How To with John Wilson may be the most New York show ever, and in its third and final season (premiering July 28), it continues to express its effusive love for the city that never sleeps and, by extension, the diverse people who live in it. It also remains one of the most inventively personal, surprising and odd series to ever get a broadcast deal, much less one with HBO, which—between this and executive-producer Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal—has firmly staked its claim as the mainstream home of unconventional outsider comedy.
Wilson’s show has a simple set-up: each episode follows the comedian/filmmaker around the five boroughs as he looks into the best way to do something ordinary, be it (to name a few of his prior topics) remembering your dreams, investing in real estate, making small talk, or splitting a check. Wilson wryly narrates these installments, whose footage either focuses explicitly on him as he goes about his inquires, or is around-town material that he’s shot during the course of what must be daily jaunts through the streets, subways, stores and assorted nooks and crannies of his beloved metropolis. Part helpful guide, part sociological survey, and part intimate biography, it’s at once confessional and universal, as well as slyly profound, since Wilson’s superficial silliness always belies his true philosophical interests.
How To with John Wilson’s third go-round doesn’t deviate from its template, with Wilson tackling a variety of subjects to which almost anyone can relate—and which are particularly germane to New Yorkers. That begins with the small-screen auteur’s analysis of the best means of finding a public city bathroom. Wilson visits a variety of toilets and washrooms in and around New York, many of them in scary disrepair, all while providing a brief overview of the history of such locales and the neglect into which they fell starting in the 1970s. He finds one Brighton Beach spot that’s lovingly maintained by a woman at her own cost, hangs out in a self-cleaning stall (including while it’s in sanitizing mode), tours a waste management facility, and embarks on impromptu journeys to other states with strangers, discovering multiple unusual restrooms in the process.
How To with John Wilson doesn’t proceed according to any predictable strategy; Wilson sets out with one goal in mind and then allows himself to be swept up by (or seizes opportunities for) unforeseen detours and changes of direction. Point A and point B are rarely connected by a straight line, and point C is usually a good distance away from both, and yet the magic of the show is that—thanks to canny writing by Wilson, Michael Koman and Allie Viti—it reliably unites its disparate ideas into a coherent thematic whole. Its premiere, for example, opens and closes with toilets, and in-between, it touches upon the alternately tense and harmonious relationship between public and private spaces as well as the link between preparations for doomsday and relieving one’s bowels. Its humor comes, in large part, from the unexpected manner in which Wilson cohesively ties everything together—a byproduct of his perceptiveness, wit, and intuition.
Also key to How To with John Wilson’s comedy is Wilson’s gift for juxtaposing droll, nasally narration (occasionally punctuated by throat clearing and burps) with the myriad snapshots from his urban excursions. In this season’s second episode, “How To Clean Your Ears,” Wilson talks about how when problems are neglected, there’s no telling what might be found inside one’s ears—a quip that’s matched with a broad-daylight clip of construction workers opening a sidewalk grate, dropping it down below, and pulling a man out of the subterranean area. Those sorts of laugh-out-loud funny moments are amplified by Wilson’s corny gags, such as discussing “losing your cool” over the image of a “Kule” nameplate, or pairing the ears episode’s title with the sight of dozens of ears of corn.
It’s clear that Wilson deliberately sought out some of these shots and randomly stumbled upon others, and that mixture of the purposeful and the accidental is central to How To with John Wilson. Whether it’s a conversation about the difficulty of living with noisy roommates that’s combined with visuals of Wilson taping up a public restroom’s glory hole, or a clip of a NYC pedestrian and driver profanely screaming and spitting at each other that’s followed by Wilson’s trip to a West Virginia “quiet zone” that’s free of cell service and other electronic interference, the show constantly makes associations that are as unanticipated as they are inspired. At the same time, though, it knows how to be straight-up goofy and self-deprecating, as when the unathletic and physically unimposing Wilson (in “How To Work Out”) relays that his latest endeavor has caused him to spend all his usual filming time on “making gains.”
How To with John Wilson is weird and absurd and, beneath its surface, it’s additionally thoughtful and serious. Its episodes double as ruminations on truth and deception (in storytelling, and life), the desire for approval and the need for self-acceptance, and—in a stunning chapter on sports—the bonds between families and communities. There’s simply no telling which way Wilson is going to veer. Consequently, ruining the twists in store for audiences would be borderline unforgivable.
Still, it’s spoiling nothing to say that he routinely finds novel avenues to explore and thrilling correlations to make, none better than a finale about “How To Track Your Package” that goes from the simple to the sublime to surreal to the outright shocking (to put it mildly!) in service of an amusing treatise on the paths we’re on, the things we want, the fears that drive us, and the legacies we leave.
Wilson has willingly chosen to end How To with John Wilson with this third season, and one hopes that—like his collaborator Fielder, who concluded his Comedy Central cult hit Nathan for You in order to concentrate on crazier projects—he has even grander plans for the future. If HBO is smart, they’ll keep him in the fold, just as New Yorkers will always hold him in the highest esteem.
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