At this point, it’s practically mandatory for any show set in New York to open with shots of landmarks like the Empire State Building, Central Park, or a row of honking yellow taxis in rush hour traffic. Anything quickly recognizable will suffice, as long as it represents life in the big city. (Looking for arty vibes? Search no further than Washington Square Park.) HBO’s docuseries How to With John Wilson doesn’t break from this tradition. In addition to a montage of New Yorkers on the street scored to tinkling jazz, How to gives us a shot of the World Trade Center, gleaming upwards from Lower Manhattan. There’s a key difference in how creator John Wilson shoots this image, though, one that reveals his off-kilter perspective. Instead of zooming overhead, he positions the World Trade Center in the background. Front and center instead: a grungy dumpster.
An opening that juxtaposes New York’s iconography with its garbage could look a tad obvious, like knockoff Banksy. But How to With John Wilson is one of the most consistently surprising shows on TV—original, not derivative. That early shot is as close to an easily-digestible statement of purpose as the show makes. Its brisk 25-minute installments are framed as tutorials, with the Queens-based Wilson carting his camera around the city attempting to learn how to accomplish various tasks by talking to people he encounters. (“How to Put up Scaffolding” and “How to Cover Your Furniture” are two episode titles.) These episodes aren’t instructive as much as wildly digressive; Wilson allows his chance encounters to unspool into intimate connections with strangers, often venturing into their homes as they divulge their pet projects, theories, and passions. The point is that no one ever knows what they’ll discover when they start asking questions. When he was younger, Wilson worked as a private investigator, and his output has a voyeuristic undercurrent. He’s brilliant at capturing public glimpses of private lives.
The elevator pitch for How to With John Wilson could’ve been something like “Nathan for You meets Humans of New York,” especially since Nathan Fielder serves as an executive producer and the show’s most high-profile champion. Nathan for You, which ran for four increasingly artful seasons on Comedy Central, was also hard to explain—it was a prank show, sort of, that satirized reality television and American business ethics. Fielder hosted in character, convincing real entrepreneurs to carry out ridiculous stunts meant to attract new customers.