REVIEW: ‘How To With John Wilson’ is the best show of the year you aren’t watching

HBO delivers one of its best new series


John Wilson from the HBO show “How To With John Wilson,” which premiered Oct. 23, 2020. This series has come along to remind us of a time before the pandemic — not just of the way we could traverse outside, but when we could connect emotionally with people, writes Bradley Hinkson. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Bradley Hinkson

The COVID-19 pandemic has made human interaction pretty bare or damn near non-existent. The action of going out in public around groups of people feels like a risk of your life and the lives of others around you. 

A lot of media have started to and will continue to figure out how we respond to it. So thank God a series like “How To With John Wilson” has come along to remind us of a time before the pandemic. Not just of the way we could traverse outside, but when we could connect emotionally with people.

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Each episode follows filmmaker John Wilson as he tries to give helpful advice on certain topics like small talk with others and coverings for your furniture, but these are just jumping off points for Wilson to explore more themes and just the idiosyncrasies of the people of New York. 

What starts off as a brief history of scaffolding in New York brings Wilson to a whole scaffolding convention to see how something that started as a form of safety for passersby has basically just become a business for many and a way to make some profit. Wilson isn’t really going to give you any sort of valuable advice or information, but he is going to take you on a journey that will leave you more emotionally impacted than you thought you would be.

Wilson isn’t the kind of host you’d expect from a documentary series like this because well, he’s kind of an awkward guy. He’s in no way afraid to just go up to random strangers to talk to them. One episode in particular just leads him into a complete stranger’s house to learn how to make risotto. 

Though it’s his actual interaction with people and vocal inflections that make him quite awkward. His narration heard throughout the series is filled with stutters, ums and points where he can’t find the right word he’s looking for. He’s no David Attenborough or Werner Herzog. But it’s that awkward inflection that makes Wilson so endearing to follow. He feels like a real person. He wants to paint a bigger picture with his words, but doesn’t have the right personality to do so. He rarely shows himself on camera — most of the time whenever you see him is through a reflection, but you still fully see Wilson as a person. He’s endearing, but also just hilarious.

For anyone who is a fan of the series “Nathan For You,” they may find a lot of similarities between Wilson’s brand of comedy and Nathan Fielder’s comedy, which makes a lot of sense since Fielder is an executive producer on this series. Both series capture real people and their reactions, but under different intentions. “Nathan For You” comically showed how normal people would react and participate in the most ludicrous of business ventures. While there is nothing as big as a Dumb Starbucks for people to volunteer in, Wilson still has a way of getting real people and their genuine thoughts. He’ll walk up to strangers partying during spring break to try and join them and make some small talk or ask questions about, of all things, scaffolding. While these moments can get quite funny, they actually end up being some of the highlights for how human they feel.

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In the episode “How To Cover Your Furniture,” Wilson starts out by trying to find the right covering for his furniture so that his cat will stop tearing at it. Through one matter or another, Wilson finds a group of men who fight for the rights for men to keep their foreskin. No, really. 

Not only does this example help show how this series so wonderfully goes off in strange directions, it also shows how it takes a passive and nonjudgmental approach to many of the people the series spotlights. When Wilson meets a man who has created a device that can help a man get his foreskin back — again, yes really — and sees how it works, the whole moment becomes surprisingly genuine and real. After showing it off for a while, both of them just get into a casual conversation about the film “Parasite.” It’s right there where you see just how special this show is.

Sure, the absolute insanity and strangeness of this whole scenario is able to garner laughs, but it’s that switch to a normal conversation that is icing on the cake. Then something hits you — you’re just watching two people talking about normal everyday things and the strange foreskin contraption doesn’t even matter anymore. Any other show may just try to find whatever jokes it could out of the situation and probably just laugh at this guy. This series doesn’t want you to laugh at him. Wilson shoots him as he shows off his device or plays his original music, but never intends to make this guy a joke. Wilson just finds him fascinating and it’s right there that the show elevates itself from anything else out there. It’s a show about people living their lives. It does not matter how strange they are. There’s almost a beauty in their idiosyncrasies.

That’s basically the show in a nutshell: finding the beauty in idiosyncrasies. The best moments for these are through the hours of footage that Wilson shot that he uses while giving his narration throughout the season. These are when we see people in their natural form. We see them talking with one another, bonding, or even witness actor Kyle MacLachlan try and continually fail to enter the subway. Wilson uses a lot of this footage to help visualize whatever he is trying to convey in his narration, a lot of times for comedic effect. When describing a supposed beloved business he’ll show the outside of a Chase bank. Most of the humor in these moments is dry and subtle. There are many moments however where these clips mixed with Wilson’s words make something special. His words make these small moments feel larger. At a time when our interaction with people has become so minimal, it’s special to see people act like themselves without knowing someone is looking. It’s people watching for a time when we can’t do it.

It’s hard not to get swept up in “How To With John Wilson,” whether it’s laughing at Wilson and his awkward behavior or getting lost in the thought of being out in public and being around people. Even for a series that at the end is interrupted by the pandemic, it never feels like something fearful of it or a way to cause more panic. It witnesses it the same way we all did, as a sudden change to our routine that we had to adjust to. That being one of the many reasons the season finale is quite easily the best episode of television all year. I can’t imagine any other piece of media capturing life during the pandemic as perfectly as this does. Nor can I imagine a series this genuine in the way it perceives people in a long time. 

“How To With John Wilson” is available to stream on HBO Max.