‘How To With John Wilson’ Reminds Us That People Don’t Always Suck

To state the obvious, we’ve all missed friends, family, and the rhythms of normal life during the pandemic. But while some of us have endured, canceling weddings or missing funerals, some have thrown massive house parties or flipped out over not getting a haircut. Millions have bought into dangerous anti-science attitudes and the idea that they should flout public safety guidelines with pride. No shared sacrifice from them, just sacrifice deferred or foisted onto others.

It’s hard to think about all of that and not be pissed, isn’t it? Not just for the immediate risk but for the worry that it might change how we look at people long term. You know, when things tip back toward normal (whenever and however that is). What’s the solution? Unsure, but it probably starts with trying to focus on the things about the human race that you find to be charming. And for me, that’s been a little easier thanks to HBO’s How To with John Wilson.

Created by documentarian John Wilson and produced by Nathan For You‘s Nathan Felder, the show is a six-episode patchwork exploration of seemingly pedestrian topics through micro-interactions with (mostly) New Yorkers. A triumph of editing what Wilson previously told us was a “psychotic” amount of footage, the show features a mix of the mundane and weird while aiming to get laughs from the absurdity of life and a cavalcade of strangers with unique personalities.

That’s how we wind up taking a bonkers tour of a kindly foreskin regrowth enthusiast’s home before witnessing his dork out review of the film Parasite. Or how we go from the stuffing aisle at a Stop & Shop with a software inventory expert to his office where he starts talking about the JFK assassination and The Mandella Effect. But foreskin guy was the most outrageous moment in a thought-provoking episode about our penchant for being over-precious about the things we love. And the Mandella Effect guy is a big part of an episode about memory. Clearly, How To with John Wilson wants to be defined by more than the funny moments that color the outside of its cereal box. It wants to be profound while talking about the history of scaffolding and launching into a thoroughly awkward exercise in small talk and making friends.

The season’s final episode is its richest and most heart-filled. It’s a story about the simple kindness of Wilson trying to say thank you to his elderly landlord with a loving attempt to make the perfect risotto. But it goes to an all too real place. Set against the early stages of the COVID outbreak in New York and New Jersey, reminders of the long lines, confusion, fear, and budding denial sting from nine months (and counting) down the road where it all got much bigger and more frightening than we could have imagined.

In the episode, Wilson realizes he might not have the chance to deliver the perfect gesture to his landlord when she’s rushed to the hospital after suffering a stroke in the midst of all this. The fragility of life, an immutable fact we (and certainly I) like to dance around, is made quite clear here. It’s a message that penetrates shields made tough by months of seeing rising numbers that, at once, mark the sick and dead and anonymize the loss.

I should add, at this point, that I don’t want to make it seem like How To is only great because of the bubble moment we’re in. That’s not the case. Frankly, we’ve been having trouble seeing each other for a long time. Well before COVID. We have a structural need for things like this that are fresh, real, strange, and, as such, unforgettable. Especially as we view and deal, more frequently, with other people through screens instead of out in the real world. Again, a problem before all of this.

How To with John Wilson is a lot of things but, primarily, it’s a testament to the virtues of openness and the charming quirks of human beings. It exists because Wilson is willing to look, listen, and live beside people as they reveal themselves to him and us. He wants to know what their story is, and because of that, I do too. And that’s a totally alien thing right now as we rush through this hellish moment, interacting with people in minor ways while in passing, always stressed, anxious, and sleepwalking to an extent. This show makes me miss people at a level I didn’t think possible while sat in my annoyance with them. The show is powerful, yes, but not as powerful as what it evokes in me — an openness of my own at a time when being closed off and even spiteful feels more natural but which, I know, is less good.

‘How To With John Wilson’ is streaming now on HBO Max.