The HBO series How To with John Wilson excavates bizarre minutiae of contemporary life to illuminate a confounding time. By Patrick Marlborough.

How To with John Wilson

A man films a busy city street from the footpath.
John Wilson in a scene from season three of How To with John Wilson.
Credit: Binge / HBO

In the first episode of the third and final season of How To with John Wilson, HBO’s offbeat POV documentary series created by the titular John Wilson, a man shows “you” – this is how Wilson addresses himself and his viewers – where he’s been dumping plastic bags filled with his excrement ever since the sewerage main on his street broke.

Next minute, “you” are in his off-grid campervan parked on an abandoned industrial backstreet asking why, among other things, there is a giant pile of condoms on his bed. He tells “you” the “girl brings them” but he doesn’t use them because he has no girlfriend. A moment later, “you” are standing with him on the street as he and another man discuss society’s inevitable collapse and how they will be the only people equipped to survive it.

This is the midpoint of an episode about Wilson’s frustrations with the lack of public toilets in New York City, which eventually leads him to Burning Man, an abandoned missile silo and finally the upscale underground bunker built for United States leaders in the event of nuclear war. All this, in the quest for a decent rest room.

This show is difficult to describe to the uninitiated. Part documentary, part video essay, part internal monologue, part observational montage, part attempt to decode the confusing lives we live in this alienating and atomised age, part human zoo, How To with John Wilson is an attempt to understand this confounding time in history by capturing a million little moments.

With his ever-watchful camera, Wilson hoards these moments like one of his subjects hoards military rations. As meditative as it is hyperactive, and as moving as it is gut-bustingly funny, the series presents us with bizarre snippets of life and the characters who live in them and spins them into something beautiful: a celebration of the oppressively banal and the ludicrously batshit.

His menagerie of kooks, cucks and cookers can sometimes feel like one-off gag characters from an early episode of The Simpsons. But Wilson is never cruel to his subjects, asking them questions that are closer to those of a curious child being shown around a UFO by an off-putting but genuinely passionate alien.

The effect of these miniature portraits, these strings of situations and witnessings, is as jarring as it is epiphanic. A scene from the show’s second season is among the most startlingly moving moments of television I’ve ever seen. We are introduced to a small community of devotees of James Cameron’s Avatar. We watch them lay out a table of blue foodstuffs, rewatch their favourite film for the umpteenth time, compliment the quality of its CGI kiss scene and converse with each other in Na’vi.

It is unreal and undeniably hilarious. But suddenly these would-be Jake Sullys begin talking about their grief regarding the gap between the beauty of Avatar and their own lives. A young man who barely looks a day over 18 describes, as his voice begins to break, his struggle with abuse, neglect and suicidal ideation, and how the oldest man in the group pulled him out of that cycle with kindness, love and a shared passion for the world of Pandora.

It is a deft reversal on the audience. Any superiority or mockery you might entertain for this gathering of harmless dorks vanishes as you are confronted with the heart-rending truth of the universal longing for love, acceptance and wonder. Wilson consistently pulls this reversal without condescension or judgement – it’s not so much a confrontation as it is a consideration, and he’s asking himself – “you”, remember – as he asks us, the viewers, what we find laughable about others’ lives, and why.

Wilson enters these people’s lives like an oddball Columbo, using his camera to lower their guard and “one more thing”-ing his way into confessions and performances that would leave even that unflappable detective’s mouth agape. One episode sees Wilson/us being lectured by a wildly energetic foreskin rights activist, who soon has Wilson “admiring” the foreskin-tugging device he’s designed to help regrow that which he misses most, which he demonstrates for us in a scene best described as memorable. In another, Wilson drifts uninvited into the mansion of an energy drink baron in Florida, midway through what appears to be the man’s wife’s birthday. But instead of being asked to leave, Wilson finds himself on a guided tour of the mansion, receiving life-hack hints from this bleach-toothed, fake-tanned guarana kingpin.

Wilson’s response to being made privy to what are potentially the weirdest happenings on the planet is typically a deadpan “oh, wow”, which is as close as he gets to a catchphrase – or a prayer. Soon, you come to appreciate it as the only honest response to a man who shows you around the abandoned missile silo he’s slowly been converting into a home for his family, at great cost to his relationship with his wife. Or to watching a man set up a hail cannon in his backyard in rural New Jersey, despite the complaints of his neighbours.

What connects Wilson, his city, the characters within it and the show, is the ever-present loneliness of modern living – the discomforting sense that we are isolated, together. Wilson seems desperate to be our connective tissue, pulling a raven’s nest of stolen moments and street scenes together as if it may present a solution to whatever it is that keeps us all apart. Wilson’s New York is often melancholic and grotesque, a madhouse of lost souls unstuck in an environment that itself seems increasingly soulless. This is best exemplified by his visit to Hudson Yards and the notorious “Vessel” – sometimes described as New York City’s gigantic public art failure and a suicide hotspot – in this most recent season. Wilson begins each episode with “hey, New York” and continues in earnest to plead with its denizens, himself and his viewers for a greater appreciation for community, and for who and what it includes.

Episodes often end with Wilson taking his message to the streets with small acts of rebellion. He walks around a supermarket replacing stickers and packaging with his preferred “Mandela effect” alternatives; he opens a laundromat-style business but for ovens; he builds a replica of Hudson Yards’ Vessel out of the piss-filled bottles that litter a megalopolis all but devoid of public toilets.

Like the fanboys yearning to witness the unreal beauty of Pandora, Wilson desires to witness the unreal beauty lurking beneath the madness and ugliness around him. With his camera, he gets to excavating it and, like a man trying to regrow his foreskin with nothing but gravity and a painful device, hopes he can undo some of what he – and we – have lost in the process. Every now and again he succeeds, and so do we – that is, you. And in those unearthed moments, we get to step back, clear our throats and mumble: “Oh… wow!” 

Season 3 of How To with John Wilson is now showing on Binge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Beautiful grotesqueries".

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