Maybe no TV show in 2020 has surprised me as much as How to With John Wilson, a documentary/comedy/personal essay/glorious portrait of weirdos unlike anything else I’ve seen. Much of the pleasure of the show comes out of its strange sense of humor, and it absolutely benefits from a hefty dose of surprise. Wilson has this fantastic capacity to notice unusual moments in everyday life. Even better, he has this ability to present those discoveries as beautiful treasures while also making clear that they are utterly, totally ordinary. And chief among those treasures, in the first episode at least, are 14 glorious seconds where beloved actor Kyle MacLachlan continually tries, and fails, to get onto the New York subway.
Let me set this up for you. The premise of this episode is that Wilson’s giving a lesson in small talk — how important it is, how to do it well, the potential pitfalls. This episode (and all of How to) presents these lessons as Wilson’s narration playing over small clips of everyday interactions between anonymous New Yorkers. There are clips of people chatting on the street, clips of what are clearly arguments, all the little moments you might notice just wandering through your day in the city.
In this particular scene, Wilson is explaining that it can be hard to end these short social interactions. One common method is to just lightly touch your conversation partner on the arm or shoulder. “Touch and go,” he says. “Just touch and go.” While he says this, there are candid clips of unnamed New Yorkers illustrating the move, a little montage of instances where two people say farewell with a little closing pat.
“But even after you’ve touched and go’d, your problems still might not be over,” Wilson continues. The clip he uses to illustrate this? First, there’s a very brief shot of a man walking briskly down the stairs into a metro station. Then, 14 seconds of candid, unremarked-upon, completely ordinary footage of a man standing at a subway turnstile, swiping his MetroCard. He swipes. He swipes. He swipes again. He swipes ten times in total, including one very slow, deliberate swipe, and then one more for good measure, before he finally gives up, turning away to presumably get a new card or ask a station agent for help.
The sequence works as is. It’s a funny-sad little visual punch line to illustrate Wilson’s point about how hard it can be to leave when you want to leave. It’s a great, silly little moment, especially given the man’s uncannily funny timing with that single, extra slow swipe. But it turns into a transcendent moment of comedy when (or if!) you happen to realize that the man is actor Kyle MacLachlan — star of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s Dune, and, more recently, the CBS sitcom Carol’s Second Act. He’s not acting here! He’s just a guy trying to get on a train. Then the clip cuts away, and Wilson continues his exploration of the mysteries of small talk without ever mentioning that anything unusual has happened.
When I watched this perfect gem, these 14 incandescently funny seconds, I ached to know more. Did MacLachlan realize he was being filmed? It sure doesn’t seem that way. How did he resolve his MetroCard problem? Did HBO have to clear this with him? Does he know he’s appearing in this series? Has he watched it? Does he love it? (I really hope he loves it.)
Sadly, in spite of Vulture’s insistent, herculean, and honestly maybe a little alarming efforts to ask MacLachlan these questions, we have not yet received a response from his reps. While I hope one day MacLachlan chooses to break his silence, in the meantime I accept that within the world of How to With John Wilson, it’s probably even better this way. It is a better joke without pointing at the joke, and although I am definitely ruining it by pointing at the joke, the moment within the episode stands as a perfect distillation of precisely the point Wilson’s trying to make.
It’s a combination of boring and extraordinary, and Wilson emphasizes that those qualities aren’t in opposition to one another. They actually reinforce one another! The show insists that we all live in this soup of completely dull, tiny, trivial nonsense, and it’s also fascinating and surprising if you just approach it with a sense of curiosity and openness … and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll just happen to see Kyle MacLachlan, frustrated but remarkably unperturbed, doing his best to get on a train.