When my children were younger, they loved a series of books by Laura Numeroff and illustrator Felicia Bond with titles like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Each book follows an animal along a series of random adventures where one thing leads to another (the cookie makes the mouse thirsty for milk), then another (the milk prompts him to check his reflection to see if he has a milk mustache), then another (he realizes his whiskers need a trim), until he inevitably, improbably returns to the moment it all started.
I have no idea if documentary filmmaker John Wilson read Numeroff’s books when he was a kid. But as I watched the six episodes of Wilson’s sometimes hilarious, often beautiful, perpetually odd new HBO docu-comedy series How to With John Wilson, the most comparable work of art I could think of was Mouse and its many sequels and spin-offs, including If You Give a Pig a Pancake and If You Give a Moose a Muffin.
Perhaps because Nathan Fielder is an executive producer, How to starts off a bit in the vein of his Comedy Central reality-show parody Nathan for You, as Wilson awkwardly interacts with everyday New Yorkers who happen to catch the fancy of him and his ubiquitous video camera. Everything is seen as Wilson shot it, meaning we only see his face in occasional reflections or photos. (His feet are a bit more prominent.) Every episode title promises a bit of practical advice — “How to Make Small Talk,” or “How to Cover Your Furniture” — and Wilson seems focused on each task, but only for as long as it takes for his attention to wander to someone he meets along the way.
When he braves a Meadowlands parking lot during Wrestlemania to practice his small-talk skills, for instance, Wilson asks one tailgater what he does for a living. “I catch child predators!” the man replies, and soon we are in his Pennsylvania home, as he allows Wilson to film him on an attempted sting. Eventually, this leads Wilson to vacation in Cancun — because what small-talk topic is safer than your recent vacation? — at a resort that turns out to be hosting MTV’s spring break coverage. This is agony for an introvert like Wilson. (Nor does the event conform to the rules of small talk he has already learned, as he laments: “And no one was wearing a shirt that I could comment on.”) And from there…
… Well, the challenge of writing about this show is that so much of the joy of it comes from the surprise. You never know what digression Wilson will follow next, or what the tone will be. The Cancun interlude is mostly played for big laughs, and then suddenly Wilson is having an extremely intimate and sad conversation with a fellow tourist who doesn’t quite fit in with the crowd, who just came to be within body-spray-sniffing range of DJ Pauly D. You’ll never be entirely clear how Wilson gets from Point A to Point J, yet each individual moment makes a startling amount of sense while you’re there. Yes, even the part where Wilson discusses Parasite with a middle-aged man who is naked from the waist down(*) to demonstrate [REDACTED].
(*) HBO is premiering episodes at 11 P.M. Eastern, which feels as much a concession to how much full-frontal male nudity there is in that one (and more briefly in another) as it does to the show’s fundamental strangeness.
More importantly, How to quickly reveals itself to be asking much deeper questions than the title of each episode suggests. The second installment, “How to Put Up Scaffolding,” does explain the individual parts of the urban architectural staple, but it’s really a rumination about how things designed to be temporary can end up as permanent parts of our lives. Wilson’s attempt in a later episode to improve his memory instead evolves into an examination of why the world seems increasingly inhospitable to basic reasoning. (It’s one of the best explanations of QAnon I’ve ever seen, even though it’s not about QAnon in the slightest.) Though Wilson is rarely visible, the show is in many ways a reflection on his own difficulty navigating the world without his camera as a trusty shield.
And the whole thing is an achingly gorgeous love letter to New York in the last months before Covid ground the city to a halt and perhaps irrevocably transformed it. More than even many complicated premium cable dramas, How to is a show that benefits enormously from devoting your full attention to it, rather than watching with a second screen. In this case, it’s because Wilson has taken the familiar concept of B-roll footage — establishing shots of buildings, neighborhoods, men and women on the street, etc. — and turned it into the best and funniest part of the series. The choices he, his editors (mostly Adam Locke-Norton, plus Tessa Greenberg on one episode) and his co-writers Michael Koman and Alice Gregory make in terms of what images accompany his narration, and how the two complement one another, is both masterful and hilarious. You will get far more amusement from the way the words and pictures work together than you will from scrolling Twitter as you watch. (The B-roll also features an absolutely magical, totally random celebrity cameo — no, it is not DJ Pauly D — that would be worth sitting through a half-hour even if the rest of the show weren’t so wonderful.)
Like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, each individual episode — and the season as a whole — somehow manages to take us back to where we started, despite the circuitous route. (The mouse eventually gets so thirsty from all the activity that he requests a glass of milk — and what better to accompany it than another cookie?) And the stunning finale somehow makes every detour feel like an essential part of the story Wilson was telling while we were busy being distracted by his capacity for distraction. How to is simultaneously delightful and baffling, until it all fits together perfectly, like that was the plan all along.
If you give a talented director a camera, he might make something great. John Wilson sure did.
How to With John Wilson premieres October 23rd on HBO. I’ve seen all six episodes.