It’s gotten to the point where pretty much any new media we consume these days feels — excuse the now-exhausted phrase — “eerily prescient.” From The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix to the Strokes’ latest album to this year’s pandemic novels, watching and reading and listening to things made before the world went into lockdown tend to offer us a heartbreaking glimpse at what used to be, or else provide a foreboding hint about what horrors were to come.
But nothing I’ve watched so far has felt quite so perfectly timed to this moment — in terms of capturing the best of what we’ve lost as well as giving us reason to laugh and delight and maybe even hope — as How To With John Wilson, a new comedy docuseries on HBO. Executive produced by Nathan Fielder of Comedy Central’s Nathan for You, Wilson’s project (he’s the writer, director, cameraperson, and narrator) carries some of Fielder’s signature cringey style. But How To is really in a universe all its own, blending impressive and often hilarious cultural reporting with quite moving personal introspection; it’s like a kind of poetry. I don’t know what more I’d want from six tight 30-minute episodes than the opportunity to meet a bunch of people — New Yorkers! My people! — who are as bizarre as they are perfectly ordinary, while also laughing a lot and crying a little. OK, maybe more than a little.
The episodes are all ostensibly framed as vehicles for advice: “How to Make Small Talk,” “How to Put Up Scaffolding,” “How to Split the Check.” Wilson, a self-described “anxious New Yorker,” explores a truly impressive stretch of a city that’s already been captured onscreen perhaps more than any other in the world, and he manages to do so in a way that feels both captivating and comfortingly familiar.
In every episode, Wilson spends time with one primary subject or event, but it’s his b-roll of hundreds of everyday sightings on the streets of New York, paired with plenty of metaphors and puns in his narration, that really moved me. The first episode, about small talk, features Wilson observing how a bunch of strangers communicate with each other or with him on the street: one couple’s ugly, physical fight, a marriage proposal, a gross dance floor makeout, one woman sitting on a bench with a coat over her head, a construction worker looking right at Wilson (and the camera) while grabbing his balls, retail workers who just try to do their jobs even when he baits them with disturbing asides. It’s during an assemblage of these vignettes that we see Kyle MacLachlan, of Twin Peaks and Sex and the City fame, try over and over again to swipe his subway card at a turnstile that refuses to grant him entry — all too recognizable a scene to New Yorkers, charmingly rendered when it’s a famous person doing it. These 14 seconds are all the funnier because Wilson doesn’t point out that we’re looking at a Golden Globe winner trying to go about his day; MacLachlan and his mundane subway problems are just a part of New York’s rich ordinary/extraordinary tapestry.
That said, the main events Wilson captures are also pretty spectacular. He ends up at a spring break party in Mexico, which looks absolutely bonkers terrifying to any viewer in COVID times, and meets another guy who came to Cancún alone. We can laugh at this tattooed partygoer for his goofy machismo and scorn his casual misogyny, but we also feel for him when he and Wilson talk about their respective friends’ recent deaths.
As a journalist, I’m both jealous of and impressed by Wilson’s ability to strike up a conversation with a random person and end up somewhere bizarrely fascinating, like a convention for the contractors responsible for New York City’s scaffolding — something that’s indelibly a part of New Yorkers’ everyday environments in a way (as he points out) that just isn’t the case in other American cities, even though we don’t spend much time thinking about it. (If we did think about scaffolding more often, maybe we’d be a little more pissed off about its ugliness, its ubiquity, its inability to keep us safe.)
A conversation with a guy shopping in New York City’s only store for referees, meanwhile, leads Wilson to a hilariously contentious referee banquet, while a conversation with a guy in Stop & Shop — who turns out to be responsible for the grocery store’s inventory-sorting software — introduces him to the world of Mandela effect true believers. There are just so many incredible New York characters in this show, from a travel agent who’s a little too TMI about her love life to a guy who’s so passionately anti-circumcision that he invented a foreskin restoration device (there is some horrifying nudity involved) to the woman we only see for a few seconds on the sidewalk who lovingly places a live pigeon in a plastic bag and carries it away.
The best documentaries delve so deeply into the specific that they end up feeling universal. Through his investigation into the lives of others, Wilson sheds some light on his own hang-ups — like his inability to be emotionally available to his loved ones, especially as someone who spends so much of his time behind a camera — and invites us to consider our own. In a city like New York, the sheer amount of other people can make you feel anonymous, lost in the shuffle; the cliché is that you’re in a crowd of hundreds, of thousands, and yet you’ve never felt more alone. How To With John Wilson is a humbling and very funny reminder that everybody stuck in this great big human soup has their own extraordinary/ordinary stories. ●