welcome to wrexham

I told this story two years ago, and I'm going to cut-and-paste from that post, with a new introduction.

Tomorrow, a new docuseries begins on the FX Network, Welcome to Wrexham:

Lifelong fans of the Wrexham team are surely astonished at the change in fortunes for their team. I am a piker ... never even been to Wales, only heard of Wrexham back in the 90s, but it's safe to say I find it mindboggling that this television series exists.

Here is that original post:

Wrexham A.F.C. are a Welsh soccer club that plays in the English soccer system. They are not a big club ... they currently play in the fifth level of the English system ... but they are an old club, the third-oldest in the world.

In the buildup to the 1994 World Cup in the USA, I read a book called Twenty Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts by Pete Davies.

22 foreigners in funny shorts

It was written for the American market, a way to introduce us to the world's game. Davies broke his story into three basic parts: a history of the sport, and two ongoing sagas, one of European soccer at the time, and one of his local club. He wanted the reader to get a sense of the scope of soccer, from the top to the bottom, so he included that local club, which was in the fourth tier, telling the events of the 1992-1993 season, which saw the club winning promotion to the third tier. That club was Wrexham.

In those days, there wasn't much soccer on U.S. TV after the World Cup had ended, and the Internet as we now know it was a much smaller affair. So it was hard to keep up ... our own league, MLS, didn't start until 1996. I did my best on the old CompuServe sports forum, and because they were as available to me as the biggest clubs in Europe, all things considered, I adopted Wrexham, feeling I knew the players after reading Davies' book. I asked around, and a man named Rhys Gwynllyw was kind enough to update me on Wrexham (he later founded The Webbed Robin, and I believe he is now a Math Professor). I started an email list with his help. Here is something Gareth Collins wrote about that list in 2018:

"Rhys and Steven were the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's of their time. I can still remember being totally overjoyed when I first came across The Webbed Robin, I seem to remember Rhys used to type up (or perhaps OCR?) Wrexham news articles from the Evening Leader and Daily Post that I think his Dad used to mail him. This is in the days before either of those publications had a web site. So if you lived say 100 miles from Wrexham at that time you'd get no detailed news and would have to rely on 2 sentences on Teletext. The Webbed Robin was amazing in its day. Tons of detailed match reports and detailed news stories all lovingly curated. The Webbed Robin and the ISFA e-mail list were like going from the stone age to the electric age in one massive leap for fan-kind."

I have followed Wrexham from afar for more than 25 years now. Saw them on TV a couple of times, and these days, even small clubs have an Internet presence, so I can watch highlights and interviews of them.

The most famous match in Wrexham history is probably their FA Cup match against Arsenal in 1992. The previous season, Arsenal had won the championship, while Wrexham finished last in the lowest division. The match was sure to be a blowout.


for all mankind

This is the TV series, not the fine 1989 documentary film. Season Three just ended, and I finally caught up, watching all three seasons over the course of a month or so. I'd skipped it before ... no reason, just too much to watch. But critics have come around on it (the Metascores are 65 for S1, 75 for S2, and 84 for S3), and it's co-created by my fave Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame ( the other creators are Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, with Maril Davis as executive producer). It's on Apple TV+. I knew I'd get around to it ... I didn't know how much I would love it.

Do I need spoiler alerts for a show that already has three seasons and thirty episodes? It's no real spoiler to say that For All Mankind is an alternate-history sci-fi drama, but once I get into the alternate in that history, I'm giving things away. The story begins in 1969, as the USA and USSR race to be the first to land a human on the moon. The initial trailer gives away the biggest alternate that sets off the story, and I've given you all the warning you're going to get, since I can't believe anyone reading this doesn't already know: the Soviets get to the moon first.

Many of the subsequent alternates to our own history are interesting, but if alt-history was all the show offered, it wouldn't be much to watch. Some vague non-spoilers: people from our world live or die at different times than in "real life", and politics are different (Nixon is President when the show begins, Reagan gets two terms, Clinton runs as the Democratic nominee in 1992, but other presidents differ from our own). One thing I wish were different ... in the For All Mankind universe, Kirk Gibson still hits that homer against Dennis Eckersley.

The narrative is driven by the show's alt-history, and it spans a long period (the season that just ended finished in 2003). But what makes For All Mankind more than just another sci-fi show is the characters, how they are written and how they are portrayed by an excellent cast. A few of the characters are real people, especially people from the space program: Deke Slayton, Wernher von Braun, Gene Kranz. Some of the astronauts have parts that amount to cameos ... people like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn are portrayed by actors. And the show effectively uses archive footage (and what appears to be some excellent voice mimics) to work the likes of Nixon and Reagan and Clinton and even John Lennon into the mix. The main characters are played by a lot of "that guys" you will recognize, people like Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Jodi Balfour, Sonya Walger, and Wrenn Schmidt. Everyone does a stellar job ... it took me almost three seasons to realize this, I just accepted the actors as their characters, and it took watching Dorman in Patriot for me to understand these folks were acting.

