‘Welcome to Wrexham’ Asks Complicated Question of What It Means to Be a Fan

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the term “fan.” The seemingly innocuous three-letter word has, over recent decades, grown to embody a dizzying number of interpretations. If you were to casually mention you’re a fan of Zack Snyder’s movies, your office-mates may forever belittle you as a “Snyder bro.” A self-described Marvel fan may be met with better favor, but they could also be challenged by super-fans to back up their claim. (“Oh yeah? Then did you see ‘The Marvels’?!”) Swifties are taking over the world, Tolkienites are building new ones, and Potterheads, well, it’s complicated.

Sports fans know all this already. For decades, they’ve donned their team colors knowing full well what it can mean: Love the Yankees? Go count your money, Scrooge McDuck. The Lakers? Sure you do, Hollywood. The Cowboys? Well, aren’t you proud to be an American (but not a Patriot, because that’s different). Being a fan can supplant one’s entire identity or be shed as soon as the final buzzer sounds (aka “fair-weather fans”). It can be a badge of honor, just as it can be a scarlet letter.

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Which brings us to the curious case of Wrexham FC. While I won’t claim to know the defining traits of those rooting for Wales’ oldest football club, watching “Welcome to Wrexham” requires a vested interest in Wrexham itself — a connection the owners, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, rely on, elicit, and bolster to protect their own investments, be it their personal passion for the club’s continued success or their professional plan to make gobs and gobs of money. Season 2 not only puts fans of the team in the spotlight, but also fans of the show. In doing so, any lingering questions about the series’ purpose are laid to rest: It’s not just a heartwarming piece of entertainment, and it’s not even a docuseries — not really. It’s an invitation to become a bigger and bigger fan.

When Season 2 kicks off, Wrexham FC is trying to rebound from a disappointing finish. The 2021-22 club fell short of promotion, which puts added pressure on the upcoming season. “If we don’t get promoted this year, the club is completely, totally, and wholly unsustainable,” Reynolds says during the premiere episode. He, of course, is speaking to the team’s finances. The cost of acquiring players who are good enough to compete for a title — plus the stadium renovations and other expenses — is too great for Wrexham FC to remain in the National League. The owners need the influx of cash available to teams that compete in the next tier up, League Two.

Reynolds and McElhenney are clear about this point. Season 2’s entire narrative is framed around the do-or-die nature of Wrexham’s promotion, and the deciding match has been saved, fittingly, for the finale (Episode 15). The rest of the world may already know what happens (and has for over six months), but “Welcome to Wrexham” purists are held in suspense. They’ll get to mourn or celebrate alongside the rest of the fans, the team, Rob, and Ryan.

The latter’s frankness about money helps to play up the show’s peek-behind-the-curtain allure. During episodes, fans can feel like their silent partners. We may not get to make decisions about uniform colors or stadium designs, but we get to see how those decisions are made — and, often, how much they cost.

McElhenney and Reynolds’ exhibited transparency also carries another agenda. They’re elevating the series’ stakes so the fate of the business runs parallel with the fate of the team. Rooting for these very well-off men to make their money back (and then some) is tied to the purity of the game in a way that should strike long-term sports fans as odd, even icky. The crowds at Yankee Stadium don’t care about salary caps or a fiscal approach to roster construction. They care about championships. But “Welcome to Wrexham” makes us care about both, and for those who feel ambivalent about millionaires making more millions, the show fuses our concern over the owners’ bottom-lines with other, more heartfelt matters. It’s not just Rob and Ryan who have something tangible to lose; it’s the whole town!

Season 2 continues a balancing act that began in Season 1. Some episodes are about the team and its progress toward promotion, while others are episodic human interest stories about players, staffers, or fans. The fourth episode, titled “Shaun’s Vacation,” highlights the oft-unheralded efforts of Wrexham advisory board member Shaun Harvey, as his long overdue holiday gets repeatedly interrupted by emergency calls for help. The ninth episode introduces new goalie Ben Foster (no relation) with plenty of colorful footage from his YouTube channel and podcast. The next entry, on a more somber note, traces the roots of the Gresford Memorial Match back to the 1934 mining disaster that rocked the community.

Then there’s Episode 2, “The Quiet Zone,” which follows a teenage fan, Millie Tipping, and Wrexham’s star player, Paul Mullins. Tipping was diagnosed with autism early in her life, and Mullins recently shared his young son, Albi, has nonverbal autism. Mullins’ advocacy for autism research catches Tipping’s attention, and the two form a sweet relationship. She makes drawings for Mullin and gifts for Albi, handing them over in person as he’s entering the team facility. Throughout Season 2, the cameras cut to Millie in the crowd, cheering on her team and her favorite player. There’s no chyron naming her or voiceover reminding viewers who she is; she’s just one of the fans. But anyone watching remembers her story.

