HBO’s surprising ‘How To’ captures humans at their New Yorkiest
John Wilson, the mostly unseen narrator and cameraman of HBO’s new docuseries How To with John Wilson, has a lot on his mind. His particular set of New York City neuroses wouldn’t be out of place in the NYC Comedians With Issues pantheon that includes everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Woody Allen to Jonathan Katz to Awkwafina to Colin Quinn.
But the presentation sets Wilson’s new series apart from the decades of comedy that people have mined out of New York’s unique strangeness. In the way it juxtaposes imagery that Wilson shoots himself on the streets of New York and in various businesses and apartments, including his own, How To creates a new visual language that miraculously doesn’t collapse over six half-hour episodes. In fact, what feels like a comedic trick, something you’d see as a recurring bit on a late-night talk show, begins to take on a cumulative power, episode by episode. By the stunning finale, the disparate threads come together to form what turned out all along to be an epic longform visual poem, hilarious, haunting, and beautiful.
How To with John Wilson is also exceptionally weird, in the same way that producer Nathan Fielder’s Comedy Central show Nathan For You was weird and in much the same way that Adult Swim’s excellent Joe Pera Talks With You is strange, but also wise and unique.
In each episode, Wilson addresses a New York-specific problem and tries to solve it with advice and some in-the-field research. The pilot examines the challenge of how to make small talk with strangers or acquaintances. In another episode, he explains New York’s omnipresent scaffolding and spins it into a metaphor for emotional shielding. Splitting the check at New York’s many restaurants is the subject of the series’ most overtly funny episode; Wilson captures the emotional turmoil that splitting a restaurant bill causes with candid footage of dinner parties seemingly agonizing over tipping and arguing over who ate what. Wilson’s ever-rolling camera, clearly a deflection device against intimacy, captures random shots of humans, rats, trash bags, subway performers, scaffolding swingers, Kyle MacLachlan struggling with a subway ticket, and many other objects and actions that make effective visual puns out of his nerdy, loosely scripted narration.
The episode-title problems, such as “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto,” are never as simple as they seem and Wilson is eager to follow strange and silly digressions in his quest for best practices. They lead him to places like the home of a man claiming to catch child predators on Facebook, or the apartment of a woman who’s won awards for her great memory, or to a hellish MTV Spring Break taping in Cancun.
If these all sound like pre-pandemic concerns, that’s because Wilson mostly filmed the series before March 2020, and the knowledge that the New York we are viewing on the show is very different than the one that exists now hangs over all of its comedic moments, giving this new series a gut-punching sense of nostalgia. When New York’s time before COVID-19 is up, How To with John Wilson makes a sharp pivot, transforming into the unlikely best chronicle of how New Yorkers lived and how they started to adapt to an era-defining crisis.
Even before this important turn elevates it from a great and funny show to an instant classic, How To with John Wilson achieves the rarest thing in comedy: Wilson found an entirely new language to comment on how we are living and how it feels to do some of that living.