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HBO's How To with John Wilson is anti-ambient TV, unlike many streaming shows

  • Recently, The New Yorker described shows like Emily in Paris as "ambient TV" -- shows distracted viewers can half-watch while surfing the web on their phones. "You can ignore this content for long stretches and not miss much," says Miles Klee. "The trend, I realized, could help to explain why even in a year I’ve largely been stuck at home, I can’t give a sh*t about 99 percent of TV. Nothing had hooked me, and the shows I went deeper on eventually turned frustrating. That changed when I discovered HBO’s How To with John Wilson over Thanksgiving week. Premiering only a few weeks after Emily in Paris, you might initially mistake it for another low-investment proposition: a bare-bones title, quiet music, cinéma vérité aesthetic, no conventional cast besides our host, and Wilson’s voice has a meek or hesitant timbre, almost like he’s embarrassed to be taking up any space. (It will remind you of Nathan Fielder from the docu-comedy series Nathan for You, who happens to be an executive producer here.) But, very quickly — should you keep the phone out of reach — you discover that How To is not really like any TV you’ve experienced before. It is a fascinating record of New York City in the 21st century, of human behavior generally and how the mundane commingles with the profound. When I recommend the show to friends, I tell them to learn as little as possible about it beforehand and dive right in — it’s that immersive. Should you need further encouragement, however, I’ll add that How To’s most radical choice is to eliminate the slack for an audience’s unfocused, wandering gaze. You cannot take your eyes away for a second, lest you miss an incredible piece of footage spliced into the episode."


    • John Wilson can't simply be described as a comedian or documentarian: "To call Wilson simply a 'comedian' seems unfair to his documentarian skills, which see him capturing the kind of city life that constantly plays out in the background but rarely gets such a spotlight," says Caroline Framke. "(Also, the actor Kyle McLachlan, seemingly unaware he’s being filmed, as he stoically tries and fails to swipe his metro card over, and over, and over again.) But to just call Wilson a 'documentarian' also undercuts how slyly funny he is, whether he’s musing on the origins of scaffolding or landing a punchline with pointed shots of shop awnings, oblivious passersby and/or trash bouncing by like urban tumbleweeds. (There’s a reason he counts Nathan Fielder as one of his executive producers.) New York City has been committed to film so many times before that it seems impossible to find any new way to portray it, and yet Wilson‘s eye keeps finding astonishing new avenues to go down, accurately depicting his home as a massive labyrinth of human life just as profound and mundane, disgusting and beautiful as its people."
    • How To is one of the funniest shows of 2020: "The show's strange appeal lies in Wilson's canny ability to switch between memoir and reportage: He arrives at larger poetic truths by grounding the work in his own observations," says Dan Jackson. "It's also really, really funny, finding situations that recall the best gasping-for-air, rewinding-because-you-missed-something moments of Sacha Baron Cohen's work."

    TOPICS: How To with John Wilson, HBO, John Wilson, Documentaries