A few days before the third and final season of “How To With John Wilson” premiered on HBO, its creator and star received an unexpected call. New York City Mayor Eric Adams was planning to hold a press conference to discuss the problem of scaffolding hanging over sidewalks around the city, and Wilson was invited to speak at it. Fans of Wilson’s fun, low-key approach, which takes the form of discursive audiovisual essays on the idiosyncrasies of New York City life, will recall that the second episode of Season 1 of 2020, “How to Scaffold,” deals precisely with this topic before catapulting into deeper ideas about the personal impact of protective measures on everyday life.
The call was a testament to the insightful way in which Wilson’s show extracts deep and poetic truths from seemingly ordinary objects and people lost in their routine. However, his reaction shows how little Wilson – who is seen more than heard on the show as he narrates it in the third person – avoids the limelight. “I declined because I didn’t want to be asked to take a picture with Eric Adams,” Wilson said over lunch in Williamsburg this week. He laughed, realizing that he might feel differently if he needed material for a fourth season. “The episode will be called ‘How to Get the Key to the City,'” he said. “Even though it’s a semi-satirical show, it’s surreal to see the impact it’s had in the real world.”
Among HBO’s slew of expensive hits in recent years, How To With John Wilson has stood out as one of the best offerings in part because its formula offers endless possibilities. Wilson’s ability to go from ridiculous to sublime in less than 30 minutes is a peerless, cost-effective approach to prestige storytelling that feels like a hidden gem in an era of overhyped must-see television.
Blending a dense collection of B-roll with introspective conversations and philosophical aspects, the show continues to reveal its understated strengths as it moves along. One can imagine the 35-year-old maintaining this routine for decades, pouring every moment of his life into another light shot, not unlike the way the late film diarist Jonas Mekas continued to chronicle the counterculture of New York on a small camera into his nineties. So why is Wilson throwing in the towel after three short years?
The decision was clear to him as he made his way through Season 2 and the show’s fan base grew. “It’s weird,” he said. “I felt like my insides hadn’t really changed, but my outside world had. It was just this realization that I had. I wasn’t quite sure what I was after anymore.”
The irony of that statement is that every episode of How To With John Wilson loses its way by design. Wilson and his small team of writers start with fairly straightforward titles that can lend themselves to unexpected destinations. The Season 1 finale, “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto,” opens with the title’s purpose before morphing into a surprising and powerful meditation on the impact of COVID on life in New York. How to Cover Your Furniture somehow ends with a graphic look at a man trying to stretch his pierced foreskin. Season 2 of How to Appreciate Wine takes a surprising detour from his encounter with a sex cult in college and culminates with an unexpected visit to the mansion of a millionaire charlatan who makes an energy drink. “How to Be Spontaneous” takes him on a strange road to Las Vegas. At times, it can feel as if watching How To John Wilson is akin to a first-person variation on The Truman Show, as viewers become immersed in its peculiar and ever-absorbing trajectory.
Yet that itself became more of a challenge for Wilson, he said, as he struggled to immerse himself in the work rather than create it for preexisting expectations. “I don’t regret anything I’ve ever put on the show,” he said. “But sometimes when I’m doing episodes, I have to stop for a second and understand my personal life to give it a new direction that shines a light on a part of it that I couldn’t imagine before.” Listening to him talk through his process, it’s clear that Wilson invested so much intellectual and emotional energy into each episode that starting from scratch to make a new one could have grown more daunting over time.
The show’s success didn’t make things any easier. “I don’t want to sound like I’m crying,” Wilson said. “It was great. I like the platform I have. It’s a dream come true. I just thought it would feel different. Asked how he thought he would feel, he took a long pause. Finally he said, “I don’t know. Just different. It was just a thought I had after a while, “Okay, what’s next?”
The answer to this question has yet to materialize. “I hope I can do something as ambitious again,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if I can surprise people.”
This seems inevitable. Wilson stumbled upon his first show from an unlikely direction after making an unreleased 18-minute short in 2016, “Los Angeles Plays New York,” which chronicled the time he and his friends pranked on the courtroom TV show “Hot Bench ‘, getting their fictional case on the show. For legal purposes, “Los Angeles Plays New York” could never be broadcast, a result that Wilson weaves into the episode with his now-familiar brand of daily insight. Deadpan comics maestro Nathan Fielder saw the short and used it to make the case to HBO to greenlight the series. (Fielder remained an executive producer on the show for its duration.)
Like Fielder, Wilson does a great job of creating a mysterious tone between winking at the audience and forcing them to take it at face value. “It’s like that moment where you try to stop giggling and get serious,” Wilson said. Wilson also shares Fielder’s enigmatic approach to storytelling, in that it’s never entirely clear how much of what we see has been set up beforehand. “At the end of the day, however it’s constructed, it’s how you like it,” he said.
Season 3 finds Wilson expanding his tapestry with even more confidence and vision than before. A tongue-in-cheek look at the lack of public bathrooms around the city ends with a hilarious commentary on The Vessel, New York’s most grotesque tourist attraction. His experience cleaning his ears sends him on a journey to the quietest community in the country. After sneaking a camera at the Emmy Awards, he realizes that no professional success can compare to his experience in this field. As usual, he doesn’t so much make fun of the eccentrics he meets as interact with them. Trying to understand the obsession of sports fanatics leads him to a convention for vacuum cleaner collectors. “I love these guys so much,” Wilson said with a smile.
The series finale takes more than a few twists and turns before it gets to an organ convention — and then, a gathering of people committed to cryogenically freezing themselves after they die. Highlighting one of them, Wilson ends up in a shocking conversation with an old man about his tragic, lonely past, before our hero returns to the town where he belongs. It’s a transcendent finale with a surprising punch. Although each episode ends with Wilson thanking viewers for tuning in, the climax features an altered send-off: “Thanks for watching my movies,” he says.
Reflecting on this change, Wilson said, “I feel like we’ve made 18 really amazing movies over the course of the series. They happen to be about 28 minutes long, they air every week on HBO, but I’ve always thought of them as more movies than TV, even though we had the limitations of TV.”And if he’s made 18 movies in three years, who can blame him , that he took a break?
In any case, the limitations of How To With John Wilson reflect a key aspect of the show’s identity, as it depicts a seemingly everyman who navigates his way through a claustrophobic universe of rules in a never-ending quest for clarity. This struggle is endemic to the New York experience. “A lot of times I see people tweeting about the show as proof that New York is a shithole,” Wilson said. “But I’ve also been approached by a bunch of people who said they’ve moved to New York because on the show. It’s such an intense feeling for me. I hope people are attracted to the right aspects of the city and preserve its identity rather than contributing to the constant mess of things.”
Wilson may seem affable enough to convince his audience to believe whatever he tells them, but in person it’s obvious that he’s sincere. He pauses mid-sentence and clears his throat at awkward intervals, just like he does in his voiceover, and he carries around a vintage miniDV camera so he can periodically record small details throughout his day, whether or not he ends up using them . Question his process all you want, but there’s no doubt that in How To With John Wilson, John Wilson is playing himself. “It’s a strange feeling that people around the world have seen the show,” he said. “My world is very small.”
How To With John Wilson Season 3 premieres Friday, July 28 on HBO and is available on Max.