In the trailer for “How To with John Wilson,” John Wilson admits that even HBO does not know what to call his new show.
Watching the first episode, you might think you have stumbled upon a show about an alien learning how to fit in with the human species, as he roams around New York City. As part documentary, part comedy, part scathing exposé into the tragic human psyche, the show refuses to adhere itself to any single genre.
Wilson, the show’s eponymous documentarian, carries a camera, a microphone and a certain naiveté as he journeys around the city holding on-the-spot interviews with fellow pedestrians. It is his naive personality that seems to make his subjects feel comfortable enough to let their guard down, and the result is a “Humans of New York”-type study of the many personalities that make up the incredible city.
At times, Wilson’s innocently curious nature creates these tense and uncomfortable moments people have come to associate with shows like “The Office” and “Nathan for You,” a show created by Nathan Fielder, the executive producer of “How To with John Wilson.”
For instance, when Wilson goes to buy a used rug that has “stress-related bloodstains” on it, he expects small talk about interior design. Rather, he gets an earful about the seller’s divorce. Unlike “Nathan For You,” there is no facade coercing these strangers to open up to him, but there is something about him that compels them to do so anyway.
The moment that best sums up the show’s premise comes in the premiere episode, during 20 seconds of airtime, showing “Twin Peaks” actor Kyle MacLachlan unsuccessfully attempting to swipe his card on a New York subway. It proves a moment of true humanity. Whether you are rich or poor, sometimes your metro card just will not scan.
As more than a documentary, the show acts as a living poetic statement about the microcosmic, universal qualities of the city. Wilson’s commentary is candid and noticeably unpolished as if he is directly telling you about his experiences.
“Most New Yorkers will put up with anything, as long as they know it’s temporary,” Wilson narrated over a shot of a performing artist playing an obnoxious guitar on the subway.
The observation is merely one of many in the show that is poignant, funny and empathetic, all at the same time.
“How To with John Wilson” is an example of how you can find enthralling stories everywhere, if you are willing to change your standards of what qualifies as interesting. For instance, the second episode starts out similar to a PBS documentary about city scaffolding, before a guy shows up and starts revealing to Wilson his sexual escapades that are somehow relevant to the episode’s theme.
Overall, the show plays out like a time capsule, documenting the strange human experiment that is New York City. Its characters are all of New York’s everyday people, including Wilson himself, who rarely appears on camera, as he seems to experience his own catharsis over the course of the first two episodes. This glimpse into the perception of one New Yorker ultimately pays off and the experience is rich and illuminating.