Local fans served an important role in Season 1: They held Rob and Ryan accountable. If these two Hollywood dreamers wreck Wrexham FC, then these regular folks will pay the price. That’s still true in Season 2, but the chosen townsfolk aren’t so regular anymore. They’re celebrities. The Declan Swans, the band behind the regular Racecourse anthem “Always Sunny in Wrexham,” went from playing community gigs for a few hundred people to racking up hundreds of thousands of plays on Spotify and opening for Kings of Leon. Wayne Jones, who owns the bar adjacent to the stadium, is busier than ever. In Episode 1, he even has to turn away “some tourists” who try to enter The Turf before it opens. As for super-fan Shaun Winter, it’s easy to forget that he was first introduced telling Rob and Ryan, in between shots, that one of their advisors was a “weasel” and their club was a “shit show.” Now, he’s sober, hosting a YouTube series about Wrexham FC, and getting asked to sign autographs around town.

Welcome to Wrexham Season 2 Episode 15 Ryan Reynolds, Rob McElhenney
Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney in “Welcome to Wrexham”Courtesy of FX

Season 2 is quick to recognize the impact “Welcome to Wrexham” has had on people like Shaun, the town at large, and Wrexham FC, just as it’s quick to frame that impact as one more positive result of Reynolds and McElhenney’s tenure. To be fair, much of it is positive, or at least hard to imagine otherwise. For fans like Millie, having a personal connection to one of her heroes is truly special. Seeing long-suffering fans make a little extra money from their participation in the docuseries, well, that’s nice, too. Even including the new fans ushered in by the show itself — such as the long-separated friends who reunite to go to a Wrexham match — can be reasonably viewed as an innocent little bonus story, if not a necessity. After all, it would be disingenuous if “Welcome to Wrexham” didn’t acknowledge its own influence on the club it’s covering.

Self-awareness is an important element of documentary filmmaking, but here it also comes across as queasily self-serving. By featuring fans brought in by the show, the series also teases the idea that if you go to a game, maybe you’ll be on TV, too. You can get a pint at The Turf, and maybe Wayne will pour it for you. Heck, maybe you’ll even get to drink one with Rob! By watching the series, it’s easy to believe the greater your devotion to the team, the greater your reward. Watch the show? You’re helping the team. Keep up with Wrexham FC on your own? You’re helping the team. Buy a kit or a scarf? You’re helping the team. Travel to Wrexham, go to a match, and maybe be on the show? Hey, guess who’s really helping the team!

Being a fan isn’t usually incentive-based, just as it doesn’t typically originate via a slickly designed TV series. I can’t remember how or why I became a Chicago Cubs fan, other than my proximity to the city, but I know exactly why I care about Wrexham FC, despite living on a separate continent and, prior to watching, not giving a single shit about soccer. But that’s what “Welcome to Wrexham” does: It creates fans.

So the question becomes: How often and how blatantly can the series court a fandom before it’s more advertisement than entertainment? And if it’s always been more of an advertisement, as it certainly feels like this season, what does that say about its fans? Fans, by and large, are smart. Their adoration doesn’t come cheap. My friends are fans of “Welcome to Wrexham.” My parents are, too. Setting aside my feelings about the word, I’d consider myself a fan of Rob McElhenney’s work and a defender of select Ryan Reynolds’ projects. (“The Voices,” “Spirited,” and even “Green Lantern” are good, actually!)

As a fan, it’s nice when your loyalty is rewarded. Big wins and great art feel all the more meaningful when you’ve been invested in the team or the artist for a significant amount of time. “Welcome to Wrexham” may reward loyalty — who among you, dear readers, will be featured at the Racecourse in Season 3? — but it also extracts that devotion in sneaky, worrisome ways. It makes fandom into a business, and its success in doing so doesn’t bode well for the future. Following “The Last Dance” hitting it big, there’s been a slew of vanity docs aiming to immortalize a positive image of their subjects/producers. So what will be the next “Wrexham”? As the team grows, as the money starts rolling in, as McElhenney and Reynolds’ investment becomes more and more valuable, who will copy their plan? And who will fail where they succeeded?

Perhaps most importantly: What will we be made to be fans of next?

“Welcome to Wrexham” airs its Season 2 finale Tuesday, November 14 at 10pm ET on FX. Episodes are available the next day on Hulu, along with the rest of the series.

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Source: Iwire

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