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Perspective | HBO’s ‘How To with John Wilson’ turns the mundane into a miracle


With his HBO docu-comedy series “How To with John Wilson,” the titular filmmaker lived every creator’s dream: He got to decide when his television show would end. It is somewhat of a miracle that it aired at all.

As corporate interests increasingly dictate the art we consume, “How To” takes a risk by focusing on the humdrum of everyday life. And yet it endured for three seasons, a run that now exists amid the flashier offerings of the HBO (er, Max) streaming library as proof that we need not always escape to the fantastical. Sometimes, the world around us can provide the reprieve we seek.

The show follows the curiosity of Wilson, a New York City resident looking for advice on ordinary subjects such as improving your memory or watching a sports game. Nothing turns out the way you would expect. The first journey leads him to a conference in Idaho on the Mandela effect. The second, which begins at a baseball stadium, ends at a Pennsylvania convention for vacuum cleaner collectors.

Among the vacuum aficionados, Wilson encounters a poignant father-son story — the sort you might hear from a baseball fan: A middle-aged man with a basement full of machines gestures to a yellow Dyson that he was given by his deceased father, whom he buried the previous weekend. It is just one of many common denominators Wilson uncovers in his episodic quests for knowledge. What is asking for advice, after all, if not a manifestation of some universal desire to better ourselves? “How To” has thrived for three seasons by capturing the sheer humanity of even the smallest and strangest of interpersonal interactions.

The series finale aired Friday night, capping a show that largely consists of Wilson, who calls himself an “anxious New Yorker,” making dry, nasally observations out loud while walking around town with a handheld camera. He doesn’t usually appear onscreen. His show became a personal essay, a gentle reminder that we could all stand to stop and smell the roses every once in a while.

This might require extra effort in New York, a city also known for its pervasive trash stench. But “How To” understands that you can catch a whiff of both smells at the same time. During Wilson’s narration, which carries viewers from one interview to the next, the show splices together different scenes of city life. A shot of two business owners joining forces to bleach a urine-drenched sidewalk is somehow … heartwarming? Look at what we can accomplish together.

“How To” was produced by Nathan Fielder, who established a reputation for observing the oddities of human behavior while parodying a business consultant in his Comedy Central docu-reality series “Nathan For You.” While Fielder is a character in his show, Wilson acts as a conduit for viewers. He narrates in the second person — always “you,” rarely “I.” His inquisitive approach to strangers presents a point of view, but he responds as many of us would to circumstances so bizarre they almost seem contrived. Ultimately, he is just some guy.

But every guy is just some guy, as an old friend of mine once reminded me. What does it mean for Wilson to frame himself as an everyman? By the third season, he turns his gaze on himself, noting that some viewers have sought proof that he concocted some of the outlandish scenarios. Even late night host Jimmy Kimmel couldn’t believe Wilson, a guest on his show, could have actually been invited to a Mandela effect conference by a stranger he met at the grocery store. Wilson might have, once or twice, staged a scene based on a real memory — say, watching a toilet overflow in an online video. Does that make the imitation less significant? Does the reconstruction of spontaneity deny our earnest reactions any weight?

The series builds to these hefty questions, asked of the fake broken toilet and, later on, a car set aflame. The finale reckons with the very notion of what it means to be alive (while Wilson is supposed to be learning how to track packages, naturally). Like each individual episode, “How To” takes a long, winding path to highlight a simple truth: We are all just bumbling around until our eventual deaths. But it’s nice to know we can find — or create — meaning along the way.


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