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How To with John Wilson's Sports Episode Perfectly Sums Up the Show's Legacy

Wilson's alienation from sports culture transforms into a moving examination of why we love the things we love.
  • How to with John Wilson (Photo: Thomas Wilson/HBO)
    How to with John Wilson (Photo: Thomas Wilson/HBO)

    How To with John Wilson featured a sports episode earlier this summer, a no-brainer of an idea for the show's third and final season. Wilson's brand of elliptical awkwardness — seeking out the unusual and absurd angles to everyday life and poking at them until he arrives at something surprisingly wise or moving — seemed like an ideal vessel for investigating our culture's collective obsession with sports. But that approach also seemed destined to walk John Wilson down the path to "sportsball," which gave this particular sports fan reason to be wary.

    Like any incredibly popular thing, sports can be annoying. For people who don't particularly care for them, sports fans, sports discourse, sports attitudes, and sports media can be genuinely alienating. This is the position that Wilson takes as the episode "How To Watch the Game" begins. In his signature second-person narration, Wilson outlines the life of someone who doesn't care about sports living among not even hardcore sports fans but people who are just casually conversant in sports culture and bake sports viewing into their usual routines. John wants to learn how to become a real sports fan "so you can finally blend in with your friends."

    One popular method to combat the crush of sports culture has been to engage in a kind of purposeful obtuseness that is most frequently and annoyingly characterized by the use of the term "sportsball." You know what this is if you've ever spent any amount of time on social media. "I see everybody's mad about the sportsball tonight," someone will say when sports talk is happening. "Is [popular and Google-able discussion topic] a sportsball thing?" These are the people who spend Super Bowl Sunday loudly asking what time the Rihanna concert starts. It's a kind of overdetermination to make sure everyone knows that despite the prevalence of sports, the specifics are so very foreign to them. When John attends a New York Mets baseball game at the beginning of "How To Watch the Game," he's sportsballing hard. "This is the Mets, right?" he makes sure to ask the vendor who sells him a baseball cap.

    John's next big stop is the parking lot outside a Buffalo Bills football game. Full disclosure: the Bills are my football team, their collective success or failure is a significant undercurrent of my life, and I am unfortunately all too familiar with the jester-esque reputation that Bills fans have earned within sports culture, with their jumping through tables and throwing dildos onto the field during games. Not all Bills fans are like this, but the more extreme ones invite (and often earn) the scorn of "sportsball" people. I worried as I watched John Wilson poke around the Bills fans' tailgate party the same way you'd worry if a relative of yours was being interviewed on The Daily Show.

    Wilson doesn't exactly depict Bills fans as friendly, but he mostly holds them and their strange rituals (the ketchup-and-mustard people — there's no defending them) at a distance. "This seems like a paradise for people who actually care," Wilson notes, more alienated than ever. "It just felt like you were at a big family reunion where you didn't know anyone. And maybe you missed some kind of crucial formative moment when you were a kid." This wasn't glibness. This wasn't the performative ignorance of "sportsball." Wilson was beginning to dig a little deeper into his alienation from sports culture.

    It's here where the episode pivots into something more personal and more esoteric. He recalls the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues his dad would let him peruse, seemingly as a test to make sure John was straight (and which ironically got him so horned up that he fooled around with a male friend in middle school). "Maybe this is why you're like this," Wilson wonders, a sentiment that lies at the heart of just about every How To with John Wilson episode.

    A desire to clean his apartment in order to have people over for the big game is the pretext for the episode moving into its more byzantine second half, where John tumbles down the rabbit hole of vacuum cleaner enthusiasts. He starts at a vacuum cleaner repair shop, which in and of itself is a corner of the world that exists out of time: an old-school repair shop. This then leads Wilson to the "37th Annual Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club Convention" in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The collectors of and enthusiasts for vintage vacuum cleaners are truly John's people.

    "It was an exhilarating sight," Wilson says of a vacuum cleaner competition. "For the first time, you understood all the rules." The episode becomes a window into a strange and highly specific subculture. But the more you watch these vacuum collectors, with their encyclopedic knowledge of makes and models, that highly specific subculture starts to seem not dissimilar to hardcore sports fans, who are also known to collect memorabilia and possess arcane facts and figures in their heads. Earlier in the episode, John had returned from the rained-out Mets game to the home of a Mets superfan, who collects everything from memorabilia to VHS tapes of old games. That fan lived with his elderly father, the man who brought him to his first baseball game.

    This idea of sports fandom as something passed down in families is familiar to many sports fans. Wilson also finds it among the vacuum cleaner enthusiasts. "Everybody here has the same story," one collector says. "As a little kid, I was enamored with vacuum cleaners" The difference is, at some point this guy discovered that the thing he was so enamored with was embarrassing among his school friends. He didn't want to play basketball or baseball like the other boys; he wanted to play with his mom's vacuum cleaner.

    Now Wilson was hitting me where I lived, not just as a sports fan but as a gay sports fan. "I didn't like what the other boys liked" is as familiar a refrain as it gets for someone who grew up gay. There's a dissonance in having great love for the sports team you grew up cheering for while at the same time feeling the alienation of discovering you were still different from the other boys, no matter who you were cheering for. As a gay adult, sports fans are harder to come by in your social circles. Half of the people in those circles are doing "sportsball" tweets on Sundays instead of understanding why you're losing your mind over a Josh Allen interception.

    This is what happens when you watch How To with John Wilson. You end up taking a journey and ending up sitting with your own melancholy. The comfort is that John is taking his own journey alongside yours. In learning that most of the vacuum collectors seem to have a story about a mother or a grandmother who passed on this love of vacuum cleaners, Wilson is led to reflect on his own grandmother, to whom he was not as close as he'd have liked.

    In a most delicate and humane way, Wilson ends up connecting sports fans and vacuum cleaner enthusiasts together through their most fundamental attributes. The culture at large has elevated one significantly higher than the other, but the fanaticism has similar roots, in family and memory. These vacuum collectors are not simply tending to a collection of antique cleaning machines; they're tending to a garden of their own memories. Sports fans are doing something not entirely dissimilar.

    "Maybe it's okay if you don't like the same games everyone else does," Wilson says in summary. "Because the fewer fans that there are, the stronger the bonds are that you'll make." After feeling so alienated by the eccentricities and tribal rituals of a Buffalo tailgate party, Wilson was able to end this episode with a statement that should strongly resonate with any Buffalo Bills fan out there. It's the kind of magic trick that How To was able to pull off with every episode.

    The series finale of How To with John Wilson airs September 1 at 11:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: How To with John Wilson, HBO, Buffalo Bills, Football, NFL