose wife is diagnosed with cancer, another couple who suffer a miscarriage. There’s the acknowledgment of nontraditional families, from McElhenney introducing viewers to his two mothers as well as his father, or Palmer sharing his father’s road out of their family marriage and into a committed same-sex relationship. There’s the one-man play-by-play show of Mark Griffiths, who lets us know about hospital radio and who’s been broadcasting for his hometown team since the late 1980s.
There are stories of the city itself, its crises of identity and economics, its love of its heritage clear but also its willingness to acknowledge alcohol and anger issues alike. There’s the story of Wrexham women’s club star Rosie Hughes, who works as a prison guard by day and scores goals (without pay!) by night, a tacit reminder that even when life feels unequal for the men’s club, it’s far more unequal for the women. There’s the challenge from league rival Notts County and dominance of a rebuilt Wrexham roster.
And then there are the owners. Yes, it’s a show about two mega-rich stars who take on a vanity project halfway across the world, who as executive producers can direct the narrative in favorable ways. But McElhenney and Reynolds come across as model owners, spending money where they have to, such as improving the stadium or paying for respected coach Phil Parkinson, but staying out of decisions when they need to, allowing far more experienced football minds their necessary latitude.
By the time it’s over, you can’t help but be swept up in the triumph, watching tears flow and hugs shared, seeing confetti fly and trophies raised. In true Hollywood fashion, and with a nod to the devoted Philadelphia sports fan McElhenney, the “Rocky” soundtrack covers it all, through a championship parade with fans hanging out of windows, dangling from lampposts, and clogging sidewalks.
Television theme songs are largely a thing of the past, but thanks to Wrexham there’s another one taking up space in my ‘80s-era television-watching head.
The chorus of Jon Hume’s “Don’t Forget,” tells us:
“Don’t forget where you came from
Don’t forget what you’re made of
The ones who were there
When no one else would care
Don’t be afraid to cry now
Even when the world comes crashing in
Don’t forget to sing when you win.”
Tears and songs — Wrexham has it all.
Give it a try, along with some other favorites, current and past:
“Friday Night Lights” — The show, not the movie. Available on Netflix, it’s the gold standard. Coach and Mrs. Coach (Eric and Tami Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) lead an exceptional cast. A show about football that’s more about family.
“Winning Time” (HBO) — Sadly canceled, and a bit too loose with reality, but a great look back at the incomparable Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
“All American” (from the CW and on Netflix) — Loosely based on the life of former NFL linebacker and Super Bowl winner Spencer Paysinger. This and its spinoff, “All American: Homecoming,” are easy binge-watches that tackle hard issues of class and race.
“Ted Lasso” (Apple TV) — Everybody’s darling is a fantastic feel-good show. Watching Wrexham is like watching its real-life counterpart.
“Sports Night” (Amazon) — Before “The West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin made “Sports Night,” pulling the curtain back on a “SportsCenter”-style show with great writing, great timing, and great performances. Two seasons were not nearly enough.
“The White Shadow” — An all-time gem about a hardscrabble mostly Black high school basketball team and its tough but big-hearted white coach, really captures its time and place, bringing you back to your high school days.
And a few added suggestions from co-workers: “Brockmire” and “Slap Maxwell” (Jim McBride), “Home Run Derby” and “Candlepins for Cash” (Kevin Paul Dupont), and “Behind the B” (Matt Porter, who correctly points out how the Bruins do a really nice job sharing behind-the-scenes stories).