How To With John Wilson

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The ShowHow To With John Wilson

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Independent filmmaker John Wilson takes his camera all over New York City and beyond in an attempt to “teach” the audience one thing per episode. (One episode is called “How to Make Small Talk”; another is about the best way to split the check at a restaurant during a group meal.)

Why It’s Essential Viewing: I put “teach” in quotation marks because these are not the types of purely instructional video you might find on YouTube. Instead, through Wilson’s dry narration, observational humor, and clever editing, the episodes feel more like immersive trips into his New York City experiences, which inevitably spin out into unpredictable scenarios that you never would have imagined.

Admittedly, How To With John Wilson is an acquired taste, and if you’re not on its wavelength, you may not make it through a single episode. But I was hooked by how the show’s primary source of humor comes from the juxtapositions in Wilson’s narration and the footage he chooses to showcase at certain moments. It’s a tough thing to explain, but this trailer comes close:

While that trailer might make it seem like it’s all about the zany misadventures of a New Yorker with a camera, that’s not entirely true. Yes, there are plenty of laughs that come from people doing strange things out in public, but at the end of the day, the show is actually more about human connection. While each episode begins with the host’s apparent intention to teach you something, the heart of the series is found in the tangents Wilson takes. In the small talk episode, he ends up taking a trip to Cancun and finds himself right in the middle of MTV’s Spring Break, where he meets a partying vacationer. After hanging out with this random guy off and on for a few days, the guy ends up revealing some surprisingly deep emotional truths about himself, subverting the title of the episode in the process.

All of the episodes have something like that: a connection forged under unlikely circumstances, with the specificity of these interactions pointing to some larger, more universal truth we can all relate to. It’s quietly brilliant stuff, and now that the surprisingly poignant season finale has aired, I hope enough people check this show out for HBO to justify bringing it back for a second season.

I’ll close with a brief and vague warning: the fourth episode contains a scene which you’ll probably wish you didn’t see. But I think the rest of the show, particularly the finale, has enough positive qualities to convince you to continue past that jaw-dropping episode four moment.

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