At this point, it’s practically mandatory for any show set in New York to open with shots of landmarks like the Empire State Building, Central Park, or a row of honking yellow taxis in rush hour traffic. Anything quickly recognizable will suffice, as long as it represents life in the big city. (Looking for arty vibes? Search no further than Washington Square Park.) HBO’s docuseries How to With John Wilson doesn’t break from this tradition. In addition to a montage of New Yorkers on the street scored to tinkling jazz, How to gives us a shot of the World Trade Center, gleaming upwards from Lower Manhattan. There’s a key difference in how creator John Wilson shoots this image, though, one that reveals his off-kilter perspective. Instead of zooming overhead, he positions the World Trade Center in the background. Front and center instead: a grungy dumpster.
An opening that juxtaposes New York’s iconography with its garbage could look a tad obvious, like knockoff Banksy. But How to With John Wilson is one of the most consistently surprising shows on TV—original, not derivative. That early shot is as close to an easily-digestible statement of purpose as the show makes. Its brisk 25-minute installments are framed as tutorials, with the Queens-based Wilson carting his camera around the city attempting to learn how to accomplish various tasks by talking to people he encounters. (“How to Put up Scaffolding” and “How to Cover Your Furniture” are two episode titles.) These episodes aren’t instructive as much as wildly digressive; Wilson allows his chance encounters to unspool into intimate connections with strangers, often venturing into their homes as they divulge their pet projects, theories, and passions. The point is that no one ever knows what they’ll discover when they start asking questions. When he was younger, Wilson worked as a private investigator, and his output has a voyeuristic undercurrent. He’s brilliant at capturing public glimpses of private lives.
The elevator pitch for How to With John Wilson could’ve been something like “Nathan for You meets Humans of New York,” especially since Nathan Fielder serves as an executive producer and the show’s most high-profile champion. Nathan for You, which ran for four increasingly artful seasons on Comedy Central, was also hard to explain—it was a prank show, sort of, that satirized reality television and American business ethics. Fielder hosted in character, convincing real entrepreneurs to carry out ridiculous stunts meant to attract new customers.
There is a kinship between Fielder’s and Wilson’s work. Both of their projects hinge on coaxing real people into revealing themselves. They are both deliberately subdued hosts, all the better to make the chaos they cultivate look organic; Wilson doesn’t even appear on-camera in his show, preferring to remain as the unseen narrator steering the action. A key distinction, though: Nathan for You had a harder-nosed approach to its ordinary-people subjects, who often wound up uncomfortable and embarrassed because of their participation. How to With John Wilson is a far more tender endeavor. Its storylines are fueled by Wilson’s leaps into intimacy with strangers. One episode features startlingly prolonged full-frontal male nudity, the result of one such stranger feeling comfortable enough to Donald Duck his way through Wilson’s interview, curling up into a ball on his bed without pants or underwear. Even when the people he meets behave in objectively bizarre ways, Wilson documents the absurdity without mocking it.
In the third episode, “How to Improve Your Memory,” Wilson enters a grocery store looking for a specific brand of candy he remembers from his childhood. When he asks for help, he meets a man who built software for stocking the store’s shelves. The man can’t help him with the candy, but as it turns out, he has a lot to say about memory. He invites Wilson back to his office, where they discuss the “Mandela effect,” a phenomenon where a group of people remember something differently than how the historical record indicates it occurred. By the end of the installment, the pair are in a Best Western in Ketchum, Idaho, together, contemplating the nature of reality.
Wilson began his film career by posting documentary shorts directly to Vimeo, including videos using the same “How to” framework. They took years to complete, as he shot footage and stitched it together into narratives in his free time while working odd jobs. Their viewership was small but enthusiastic, and when Fielder saw Wilson’s work, he reached out to collaborate. The Nathan for Youcreator helped the resolutely DIY director come up with the project’s real elevator pitch, telling networks the premise was “Planet Earth, but for New York.” By evoking the famously well-made nature documentary series, Fielder nailed down Wilson’s central achievement. Just as Planet Earth captured animal behavior rarely seen on film with unprecedented clarity, How to With John Wilson is a collage of real human behavior that is rarely, if ever, seen so clearly.
In an interview with The New York Times, Wilson described his approach as “letting the story come to you.” He walks around with his camera and interviews people about the subject, collecting hours and hours of on-the-streets footage. He then collages together a narrative from what he finds, using voice-over to tie it together. It’s a method that yields incredible results, but there’s a downside: It took two years to gather enough footage for this six-episode first season, which clocks in at less than three hours total. It’s not a scalable project, which is key to its idiosyncratic charms. To create an observational achievement of this caliber requires patience. Despite its title, Wilson’s show isn’t really a lesson. It’s a reminder of how rowdy ordinary life can be, if you know how to pay attention.
This story first appeared on Wired.com.
Listing image by HBO