(HBO/HBO MAX) HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON just wrapped its second season, but for the purposes of this recommendation, I will stick to the first season, solely because I’m a bit behind on the second season. (That said, the second season enlisted the skills of one of the best writerly documentarian of the current generation, Susan Orlean, so take that as a full-throated recommendation for skipping ahead if you’re impatient.)
John Wilson is an obsessive documentarian. He always has a camera in his hand and he’s always looking out for some oddity, searching for thirty-seconds of visual intrigue in New York City. However, he’s also capable of a meandering weaver of cultural insight.
Each episode of HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON starts off with an innocuous ideal: “How to Make Small Talk”; “How to Improve Your Memory”; “How to Cover Your Furniture” but each episode is like a strange stream-of-consciousness/exquisite corpse-like tale where he wanders to a larger humanist insight. It’s funny, warm, smart, and occasionally scary. The season one finale, which saw him documenting the spread of COVID-19 via his Greek landlord was so heartwarming, while also being heartbreaking.
My wife asked me: “Is there a name for this sort of genre? Overly-sincere dudes examine the lives they witness around them?” I wish I could lay a name to the genre, but shows like these — NATHAN FOR YOU, JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU, and HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON, escape classification. We’re simply used to dude-based TV works as being meditations about cruelty, and I’m happy to see that we’re finally rounding the curve, that we’re seeing works about men questioning their world, reaching out, being empathic. It gives me hope and warms my cynical heart.
“You don’t always realize you’re in the middle of history until it’s over.”