John Wilson is a pretty nondescript, bearded dude that likely blends in wherever he goes. But he was a private investigator for a year after college, and that feeds into a filming style that could only be learned on hours-long stakeouts. But he’s also curious, and knows when to follow interesting information offered by the people he talks to into weird and often wonderful interactions. After posting how-to videos online and entering short films in the New York Film Festival, HBO signed him to do a show in his unique style.
Opening Shot: A shot of a dumpster up against the Manhattan skyline. “Hey, New York,” says the voice over. We switch to people talking on the street. “There are countless opportunities to make small talk in a big city.”
The Gist: How To With John Wilson stars, as you might expect, filmmaker John Wilson, but you hardly ever see his face in any given episode. You hear his voice, though, narrating how-to videos in a halting, fumbling manner. But the footage is shot by Wilson, often observing things stealthily while hidden behind something or from some distance away. But it’s not like he’s using some spy-level hidden camera to get most of his footage; he’s carrying a professional-level handheld video camera with a big lens and a shotgun mic. Still, though, he tends to go unnoticed.
In the first episode, Wilson discusses the ways to make friends — or at least feel less lonely — via small talk. As we see people around New York talking at or to each other — one FedEx repairman is grabbing his crotch in a classic “suck this” gesture — Wilson finds a guy at a Wrestlemania event in NJ who tracks down child predators. So Wilson goes to the man’s house to track down a predator with him.
Then, figuring vacations are a good topic to talk about, he goes to a travel agent (!) who talks about her failed marriage and books a trip to Cancun. When he gets down there, the nervous Wilson is surprised to see his resort overtaken by MTV Spring Break. During the bacchanal he meets a dude named Chris who is there by himself. At first, via some of the awkward small talk Wilson tries to force out, he just seems like a sad dude who likes to rap. But then the two of them open up to each other, making a connection neither one of them expected.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? It’s no coincidence that How To With John Wilson has the same kind of discomfort-generated, deadpan humor that we saw on Nathan For You; Nathan Fielder is one of the show’s executive producers.
Our Take: What we enjoyed about How To With John Wilson was just how uncomfortable Wilson was, despite the fact that we barely ever see his face. Just hearing his stumbling voice over or hearing him interview people from behind his camera tells us that he’s almost using that camera for protection as much as he is for making art. And that in and of itself feeds into a lot of the show’s comedy. Well, that and the fact that he has a good instinct for following a person he thinks might yield some funny footage.
The episodes examine pretty simple stuff, like “How to put up scaffolding” or “How to cover your furniture.” The grand finale is “How to make the perfect risotto.” Now that we’ve seen the first episode, and the weird directions these seemingly simple topics take Wilson, we’re definitely interested in how he weaves these seemingly straightforward ideas into funny videos about strange and (maybe) interesting people.
Because Wilson is so skilled at his incognito filming method — part of a style he calls “documentary memoir” — he manages to get shots that are very personal and help shape the narratives that he builds. Like the different examples of the “touch and go,” the pre-pandemic way people making small talk on the street begin to separate themselves from the conversation. But we were more intrigued with the people he interacted with, because we can tell that it takes him out of his comfort zone. He gamely pushes through, however, because he knows what he can get out of it if he does so. In a way, Wilson is putting himself out there far more than most filmmakers, because without his presence, the show wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: As he talks about things building up and people’s need to clear them out, Wilson shoots himself scooping out copious amounts of poop from his cat’s litter box, then we see him flushing it down his toilet. “Once you take care of that, you’ll finally be able to return to a blissful world of… s-small talk,” he stammers. Then we see a shaky view of Manhattan from his apartment. “This is John Wilson; thanks for watching.”
Sleeper Star: By the time John and the brotastic Chris were done talking in Cancun, we wanted to give both of them a hug.
Most Pilot-y Line: This is more of a curiosity: Wilson buys a shirt from a cover band called “The Red Hot Chilli Pipers” (yes, they play bagpipes) to drum up conversation in an elevator. We looked them up; they’re from Scotland, internationally known, and won a talent show on the BBC. Wow.
Our Call: STREAM IT. How To With John Wilson is on HBO’s late-night schedule for a reason; it’s like a nice light dessert after all the heavy fare the network offers. We love seeing and hearing from the intensely uncomfortable Wilson, and marvel at how his filmmaking instincts take him in very strange and interesting directions.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
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