‘How To With John Wilson’: A Eulogy for HBO’s Underappreciated, Unclassifiable Gem

‘How To With John Wilson’ both demands your attention and earns it
‘How To With John Wilson’: A Eulogy for HBO’s Underappreciated, Unclassifiable Gem

New York City is always in a state of flux, but most of us agree that it’s no longer as full of pimps and CHUDs as when Homer Simpson first visited. But while the grubby streets of Taxi Driver or The Deuce have largely been tidied, the high cost of living hasn’t priced out all of its weirdos, and tonight, HBO’s How To With John Wilson concludes its project of documenting them. And whether you’re a Wilson fan who’s failed to convert new viewers or learning about the show’s existence for the first time right now, I have a few theories as to why this Peak TV treasure remained a cult hit.

First, there’s the fact that How To is very hard to describe, and thus to pitch to potential fans. The titular Wilson is a documentary filmmaker who came to the project with an enormous library of random footage he has shot over decades. For each How To episode, Wilson starts with a simple premise that doesn’t necessarily require an instructional take — which is good, because, as he told Rolling Stone’s Lisa Tozzi last week, his process is to “begin with the title of an episode and try to make the definitive piece about that subject”: “Then I take the first exit ramp I see and follow it for as long as I can.” 

Thus it is that “How To Throw Out Your Batteries,” in Season Two, eventually gets us to a stranger showing us her late cat’s ashes. Along the way, Wilson’s narration moves us from scene to scene over snippets of his old footage that are either illustrative or ironic. “If you’re going to be buying batteries for the rest of your life, are you going to have to come back (Home Depot Halloween lawn decoration) to this godforsaken place every time your box fills up? And you wish (Home Depot toilet display) you could just get rid of these the same way that you do everything else.” 

And this may be the first element of the show that has kept it from breaking out: You actually have to watch it. For those of you unfortunate people for whom watching TV is not your job (couldn’t be me), you might try to pre-gauge your interest by reading a recap or two. But How To is impossible to recap, or to second-screen: If you try to multitask, you’re going to miss around 30 percent of the visual jokes. “Might as well figure out if it’s a good idea to invest in real estate” hits different when you’re actually looking at the screen to see a small crowd of New Yorkers gawking at the smoking remains of a burned or possibly exploded building.

Speaking of the narration, it’s another way the show may alienate a particular kind of viewer. Wilson’s choice to speak in the second person — “One day, when you’re just hanging out in your apartment, your landlord calls you to come downstairs to have a talk” — doesn’t just manipulate us by rhetorically making us the protagonist of his story, it causes Wilson himself to recede from the proceedings. Whereas other comedic explainer shows like Adam Ruins Everything and MythBusters are driven by the personalities of their hosts, Wilson’s interest in being an on-air talent seems to end at his name in the title. We rarely see more of him than his feet, or an arm reaching for something in a shot. Though it takes someone with Wilson’s specific gifts to make the show, he’s going to make it as difficult as possible for you to form a parasocial relationship with him.

The gifts Wilson brings to the show might also make it tough to watch for a certain kind of viewer. Wilson seems to bring to every interaction a preternatural level of observation and a complete lack of judgment for his subjects. For example, the Season One episode “How To Cover Your Furniture” takes us to — where else? — a passionate anti-circumcision advocate who’s designed a foreskin restoration device; Wilson describes their meeting in this 2021 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

It’s one thing for a scripted show like The Office or Peep Show to put fictional characters in awkward situations and make the audience cringe through their struggle. It’s quite another to give a real person the opportunity to discuss their fringe beliefs in detail. But while the oeuvre of Nathan Fielder (an EP on How To) does so in a way that feels confrontational to the viewer, the hallmark of How To — and the reason to push through the discomfort — is the empathy with which Wilson’s subjects are presented. To be sure, keeping Wilson off-screen may also be key to selling what could, for all we know, be a complete illusion. But even if that impression is a total fabrication (and last week’s “How To Watch Birds” left little doubt as to Wilson’s views on the ethics of such editorial decisions), it means How To episodes close on a feel-good note that Fielder’s other work seems not to aim for.

New York City is one of the most extensively represented places in pop culture; countless properties have claimed to be a love letter to it or to have made it a character. This is easy for shows like Sex and the City or Gossip Girl, which portray New York’s excitement and glamor. But the truest New York love stories don’t just make room for the freaks and wackos: They put the freaks and wackos front and center and show how essential they are in making New York what it is, and that’s what How To With John Wilson does best. It’s a show that could not have been made before the boom of the 2010s, and could probably never get greenlit at HBO now. 

If you never watched it before, I get it. But watch it now before David Zaslav finds out it exists and takes it down.

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