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Video, film & new media

How To With John Wilson raises the video tutorial to poetic heights

The HBO “docu-comedy” series brings an absurdist view to everyday city life

How To With John Wilson Photo: Courtesy of HBO

In the opening scene of the HBO documentary series How To With John Wilson, the Manhattan skyline appears just beyond an overflowing dumpster. A voice speaks over the image, “Hey, New York,” says the film-maker John Wilson, the all-in-one cameraman, narrator, interviewer, director and star. The episode is titled “How to Make Small Talk”, and Wilson continues his narration in a halting, nervous voice, as spliced together clips from years of his street footage begin to roll on the screen: “Small talk is the glue that binds us all together, and the armor that shields us from each other’s darkest thoughts.”

This mixing of high and low, with Wilson’s heady, bathos-like humour, is a consistent texture of the series. The footage itself has a somewhat surreal quality to it, as countless hours of Wilson’s filming come together in six short episodes to capture moments that are both entirely mundane and subtly spectacular, and it is through an unpretentious juxtaposition of smartly edited street scenes and Wilson’s committed narration that a kind of video art magic is born.

Wilson honed his superpower after years spent walking around New York City with his camera. He first began shooting scaled-down versions of these off-kilter tutorials in 2010, and gained a cult following when he started uploading them to Vimeo. Now, his idiosyncratic life advice comes to premium television, unfolding over half a dozen roughly half-hour episodes in this first season (the series has already been renewed for a second), with titles such as “How to Improve Your Memory”, “How to Split the Check”, and “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto”.

Billed as a “docu-comedy”, the hybrid genre hardly suffices to prepare the viewer for the odd, earnest poetics of the show. Throughout the series, it becomes immediately clear that Wilson is willing to go to great lengths to find the answers to each episode’s titular question. In “How to Make Small Talk”, chatting with a travel agent about past relationships escalates into Wilson purchasing a roundtrip package to Cancún, where he further mines the inquiry. It also becomes apparent that each “How To” topic, though trivial at first blush, proves to be cosmically significant, tugging at the very fabric of how we live our lives. “Figuring out what we owe each other is one of the most challenging parts of living in a healthy society,” Wilson says at the start of “How to Split the Check”. The third episode, “How to Put Up Scaffolding”, opens with: “Everyone in New York is going to die, but sometimes the city tries to stop that from happening.” Each topic becomes a platform to examine our most fundamental desires for human connection and our attempts to fit into the world, and every episode finds the quotidian backdoors through which we express our overwhelming—if often muted—desire to love and be loved.

Among the scores of clips spliced into the show, we get images of a woman stuffing a live pigeon into a plastic shopping bag, a skunk trapped in an ATM booth, Kyle MacLachlan struggling to swipe his metrocard, and a slew of other subtle oddities that make city living what it is. This honest depiction of New York, Wilson’s treatment of every individual he encounters as a dignified wealth of mystery, and the show’s ability to excavate the poetry of it all, will probably make many viewers yearn for the goodness of pre-pandemic urban life. The show’s filming did, however, butt up against the outbreak of Covid-19, which (spoiler alert) becomes a key factor in the season finale.

In that final episode, we find Wilson attempting to cook risotto for his elderly Italian landlord who serves as a maternal figure in his life, regularly doing his laundry and making him dinner. “She’s the only person in my life that I never vape around,” he admits. Towards the mid-way point of the episode, he notices that every news station is talking about the same thing: a virus that has spread to New York, and the recent occurrence of the city’s first reported death from it. When Wilson steps out to purchase the risotto ingredients, he finds that all the grocery stores have been entirely picked over.

“You might start to read a lot about how elderly people are at the greatest risk of being sick, and you might get scared of passing anything between you, so for the first time in years, you do your own laundry at the laundromat down the street,” he narrates. “But while you’re there, you might find out that everyone has to stay home for a while,” he adds, as the camera zooms into a laundromat television set to the local news, with the chyron Gov. Murphy Signs Executive Order NJ Residents To Stay Home. “We’re all going to have to figure it out together,” he says as he explores the sudden, all-encompassing disequilibrium brought on by the virus, “and right now, we’ve got nothing but time.”

• How to With John Wilson is now streaming on HBO Max