tv review

The Great How to With John Wilson Defies Expectation

John Wilson in HBO’s How to With John Wilson. Photo: HBO

How to With John Wilson, a new series on HBO, is probably a “docu-comedy,” although a term like that doesn’t do much to explain how weird and funny and sincere and idiosyncratic it is. It’s a series of six half-hour episodes from creator John Wilson and executive producer Nathan Fielder, each of them ostensibly a how-to guide to some specific skill or task. (The first episode is called “How to Make Small Talk,” episode two is “How to Put Up Scaffolding,” and the finale is “How to Make the Perfect Risotto.”) Each episode is made up of bits of footage shot and then narrated by filmmaker John Wilson. Most of the footage is shot in and around New York City, and the bulk of it captures unremarkable moments of boring, everyday life in the city.

Some scenes are long — Wilson has lengthy conversations with some people, and a good chunk of each episode is devoted to recording one particular interaction or event. Most of the scenes, though, are tiny, anonymous snippets of life, arranged by theme. It’s images like a belching smokestack, a construction worker grabbing his balls, two people embracing on the street, or a guy walking around with his dog perched on top of his head. They’re all shot by Wilson and then cut together to accompany Wilson’s narration. “Hey, New York,” he begins the first episode. “There are countless opportunities to make small talk in a big city, even though some people seem to avoid it at all costs.” Meanwhile, the frame cuts from a shot of the New York City skyline with a dumpster in the foreground to a group of people talking animatedly, and then to someone sitting on a park bench with a coat draped fully over their head. Wilson goes on to explain that small talk is “the glue that binds us all together,” and then he promises that if we stick with him, he’ll make sure “every talk you have from here on out is small.”

In some ways, it’s like a TV version of one of those cutesy gift books you might find in a guest bathroom, a series of aphoristic captions matched with photos of animals doing goofy things. It’s a tightly matched combination of written narration and carefully selected clips, a partnership that dances back and forth between which piece is the setup and which is the punch line. Occasionally the show veers into much odder, more unexpected territory, like when Wilson uses the “How to Improve Your Memory” episode to talk with people convinced that something called the Mandela effect is proof of the multiverse theory. But even that explanation — scenes from daily life that illuminate how totally weird daily life actually is — barely touches everything that How to With John Wilson accomplishes, and the disorienting, intimate feeling of watching it.

Quickly, it becomes clear that How to With John Wilson is part scrapbook, full of tiny bits of footage Wilson happened to witness one day, and it’s also part memoir. Especially as the series goes on, Wilson gets more direct in the way he uses each episode’s theme to explore something happening in his own life. The small-talk episode outlines the shape of Wilson’s own social anxiety; the “How to Cover Furniture” episode starts with Wilson’s frustration with his cat and turns into … well, it goes to some very unexpected places. This might be a good time to warn viewers that this show has so much more full-frontal male nudity than I would’ve ever expected. (Very little of it is sexual, none of it is Wilson’s, and I feel pretty good about promising that whatever you’re currently picturing, it’s not that.)

Even when a scene isn’t directly about Wilson’s life, though, that scrapbook quality means Wilson is always present. Each episode’s collage of collected pieces forms a picture of human life, but they also create an implicit reflected image, a portrait of the kind of person who would notice all of these things. The kind of person who would notice and record all of these things. The self-portrait elements are deliberate; Wilson uses the themes as a way to circle around and gradually approach issues and questions he’s aware of in himself, a kind of self-analysis through oblique angles. It’s not that big a leap from “How to Make Small Talk” into Wilson revealing how hard it is to make himself emotionally available. There’s a much bigger leap from “How to Make the Perfect Risotto” to Wilson’s nicotine addiction to rediscovering how valuable daily life is once you start to lose it. Watching him tie it all together is painful and breathtaking and so funny.

Much of the show works because Wilson’s just so great at finding unexpected things, whether they’re surprising conversations with people, or unusual scenes happening on a typical New York street corner, or revelations about Wilson himself. He’s a master at the art of defamiliarizing, of taking the kinds of things that happen all the time and presenting them in a way that lets you see just how strange they are.

Right now, there’s also an additional poignant undercurrent in How to With John Wilson, which is chock-full of footage of New York City as it was less than a year ago — bustling, busy, loud, unmasked, full of weird celebrity cameos, people bumping into one another, and heedless urban life. In a show that’s already about pointing out how strange it is to just exist in the world, watching all that everyday existence before spring of 2020 feels even more special, even more bizarre.

The Great How to With John Wilson Defies Expectation