“Hey, New York”
How to With John Wilson takes on the bizarre nature of being alive with humour and heart
I first watched How to With John Wilson exactly a year ago. My sister even gave me her Crave login specifically to watch it (you know a show’s great if someone offers you their password just to see it). I watched the first episode, “How to Make Small Talk, without knowing what to expect. Quickly, I fell in love with the show for its humour and heart, finishing all six episodes of the first season in two days.
How to With John Wilson premiered on HBO in October 2020; the series’ second season, which aired this past fall, just finished. The show was created by American documentary filmmaker John Wilson, who is both the series’ cameraman and narrator. Set in New York City, the show is a 30-minute comedic documentary that attempts to give advice about everyday topics, such as how to cover furniture and how to throw out batteries.
Unlike a typical documentary, however, the show’s narrative isn’t told by famous talking heads or through important historical footage. Rather, the show is made up of what is often considered an afterthought: b-roll AKA all the extra secondary footage used to supplement primary footage. This footage then dictates Wilson’s narration, which often counteracts what’s being shown on-screen. It’s an extremely effective use of visual irony that’s immediately engaging for how fresh it feels not only from typical documentaries but from anything else on TV.
Everything Wilson shoots is mundane, yet unusual in some way. Living in New York City, there’s an abundance of people doing bizarre things in public, like a person riding a unicycle down the middle of the road, or somebody waiting for the subway while carrying a computer monitor on a leash. It’s not just the people he shoots who are strange. Wilson has a knack for finding odd items out in the open, whether they be building facades that look exactly like human faces, or novelty license plates.
Greeting each episode with “Hey, New York,” Wilson himself is a charming narrator. In contrast to most documentary voice-overs, however, his tone is neither smooth nor confident. Wilson often sounds anxious and unsure as he attempts to give advice regarding the week’s problem. It turns the idea of expertise on its head, with Wilson often just as unsure as to what the solutions are as the viewer.
Wilson’s weekly quests often take him to bizarre and extremely unexpected places. Not knowing what to do, he often turns to people he appears to find solely through Craigslist (I’ve told my boyfriend more than once that an alternate title for the series could be Craigslist: The TV Show). Wilson’s turns to outside perspectives take him not only to experts in the subject but those who are seemingly the furthest from it.
For instance, Season 2’s “How To Appreciate Wine” begins with a trip to a wine store, where Wilson has a lengthy, yet ultimately unhelpful talk with a sommelier. Frustrated, he seeks someone else who can tell him about how to appreciate food that’s been aged, which leads him to a man who collects and eats expired military rations. Wilson then tries to learn how to pick up on different scents and describe them, which sends him to tour a manufacturing plant that makes scented bowling balls. From there, he meets an employee obsessed with energy drinks, an encounter that ultimately finds Wilson in the home of Jack Owoc, the CEO of Bang Energy, the same brand that, among other things, sponsors TikTok’s Hype House. (If you can believe it, I haven’t even mentioned the wildest turn in that episode).
Rather than learning more about buying and tasting wine, the end of “How to Appreciate Wine” finds Wilson embracing his love of energy drinks. But more than that, it’s a meditation on being honest about your interests and taste, rather than pretending to like something just because you think you should. This is the true hook of the show. While each episode says it will be about one thing, it’s always actually a broader reflection about how strange it is to be a person and live in the world.
Some of the best episodes of the series showcase Wilson’s relationship with his elderly landlady, who he lives above and calls “Mama.” In “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto,” Wilson details how the pair spend a lot of time together, even watching Jeopardy! every night at 7. She does his laundry for him, insisting that the laundromat “has lice,” and cooks for him, sharing meals and baked goods. In return, Wilson decides that he should make something for her and remembers that her favourite food is risotto.
On his quest to learn how to make the time-consuming dish, Wilson fails over and over, burning it multiple times and ruining his pots and pans. He decides to go to the store to buy another pot, but is surprised to find he is the only person on the bus. Once at the store, he is greeted with bare shelves and long lines. Only then does the viewer realize that Wilson is actually documenting the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.
Now scared of accidentally infecting her with the virus, Wilson keeps his distance from Mama for the first time. While he still hasn’t mastered risotto, ultimately he decides that any attempt is better than nothing, especially for a person who has given him so much. Not only does the episode perfectly capture the initial confusion and fear of the pandemic, but it’s also a moving meditation on caring for others in hard times.
Still, it’s an episode from the show’s second season that is the most unexpectedly profound of them all. “How To Remember Your Dreams” starts in a typical fashion for the show, with Wilson starting a dream journal and asking strangers to share their dreams with him. In its usual pivot, Wilson describes how as a teenager, he eschewed science fiction, becoming obsessed instead with the authenticity of documentary filmmaking. While trying to reclaim some youthful fantasy, he stumbles into a comic book shop, where he meets a man reading an Avatar comic book. The man invites Wilson to check out his Avatar fan website, and Wilson later attends an awkward Avatar fan meet-up.
I won’t spoil the ending, but what happens next had tears streaming down my face for its beauty and honesty and is probably one of the greatest TV moments I’ve seen in recent memory. While the show could have easily made fun of the obsessive Avatar fans, it uses their stories to showcase the human need for escapism and connection. It's the best part of the entire show: in spite of all the oddballs he encounters along the way, Wilson almost never makes fun of them, using them instead to highlight a piece of our shared humanity.
With its pleasantly existentialist perspective, How to With John Wilson is one of the best shows that started airing during the pandemic. It’s clear that the show believes that being alive, particularly in the present moment, is a fundamentally strange experience. While others would present the reality of life right now as depressing, Wilson presents it with humour, heart and empathy. It’s perfect viewing that calls on the audience to embrace the world as it is, in all of its mundane and odd glory.
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