Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom tells of an aspiring filmmaker who prowls the streets of London looking for women to murder. His weapon is a camera fashioned with a blade and a mirror that simultaneously kills the victim, records her final moments, and forces her to watch. Powell’s primary innovation was making use of the camera’s lens as the main point of view, putting the audience in the position of the killer. The effect’s gimmick is commonplace today, but it so revolted audiences and critics at the time of its release that it derailed Powell’s career.
At first glance, HBO’s How To with John Wilson would seem to have little to nothing in common with a proto-slasher. It is not a horror series, its titular host has no homicidal urges as far as I can tell, and its premiere in 2020 was acclaimed rather than condemned by critics. When it draws comparisons to anything, it is usually Fran Lebowitz’s Netflix series Pretend It’s a City. Yet at its base, it is difficult not to sense that a spirit of the film has been conjured from across six decades onto a new socially awkward documentarian with a keen eye for people-watching in the less than idyllic corners of a major city.
That spirit, to be sure, is greatly neutralized for the more innocent and appealing purpose of examining the manners and hazards of urban living in the 21st century. Each episode is centered on a single topic. The show’s first season covered making small talk, putting up scaffolding, splitting the check, covering furniture, improving your memory, and cooking risotto. The viewer is guided by Wilson’s stammering, earnest narration and his almost compulsively roving camera that provides an endless wealth of superbly edited b-roll footage. It is noteworthy that we only see his face incidentally in photos, mirrors, or through MTV cameras during spring break in Cancun. The viewer is otherwise dependent upon what Wilson thinks and sees, for good and maybe for less good.
The resulting tone and structure of How To is pure visual essayism. Wilson has a talent for staying on topic even as he digresses wildly from his central line of thought. The episode on small talk sees Wilson getting a sweater back from his ex-girlfriend, having a dismal conversation with a philosophy professor, and a more uplifting one with a wrestling fan in the parking lot of MetLife Stadium. The fan invites Wilson to his Pennsylvania home to watch him try and fail to ensnare potential sexual predators. In hopes of sorting out the fraught customs of check-splitting, Wilson consults with a shady accountant who implies he can write off anything he buys as a business expense if he films himself doing it. Next, he attends a dinner of soccer referees in Long Island hoping that it’s more well ordered than normal group dining, only to find it more fractious. An uncomfortable portion of the episode “How to Cover Your Furniture” is spent with an anti-circumcision activist who performs jingles for Wilson and demonstrates an invention that’s supposed to restore foreskin.
How To’s naive approach at first seems like an echo of Nathan for You, the host of which, Nathan Fielder, is How To’s executive producer. But where Nathan for You satirizes the hubris of the unqualified or inept expert, How To’s episodes are unified by a sincere preoccupation with the problems of communication and the struggle to adapt fully to the most recent standards of adulthood. Both themes are prominent in the second season premiere, in which Wilson considers buying the Queens brownstone he rents from his landlady for $900,000. He meets a mortgage broker and provides printed tweets praising his show as proof of continuance, which she rejects. Faced with the reality of having to become a landlord himself, he talks with an eviction service and a “land baron” on Second Life about the harsh demands of dealing with tenants. His solution, inspired by an encounter with a ventriloquist on the Staten Island Ferry, is a typical combination of the quirky and the grim.
John Wilson’s urban humor is hardly novel. It shares the same observational genetic code as Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, James Thurber, and Robert Benchley. It is how his show attains its relatability. But each version carries its own distinct style. Seinfeld was carried by a casual, self-defeating cynicism; Thurber by deadpan absurdity. Wilson’s style, though very direct on the surface, is more difficult to pin down. On the one hand, Wilson is attuned to the lower-grade eccentricities of New York City to an intense degree, especially those that linger among the shadows of the outer boroughs. His is the New York of the corner bodega, the VFW hall, the inadvertent exhibitionist, and the many less visible down-and-outers. On the other hand, Wilson’s own naive point of view has a double edge.
Like many people prone to outsider observation, Wilson can fly into oblivious breaches of decorum. While in Cancun for the series premiere, MTV crewmen castigate him for looking the wrong way in a concert crowd and standing out too much on camera. Other times, the breaches are more knowing. On the second season premiere, he touts sites such as Zillow for allowing him to be “a voyeur with no consequences,” an innocent enough comment that is contrasted by a scene later in the episode in which he is literally filming people’s apartments from outside their windows and gets caught doing so. There is also a cold precision in his on-the-street footage that all New Yorkers aspire to in the abstract while also being less enthused if they end up being subject to it with no context on a premium cable show. If the most committed misanthropes are usually those who are not fully aware of how misanthropic they are, there is a thrilling undercurrent in how John Wilson keeps you guessing. “It can be hard to keep a conversation in a safe zone,” he narrates, “when you’re filled with so much pain. But an expert small-talker will know how to suppress these emotions and appear stable.”
None of this is to suggest that this is altogether disadvantageous or objectionable. Visual essays, like verbal essays, are less about the information they impart than the authorial vision doing the imparting. No one vision is perfectly linear, and not every tone is predictable. Wilson may have the digressive tendencies of Montaigne, but his lyrical pathos and seductive charmlessness are closer to Rousseau of the Reveries. Even if Wilson is not the detestable innovator that Michael Powell was, the endearing and unnerving fluctuations of How To make it a fine template for when audiences want it darker.
Chris R. Morgan is a writer from New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @CR_Morgan.