John Wilson (credit: HBO)
There isn’t anything quite like How To With John Wilson. The refreshing new half-hour series, which is produced by comedian Nathan Fielder and airs late Friday on HBO, is a documentary comedy that ostensibly tries to teach its audience a new skill (“How to Make the Perfect Risotto”) or ways to accomplish a task (“How to Split the Check”) through footage of New York City and interviews with its residents. But these spoof tutorial videos, which are co-written, directed, and narrated by its off-camera host John Wilson, go into so many surprising, eccentric, and ultimately heartwarming directions that it’s one of 2020’s biggest TV revelations.
Wilson, a lifelong New Yorker and current Queens resident, has been filming and releasing these “How to” style videos for years, filming hours of footage documenting quirky New Yorkers, punny storefront signs, floating trash, pigeons, and defecating pets under Wilson’s voiceover for digestible short videos uploaded to Vimeo. (2018’s “How To Live with Regret” is a good example of Wilson’s sensibilities). These clips caught Fielder’s attention and he quickly pitched Wilson’s videos to HBO describing them as “Planet Earth, but for New York.” That’s a good way to think about the show, with Wilson serving as a David Attenborough-type narrator but with lots of social anxiety and self-reflection as he films the city around him.
In an interview with the New York Times, Wilson said his approach to filmmaking is basically “letting the story come to you,” compiling as much footage as possible to craft each episode. The HBO series took two years to film and Wilson ended up with what he described to Uproxx as a “psychotic amount of footage” before editing it down to six, coherent 25-minute offerings. “It is luck and it is a coincidence, and it’s just a numbers game,” said Wilson to Uproxx. “The more you shoot, the more once-in-a-lifetime stuff you’re going to capture.” In the pilot alone, there are so many incredible, hilarious, and bleak moments Wilson caught on camera with this approach: a celebrity unable to get his MTA card to work at a subway station, EMT workers accidentally dropping a body, Hasidic jews vaping on a park bench, and many other fly-on-the-wall moments of New York City life.
Besides the dozens of visual jokes packed into every edit, Wilson spends interviewing random New Yorkers to help solve the dilemma at the heart of the episode. In the “How to Make Small Talk” pilot, Wilson interviews a male attendee of WWE Smackdown outside New Jersey’s Meadowlands Arena so he can improve on his social skills. After asking the guy what he does for a living, he responds, “I catch child predators”;the next scene finds Wilson at the man’s Pennsylvania home documenting a day-in-the-life of this child predator-catching wrestling fan. Wilson takes cues from producer Nathan Fielder’s Nathan For You and a lesser extent Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat in that he’s disarming enough to get his subjects to open up and reveal their strangest beliefs and personality quirks. But while sometimes the people he interviews have beliefs that are so outlandish it’s played for laughs, there isn’t a mean streak in any of Wilson’s interviews. Instead, the show finds humanity and heart in its weirdest moments.
While the visual gags and slice-of-life moments of New York are great, the true heart of the show comes with how Wilson interrogates each episode’s titular question and finds deeper truths. In many ways, Wilson’s kindhearted approach mimics the Mr. Rogers-like delivery of the host of Joe Pera Talks With You. “How to Put Up Scaffolding” isn’t about how to actually build temporary structures. Instead, it becomes a meditation on how New York City architecture can be inhumane and hostile to its people and how through things like putting plastic coverings on furniture, people go to drastic lengths to maintain the things they love most. Another episode, the finale, “How to Cook Risotto,” ends up with a detour to a ski resort for reasons that seem absurd written down but actually make sense in the episode. On top of that, all episodes indirectly deal with how Wilson, who is never seen except from behind the camera, navigates the world and his own life. A chance encounter with an ex in an earlier episode peels back the curtain behind the show’s awkward narrator, cameraman, and host.
Most of the footage in How To With John Wilson was filmed in a pre-pandemic New York City and it’s a document of a freely moving city undisturbed, and unguarded. There hasn’t been a better and more patient love letter to the city since High Maintenance, which like Wilson, thrives on telling the stories of people at their most vulnerable and themselves.