TV TATTLE

HBO's How To with John Wilson is sometimes hilarious, often beautiful and perpetually odd

  • The six-episode series from executive producer Nathan Fielder created by and starring John Wilson and his camera is at turns hilarious, poignant and disquieting as it reveals a profound humanity, says Alan Sepinwall. "Well, the challenge of writing about this show is that so much of the joy of it comes from the surprise. You never know what digression Wilson will follow next, or what the tone will be," says Sepinwall, adding: "The whole thing is an achingly gorgeous love letter to New York in the last months before Covid ground the city to a halt and perhaps irrevocably transformed it. More than even many complicated premium cable dramas, How To is a show that benefits enormously from devoting your full attention to it, rather than watching with a second screen. In this case, it’s because Wilson has taken the familiar concept of B-roll footage — establishing shots of buildings, neighborhoods, men and women on the street, etc. — and turned it into the best and funniest part of the series."

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    • How To is a "docu-comedy," but that term doesn’t do much to explain how weird and funny and sincere and idiosyncratic it is: "In some ways, it’s like a TV version of one of those cutesy gift books you might find in a guest bathroom, a series of aphoristic captions matched with photos of animals doing goofy things," says  Kathryn VanArendonk. "It’s a tightly matched combination of written narration and carefully selected clips, a partnership that dances back and forth between which piece is the setup and which is the punch line....Quickly, it becomes clear that How To with John Wilson is part scrapbook, full of tiny bits of footage Wilson happened to witness one day, and it’s also part memoir. Especially as the series goes on, Wilson gets more direct in the way he uses each episode’s theme to explore something happening in his own life."
    • How To is shockingly profound: "The goal of How To with John Wilson is not expertise or even proficiency," says Daniel Fienberg. "It's to illustrate a way of walking through the world with curiosity. His topics are fundamentally digressive, the questions that encourage him to leave his small apartment and to explore New York City or, occasionally, more exotic locations and bigger themes relating to humanity and human interaction. How does an interest in furniture covering, prompted by his barfing and destructive cat, relate to foreskin, and what does either say about our primal urge for self-protection and sheltering? Can a so-called 'memory palace' help you keep track of information you'd otherwise forget, and how does our insecurity about these ephemeral and fleeting links to our past relate to the phenomenon known as the Mandela effect? These are only the starting points for Wilson's free-associative journeys. How do these questions that begin as strange and not inherently interesting become universal? How To ultimately occupies a strange space between the partially scripted oddness of Nathan for You and the wholly scripted experimentation of Andy Daly's Review. That's a good place to occupy."
    • How How To is like Nathan for You: "There’s a rhythm to how Wilson peppers each of these tiny adventures with asides and little vulnerabilities, reassurances that this is mostly a set of small-scale daily dramas even if they come with the laughter of recognition," says Steve Greene. "Even if Nathan Fielder’s name didn’t pop up in the credits as an executive producer, there’s some noticeable shared DNA between How To and Nathan for You, the Comedy Central series that still stands as one of the best shows the last decade. Both shows take advantage of individuals’ inherent capacity to fill their time onscreen with a flurry of personal beliefs, unusual interests, and legitimately unexpected non sequiturs. That capacity for oversharing in How To never feels weaponized, though. Where Nathan for You was regularly astonishing as a Rube Goldberg high wire act (sometimes literally so), the storytelling forces guiding How To are far more subtle."
    • John Wilson says he's been shooting a "psychotic amount" of footage: "I can’t even give you a ballpark of how much material we shoot compared to how much of it makes it into the show," he says. "It is luck and it is a coincidence, and it’s just a numbers game. The more you shoot, the more once-in-a-lifetime stuff you’re going to capture. I’ve been just shooting every single day for the past couple of years for the show. I haven’t even stopped since we were technically wrapped. It’s just a rolling thing that happens, and I also have a team of second unit people that are just roving the city in multiple boroughs every single day during the production, just capturing as much as they possibly can. They may be out for a whole day and end up with one usable shot. But that is enough for the show. Or they could capture something else incredible. But I mean, I shoot about three-quarters of the show, and then the other quarter is more B-roll stuff."
    • Executive producer Nathan Fielder, whom Wilson refers to as his "Fairy Godfather," says of Wilson's work: “As someone who doesn’t live full-time in New York, you start to understand the city through what you see on TV and in movies. His New York is the one no one bothers to show, or is too bland or too upsetting or dirty to show.” Wilson, for his part, worried his show would become "aggressively dated" premiering amid the pandemic. “New York City is the best character — it’s constantly renewing itself, constantly regenerating itself, losing itself,” Wilson adds. “It makes me want to film as much of it as I can before it disappears.”

    TOPICS: How To with John Wilson, HBO, Nathan for You, John Wilson, Nathan Fielder, Coronavirus, Documentaries




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