There’s something refreshing about the New York John Wilson inhabits. Among other things, it seems as boundless as Wilson’s own curiosity.
Wilson, the host and executive producer of HBO’s series “How to With John Wilson,” returning for its second season Nov. 26, takes a man-with-a-camera approach to the city’s streets. Rambling around and addressing the viewer in perpetually amiable voiceover, Wilson finds odd juxtapositions and follows meandering streams of consciousness. While each episode begins with a simple and pragmatic question — how does one, say, safely dispose of batteries? — it ends having transcended and morphed the question into an inquiry into grander things.
To say this show is about what it means to be human would make it sound forbiddingly grave. Indeed, the conclusions of episodes can feel — at times — slight in comparison to the thrillingly absurd journeys it takes to get there. It’s as if the show is subtly needling our expectation that some big lesson will easily announce itself. But there’s a genuine curiosity at the heart of “How to” about what we owe one another. In his quests to learn and see more, Wilson explains his actions to the viewer in the second-person, indicating that “you” are joined with him every step of the way. And his work depends upon his fellow New Yorkers, who tend to treat the observer in their midst with benevolent garrulousness, as if they had just been waiting to open up to someone when he came along — whether about the pain of an unresolved divorce or the glee of having been allowed to keep an amputated body part against hospital regulations. (Often these stories are conveyed with Wilson’s own shrewd wit added into the mix, as when the “luckiest man in the world” describes his multiple experiences of being struck by lightning and surviving but admits, when asked, that his luck runs out when he needs to find a parking spot.)
In its breadth, openness, and oddity, the show has a slight resemblance to the late, lamented “Nathan for You,” which shares creative DNA with “How to.” (Nathan Fielder, the entrepreneurial host of “Nathan for You,” is an executive producer here; like “Nathan for You,” this show is carefully shaped, with a team of five writers receiving credit for episodes.) But there’s significantly more kindness to Wilson’s approach as host, treating his subjects not solely as vectors for good comedy but as objects of interest in their own right. And the setting helps, too: Wilson is aided by a city whose unlovelier angles act as prompts for free-ranging thought. The show’s first season ended with an episode about the isolation and loneliness of the early COVID era, made all the more pronounced by how much the show had, to that point, depended on the odd friction generated by people sharing space. Now, the city is back, after a fashion — multiple shots, of mask-wearing individuals or portioned-out hors d’oeuvre plates at conventions Wilson attends, nod to the moment without the show belaboring the fact — and the show has returned to its version of full-scale New York, sweltering with human energy and potential paths to take.
This version of the city is not one we’ve frequently seen on screen. In “How to,” Wilson meanders through parking-employee conventions and recycling facilities. His work is apparently exhaustive: A segment involving New York cars’ vanity plates feels as if it must have taken hours or days of wandering the streets. But sometimes, the world comes to him, and jars his universe a bit: When he briefly encounters the cast of “Sex and the City” shooting in his neighborhood, it feels as though there’s been a glitch in the matrix. Carrie Bradshaw’s surreal playground New York can’t possibly coexist with John Wilson’s.
And yet it does, because John Wilson’s New York is, more than any I can recall having seen on television, the one that contains it all. Homes on “How to” are small, bleak, and strangely laid out, unless they’re randomly palatial in a way that suggests a secret city underlying the familiar one; human experience builds up and demands release. It’s not that every aspect of “How to” depends upon New York; an early episode features an anecdote too good to spoil about Wilson attending an a cappella competition in Albany, and he travels to a beverage entrepreneur’s mansion to witness the blitheness and hunger for attention of modern wealth, and to Las Vegas to see what a change of scenery does for the show’s energy. But the city’s endless potential for new stories remains the generative force in this new season.
And the city seems, continually, to spark something in Wilson. We get to know the man behind the camera more this season, and come to understand not merely his personality — conveyed through Wilson’s excellent vocal performance as charmingly off-kilter, as well as open in a way that invites openness from his subjects — but his ambition and his fear. The Albany anecdote, in which Wilson has a close encounter with a widely-known monster of recent true-crime history, gives us a sense of Wilson’s observational skills, his stubbornness, and his flickering need for connection with others. An episode involving a terrible film Wilson made in his youth conveys, with depth and surprising power, the fear of not having created something worthwhile, of putting one’s energy behind something and coming up short.
It’s a powerful bit of tape, as is what Wilson ultimately decides to do with the remaining copy of that awful movie he made, a statement of powerful and abiding ambiguity. And that this is conveyed through understatement in the midst of an episode notionally “about” far more pragmatic questions is impressive. Wilson is a collage artist: Through found stories and intriguing counterpoint, he creates images whose power depends on juxtaposition. That he’s beginning to come into focus on the margins of the work he creates is a welcome thing. And that he’s found, in a time when the city very slowly re-emerged, stories to tell that touch on our need for connection without literally being about the COVID era is cause for celebration. The great joke of “How to” is that not merely does Wilson not know how to do any of the things he tries, he doesn’t even know how to learn how, getting sidetracked each time he tries. But what pulls him off the path each time are other people’s stories. What a solution to the fear of not creating: Bringing into the world a wealth of human experience that would otherwise have stayed hidden, in the parts of New York where the cameras don’t usually go.
Season 2 of “How to With John Wilson” debuts Friday, Nov. 26, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
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