For All Mankind isn't perfect, although a lot of the problems come from overambition. Just the fact that they have gone forward almost 35 years in three seasons leads to some unfortunate messes ... the aging makeup on the actors isn't always believable, and too many characters are left without the slow, contextual buildup that would help us understand their actions. But ultimately, the worst part about the Season 3 finale is that I have to wait a year to watch Season 4. The perils of binging.


music friday: tom snyder

Tom Snyder had a long career in radio and television, and is best known for his late-night talk shows. His presence was eccentric enough that Dan Ackroyd made it one of his SNL impressions.

During the punk/new wave era, Snyder had a lot of great musical guests. Everyone from John Lennon to John Lydon to KISS. He loved Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics. Ramones, the Clash, Iggy, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, he had them all. He never pretended to be anything other than what he was, a middle-aged media personality. But he treated his guests with respect (as long as they didn't throw shit back at him), and it was pretty refreshing at the time. Here is a show from 1978 that includes Joan Jett and Paul Weller, as well as Kim Fowley, Bill Graham, and Robert Hilburn.

Snyder died on this date in 2007 at the age of 71.


gentleman jack

A couple of years ago, I wrote of the first season of Gentleman Jack, "Gentleman Jack is a based-on-fact historical drama set in England in the 1830s. It's created by Sally Wainwright, who also created the terrific and dark Happy Valley. The lead is played by Suranne Jones, who I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of, despite her acting for 25 years. Well, I've heard of her now, and I won't be forgetting her soon." The second season was delayed due to COVID, and now that it has finished, HBO has announced it won't return for a third season. I don't think the creators knew this year was the end, and in fact, Sally Wainwright has suggested another season might turn up somewhere else.

In the meantime, the things that made the first season enjoyable were still present in Season Two. Suranne Jones climbs back into the title role of Anne Lister ... it's still the only thing I've seen her in, so it's hard to imagine what she's like in other movies, although she is a fine and funny guest on talk shows. She's not the only standout ... Sophie Rundle is her match as Lister's wife, and the two have an excellent on-screen rapport. Gemmas Whelan and Jones are also regulars. This isn't quite as dark as Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley, but not many shows are. Wainwright also gave us To Walk Invisible, about the Brontës, and it was also quite good. Wainwright is always worth checking out. In a time when there are so few "appointment" TV series due to streaming, we managed to almost keep up with the broadcast schedule for Gentleman Jack, which is something (it's also one of the few series my wife and I both enjoy). If this is indeed the end, the season finale works as a series finale as well.


4k tv

This is a piss poor representation, but as we watched out first show on our new 4K TV, my wife took a picture with her phone of the picture on the screen:

4k tv

Not much here on the page, but in reality, the picture was so good it was distracting.


better things series finale

Pamela Adlon created a miracle. Semi-autobiographical, which is no guarantee of success. She had to deal with the flak from the early involvement of Louis C.K., which mostly just meant she threw herself into the show even more than before, directing everything, while of course also starring and often writing. She gave us a believable family of mom, three daughters, and grandmother where each character was distinctive. She blended funny and dramatic seamlessly.

I think one example of how well Adlon made the show work is the three daughters. They don't really look related, nor do they look related to Adlon. Yet, thanks to the writing and the acting, they are exactly what you'd expect three sisters to be like. There are no false moments with those three. It's easy to just cast actors that look alike, but to build characters that are real and, to say that word again, believable is v.hard. Adlon did it episode after episode, season after season.

At the end, she said something important: don't feel sad that the show is finished, feel glad that now you can watch every episode on Hulu whenever you want.


television update

Been watching more TV lately. The new seasons of Outlander and Better Things have finally arrived, with Atlanta soon to follow. But the primary reason for my expanded viewing is that the great Tim Goodman is back, with a Substack that I love. Goodman was the TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and then for the Hollywood Reporter, before taking a sabbatical of sorts (details here). The fun thing about Tim's Substack is that he doesn't just post his thoughts on various things (TV included, of course), but he leads the virtual equivalent of discussion groups, with "assignments" and everything (his background in teaching comes through strong). The "assignments" are called "Box Sets" (details here), where he selects a show and we all watch, two episodes a week, and then contribute to a commentary thread. Some really brilliant people are involved, and the discussions are illuminating while creating the kind of online community that is still possible today.

The shows we have watched are Station Eleven and Collateral, which we have finished, and Counterpart and The End of the F***ing World, which we are in the middle of. Collateral was a brief British mini-series from David Hare that aired in 2018, starring Carey Mulligan as a Detective Inspector. I'll cheat here and quote from some of my comments:

I feel silly complaining about how solid and good it is. Lots of great casting, intriguing narrative. Reminiscent of so many excellent British crime/police dramas. But ... and I wonder if it felt this way in 2018 ... so much television today has a kind of flash, both visual and narrative. Collateral felt accomplished, but my viewing habits seem to have changed, so I wanted something more. Something like Happy Valley was so remarkably vicious that I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen. Carey Mulligan does wonders with a rather minimalist acting style.

