HBO's 'How to With John Wilson' Is One of the Funniest Shows of the Year

It's more complicated than it looks.

how to with john wilson
Zach Dilgard/HBO
Zach Dilgard/HBO

For filmmaker John Wilson, a trip outside can be as creatively fruitful as a night spent filming a chair covered in plastic, a pan of risotto on the stove, or a pile of cat vomit. The director's new HBO docuseries How to With John Wilson, which ended its six-episode first season with a surprisingly poignant season finale last weekend, is as much about the artist himself, a neurotic thirty-something New Yorker, as it is about the bustling city he inhabits and documents with his camera. The show's strange appeal lies in Wilson's canny ability to switch between memoir and reportage: He arrives at larger poetic truths by grounding the work in his own observations.

It's also really, really funny, finding situations that recall the best gasping-for-air, rewinding-because-you-missed-something moments of Sacha Baron Cohen's work. Executive-produced by Nathan Fielder, the comedian behind Comedy Central's beloved cult series Nathan for You, Wilson's show also has a deceptively simple premise. Each episode promises to serve as a tutorial on how to execute a small project ("How to Cover Your Furniture") or better yourself in a small way ("How to Improve Your Memory"). But these titles are simply the jumping-off points for meandering, surprising adventures that recall down-the-rabbit-hole storytelling of the best Seinfeld episodes. You never know where exactly Wilson, who narrates each episode but rarely appears on screen, is going to end up.

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The show's appeal is rooted in the off kilter editing style, which involves creating ironic juxtapositions between Wilson's mumbly narration—he has a vaguely storybook tone—with the often more jarring (and occasionally explicit) footage he captures. Each episode starts with Wilson saying, "Hey, New York," a greeting that immediately creates a cloying faux-familiarity that the less polished imagery pushes against. The rhythms of the show, the way it bounces between interviews and diary-like musings, take a little getting used to.

Wilson might film an angry pedestrian banging on the door of a subway, two shirtless teenage boys playing ping-pong in the park, or a man walking down the street in a ridiculous cowboy hat. (He loves following people with his camera, waiting for a scene to unfold.) In the editing process, that footage then gets rearranged, stripped of any context, and deployed to make whatever comedic, narrative, or essay-like point Wilson is building towards. It's a collage style that can be both pleasing and disorienting. Are you being manipulated? Of course, it's a TV show. But to what end exactly? That inherent ambiguity is what gives the show a similar mischievous charge to Nathan for You or the brilliant films of Errol Morris, who has already revealed himself as a Wilson fan.

Fair warning: There's a tweeness to some of the storytelling, particularly in the first episode, "How to Make Small Talk," which I found off-putting at times. Thankfully, Wilson is often quick to undercut the show's saccharine moments with the occasional morbid observation or genuinely bizarre exchange. (The "How to Cover Your Furniture" episode, the purely funniest episode by far, goes to a shocking, unclassifiable place.) The finale, which was filmed during the dark early days of the pandemic in New York and follows Wilson as he attempts to cook the perfect risotto for his elderly landlord, arrives at a place of poignant self-reflection. You leave with the sense that Wilson was learning how to make the show and teaching you how to watch it along the way.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.