How to With John Wilson airs on HBO on Fridays
At this point, it's practically mandatory that every show in New York open with footage of landmarks like the Empire State Building, Central Park, or a line of honking yellow cabs in rush hour traffic. Anything that is quickly recognizable will suffice as long as it represents life in the big city. (If you're looking for some artsy vibe? Look no further than Washington Square Park.) HBO's How to With John Wilson documentaries don't break that tradition. In addition to a montage of New Yorkers on the street that has to do with jingling jazz, How to gives us a recording of the World Trade Center shimmering upwards from Lower Manhattan. However, there is a crucial difference in how creator John Wilson takes this image, which reveals its unusual perspective. Instead of zooming in overhead, he positions the World Trade Center in the background. Instead in the front and in the middle: a dingy dumpster.
An opening that balances New York's iconography with its junk might look a bit obvious, like Banksy. But How to With John Wilson is one of the most consistently surprising shows on television – original, not derivative. This early take comes as close to an easily digestible statement of intent as the show. The brisk 25-minute rates are intended as tutorials. Queens-based Wilson drives his camera around town trying to learn how to complete various tasks by speaking to people he meets. ("How to build scaffolding" and "How to cover your furniture" are two episode titles.) These episodes aren't as educational as they are wildly wandering. Wilson allows his chance encounters to break into close relationships with strangers and often ventures into their homes while they reveal their favorite projects, theories, and passions. The point is, no one ever knows what they are going to discover when they start asking questions. Wilson worked as a private investigator when he was younger, and his output has an undercurrent of voyeurism. He's brilliant at getting public insights into private life.
The elevator seat for How to With John Wilson could be something like "Nathan for you meets the people in New York," especially since Nathan Fielder is executive producer and the show's most famous champion. Nathan for You, who ran four increasingly elaborate seasons on Comedy Central, was also hard to explain – it was some kind of prank show that mocked reality television and American business ethics. Fielder was a host with character and convinced real entrepreneurs to perform ridiculous stunts to attract new customers.
There is a kinship between Fielder's and Wilson's work. Both projects depend on getting real people to reveal themselves. They are both deliberately subjugated hosts, so much the better at making the mess they cultivate look organic. Wilson doesn't even appear on camera on his show, preferring to remain as the invisible narrator who controls the plot. One key difference: Nathan for You had a tougher approach to the subjects of the common people, who often felt uncomfortable and embarrassed because of their participation. How to deal with John Wilson is a far more delicate endeavor. His storylines are fueled by Wilson's leaps into intimacy with strangers. One episode shows a startlingly long male nudity all over the front. The result is that such a stranger is so comfortable that Donald Duck snakes his way through Wilson's interview and curls up in a ball on his bed without pants or underwear. Even when the people he meets behave objectively bizarre, Wilson documents the absurdity without mocking them.
In episode three, "How To Improve Your Memory," Wilson walks into a grocery store looking for a particular brand of candy that he remembers from childhood. When he asks for help, he meets a man who has developed software for storing the store's shelves. The man can't help him with the candy, but it turns out he has a lot to say about memory. He invites Wilson back to his office and they talk about the "Mandela Effect," a phenomenon in which a group of people remember something other than what is recorded in historical records. At the end of the episode, the two of them are together at a Best Western in Ketchum, Idaho, contemplating the nature of reality.
Wilson began his film career by releasing short films directly with Vimeo, including videos that use the same "how to" framework. It took years to complete as he shot footage in his spare time and pieced it together into narratives while doing odd jobs. Their audience was small but enthusiastic, and when Fielder saw Wilson's work, he sought a collaboration. The Nathan for Youcreator helped the determined DIY director identify the actual elevator area of the project, telling the networks that the premise was "Planet Earth but for New York". Fielder recalled the famous, well-made nature documentary series and got to the heart of Wilson's central achievement. Just as planet Earth has captured animal behavior seldom seen with unprecedented clarity in the film, How to With John Wilson is a collage of real human behavior that is seldom, 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 goes around with his camera interviewing people on the subject, spending hours collecting footage on the street. He then collages a narrative from what he finds and uses voice over to tie them together. It's a method that produces incredible results, but there is one downside: it took two years to collect enough footage for this first six-episode season, which lasts less than three hours in total. It's not a scalable project which is key to its idiosyncratic charm. Patience is required to achieve observational performance of this caliber. Despite its title, Wilson's show isn't much of a lesson. It's a reminder of how noisy ordinary life can be if you know how to pay attention.
This story first appeared on Wired.com.
Listing image from HBO