You can catch this on Netflix.

Station Eleven was an odd one, a recent series from HBO Max based on a novel about a post-apocalypse world (caused by a pandemic ... yes, it was creepy to watch at times). I'd seen a couple of episodes when it came out. Again, some comments:

I confess that when I first watched, I was completely confused, so much so that I was ready to give up on the series. Then my wife explained things, and I decided to give it another chance, and I'm glad I did. My problem with Station Eleven is that I was too confused to get much intellectually, and perhaps because of that, I didn't often connect on an emotional level.


euphoria

Earlier this month, Google News paired two headlines in my feed. The first, from The Guardian, read "Coming down: why has shock teen show Euphoria become such a drag?" The second, from Variety, said "'Euphoria' Season 2 Viewership Is Up Nearly 100% From Season 1". You might see this as evidence that audiences are getting dumber, but since I don't agree with the Guardian's take, I'm inclined to think viewership is up because people have caught on to the show. Not sure why this would be ... Season One was what we once called a "water cooler show" that everyone wanted to talk about. I don't know where those 100% more viewers came from. I know that I am pretty much the only person I know who watches Euphoria. I haven't convinced any of my friends to tune in. But the virtual water cooler is on fire over the series.

Creator Sam Levinson wrote and directed every episode this season, so you know who to praise or blame. Euphoria is so erratic ... let's just say it, the show is a mess ... that you find yourself praising and blaming simultaneously. Levinson is fearless about showing off, and that over-the-top feeling is one of the best parts of Euphoria, except when it's the worst. You won't be bored watching the show ... Levinson won't allow it.

Unsurprisingly, some people criticize the show for glamorizing drug addiction, to which I say, what show are they watching? Yes, there is plenty of glitz and glam, but it's largely external. The addicts in the show are essentially miserable, and you'd have to be an idiot to want to live their lives. Rue, the central character played by Zendaya, is even worse off for most of Season Two. There is nothing about her life that would make you think "I want to do drugs". Even the fact that she is played by Zendaya, a fashionable, popular, beautiful actress, doesn't make Rue's life appealing, because Zendaya, who deserved becoming the youngest-ever winner of a Best Drama Actress Emmy, is remarkable at turning down the glam. In fact, this is often an easy way to awards recognition: be glamourous, but play an unglamorous part, and people will mistake it for acting. Except that Zendaya truly is amazing. As if to ensure she gets Emmy consideration again, an entire episode of Season Two is devoted to Rue scraping bottom (and Zendaya delivers).

One problem with Season Two is that some popular characters are largely abandoned for no apparent reason. Hunter Schafer, who plays trans character Jules, a sometimes-love partner of Rue, isn't around nearly enough for me in Season Two, and other fans can say the same about their own favorite actors/characters. A few characters are given more to do, and the actors gobble up the opportunity. Best is Sydney Sweeney as Cassie, the girl with big boobs and a slut reputation. Sweeney does great work with a character that could be a stereotype.

The season climaxes with a two-episode combo where Cassie's sister Lexi puts on a school play about the lives of her, her family, and her friends. There are plenty of outrageous scenes, as Levinson blends the characters in the play with their "real life" counterparts ... it gets confusing at times, but it mostly works, and after almost two seasons of listening to Rue's narration (and her subsequent unreliable point of view), it's interesting to see these people from the perspective of a different character.

Levinson also did something unusual during the long COVID break. He shot two episodes that were shown between the two seasons. Both episodes were basically two characters in a simple setting (perfect for COVID filming), and they completely avoided the overkill that usually makes Euphoria such an extravagant mess.


as we see it

A few words about As We See It, an engaging 8-episode series now on Amazon Prime. To be honest, I watched it because our friend Arthur Keng has a small supporting role, but I'm glad I did. It's about some young adults on the autism spectrum, three of whom live together with the help of an aide (I never figured out if she lived with them). The cast is mostly unknown to me, although Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwich, plays the aide and is terrific. Joe Mantegna turns up as the father of one of the young adults. It was created by Jason Katims, who has made many television series, including Friday Night Lights.

For people who like to binge, you can get through As We See It in about 4 hours. It feels honest to the lives of people on the spectrum ... admittedly, I probably wouldn't know if the show got it all wrong, but the main characters are finely-drawn, and the actors who play the three central people are all on the spectrum, themselves. It's all something of a breakthrough, and the show is fine, if not great. And while some of the characters hit a bit close to home, there are rewards, like when one man says "I'll practice empathy".

Not everyone in the autism community is happy with As We See It. This piece by Bianca Piazza is good: "Let's Discuss the Expected Controversy Surrounding Jason Katims' Dramedy Series 'As We See It'". It's so good that a couple of days later, a "different" piece by Amber Johnson reads like a plagiarized copy: "Let's Talk about the Expected Controversy Surrounding Jason Katims' Dramedy Series' As We See It". To be honest, I don't know who is doing the stealing. The article is worth reading, in any event.