How to Enjoy HBO’s ‘How to With John Wilson’

In Season 3 John Wilson continues to stumble across fringe communities, strange secrets and wild characters with the curiosity of a child and the detachment of a nature photographer.

John Wilson Thomas Wilson

Hey, New York. When you live in one of the biggest cities in the world, you get used to seeing places you recognize in movies and TV shows. There are buildings and landmarks on your daily commute that people travel from all over the world to visit. It’s easy to become desensitized to this if you’ve lived here for a long time. You used to work in midtown Manhattan, and once, on your lunch break, you got annoyed because a crowd of people walking ahead of you stopped suddenly on the sidewalk to look up at something. Then you realized you were right across the street from the Empire State Building, one of the most famous structures in the world. It’s not just the tourist attractions that have become mundane to you. Nowadays, when you walk down the street, you avoid eye contact with anyone you don’t know and rarely acknowledge other people at all. You wonder what it would be like to walk around the city where you live with the curiosity of a tourist, to strike up conversations with strangers, to treat every new thing you see with the wonder or disgust that it deserves.

Recently, your editor recommended you a TV show to watch and maybe write about. It’s a comedy documentary series on HBO in which an eccentric New Yorker explores a variety of topics using a first-person camera perspective and second-person narration in the style of an instructional article. It’s as much memoir as it is investigative journalism, as the host digresses in and out of the selected topic into the intimate and bizarre details of his life. He becomes your guide through the city in which you live, one whose curiosity and empathetic discourse with strangers leads you both to outrageous and surprisingly profound places. It’s not a show you would have thought to put on on your own, but it might make you feel a little more connected to your weird and unknowably huge world. So, stick with me, and I’ll show you how to enjoy How To with John Wilson.

Each episode of How To with John Wilson begins by presenting a common problem for city-dwellers or people in general, like how to find a good parking space or to improve your memory, and promises some kind of solution. Over the course of Wilson’s investigation into the topic, one of his interview subjects will send him down a strange rabbit hole that seems to have very little to do with what’s come before, but that eventually sheds light on what the episode is really about. The first season episode “How to Split the Check” takes Wilson to a banquet held by an association of NY sports referees, and becomes a rumination on the nature of fairness and the human compulsion to get one over on one’s peers, bosses, or underlings. “How to Appreciate Wine” is really about in-groups and out-groups, and the lengths people will go to in order to feel like they belong somewhere.

John Wilson in Season 3 of How To With John Wilson Thomas Wilson/HBO

Nearly every episode opens the door to some niche subculture or industry that you’ve never put much thought into before. Some of them, like the group that believes the Mandela Effect to be the result of interdimensional meddling, are silly but harmless, whereas some of them, like the businesses dedicated to squeezing the maximum amount of money out of every vacant parking spot on Earth, actively worsen our lives. The joke is nearly always on the people who invite the unassuming filmmaker into their inner sanctums, but Wilson has a way of making you empathize with (or, at least, pity) most of his subjects while you’re laughing at them. You wonder if this is what you look like to some people when you get together with your friends to pursue your own hobbies, but also, it helps to put your own interests or obsessions into perspective. Every episode makes your world a little bigger, while also bringing you closer to it. 

You initially have your doubts that a show like this was going to jive with your sense of humor. The credit above the title reads “From Executive Producer Nathan Fielder,” and while your friends all really like him, you’ve never been able to get into his work because it hews too close to the category of “prank show.” That’s not to dismiss Fielder’s comedic brilliance, but you have no taste for comedy that’s derived from messing with ordinary people who, in most cases, have no idea what they’re in for. Fortunately, you find that How To with John Wilson doesn’t trigger the awkwardness or shame responses that made watching The Rehearsal impossible for you. Wilson and company may be filming candid shots of embarrassing moments and interviews with delusional people, but he does so with the curiosity of a child and the detachment of a nature photographer. Wilson does not appear to be digging for dirt, setting up scenarios, or asking leading questions. People just seem to open up to him, to invite him into their homes and reveal their secrets. They might not know exactly what show they’re on, but they’re all excited to be on HBO, and to make the most of their moment, whether they’re a scaffolding manufacturer or an aficionado of 20th century military rations.

After catching up on the series, you decide to accept an invitation to the premiere of How To with John Wilson’s third and final season at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. The premiere is preceded by a marathon of the entire first two seasons, meaning that a few people have been there watching all day. When you’re seated for the premiere, one of the fans sitting next to you asks the people in the surrounding seats how they got into How To with John Wilson. The conversation ends up involving a dozen people across three or four rows of the theater. Everyone seems so excited to share their enthusiasm for the show. You go to advance movie and TV screenings all the time for work, seated amidst dozens or hundreds of people who write or talk about movies for a living, but none of them have ever struck up a conversation with you. You reach out at these events sometimes, but the experience usually always leaves you feeling like a poser even though the people you’re trying to relate to are there for the exact reason you are. You wonder if John Wilson’s openness attracts fans who have a similar mindset, who like to ask people questions and invite them to talk about themselves.

They screen the first two episodes of the season for you, and you enjoy them as much as you did the rest of the series — actually, moreso, since you get to share the experience with a theater full of enthusiastic viewers. The first episode, “How to Find a Public Bathroom,” is not only ripe with solid toilet humor, but with commentary about the gradual privatization of public spaces. It retreads some territory from last season’s “How to Find a Spot,” but the proud American tradition of monetizing problems rather than solving them has been a recurring theme on the show from the beginning. The second, “How to Clean Your Ears,” muses on noise pollution and the search for peace and quiet, digressing as usual into a fringe community that you’ve heard of but would never have researched on your own. You feel bad for them, and you’re certain they won’t appreciate the way they come across on television, but you also feel like you understand them better.

After the screening, there’s a Q&A session with John Wilson and three of the show’s other crew members. You’ve always known that How To wasn’t purely the video diary of a single filmmaker, but somehow learning about the nuts and bolts of the show erodes the magic for you just a little. As silly as it feels to admit, you’d created an image in your mind of Wilson wandering around the city alone, just shooting whatever he sees, and constructing his narrative later. Even though you’ve seen them named in the credits, the thought of there being producers or sound engineers following right behind him or production assistants handing out release forms in his wake cheapens the entire experience for you. There’s talk of casting calls and screen tests for interviewees, of the value of having “a really good lawyer.” There’s even an episode later in the season that toys with the viewer’s assumptions about what has and has not been staged. None of this should bother you. You’ve been aware all along that you’ve been watching a television show, and that as lucky as Wilson and company have been in legitimately stumbling across some of the show’s wildest secrets and characters, they are also making their own luck, to an extent. 

Still, the experience leaves you wondering if you’re better off not paying close attention to things, or asking follow-up questions. Maybe the reason film critics don’t talk to new people at screenings is that they’re afraid it’ll come across as phony, like they’re pressing the flesh rather than trying to make friends. Maybe the reason New Yorkers don’t look up at the Empire State Building is that we’ve already got an idealized image of it in our heads that we’d rather not spoil. Or, maybe the opposite is true. Maybe, in order to truly appreciate something, you have to be willing to examine the whole thing, scaffolding and all.

I’m Dylan Roth, thanks for reading.

Season 3 of “How To With John Wilson” premieres July 28th on Max. 

How to Enjoy HBO’s ‘How to With John Wilson’