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How to Explain the World

John Wilson’s HBO docuseries is the first of its kind—a stunningly successful encapsulation of the sad, profound, and bizarre ways of 2020 life

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The episode is titled “How to Put Up Scaffolding,” and ostensibly, that’s what it’s about. Cameraman/documentarian/amateur sociologist John Wilson explores the history of the temporary metal staging found throughout most major American cities. In Wilson’s hometown of New York, there are roughly 280 miles of it—it obscures landmark buildings and views from windows; it provides protection for a group of men John sees playing backgammon daily; it serves as a prop in one man’s retelling of a sexual encounter in Hawaii. In Wilson’s mind, however, the scaffolding comes to represent deeper ideas—ones about safety and mortality; commitment and impermanence. Is it a crucial part of a city’s fabric? It can be, when dressed with fake vines or other decorations. Can it be art? When Wilson finds a museum exhibit built around scaffolding, the answer appears to be yes. “I guess it doesn’t take much to transform such a common object into something extraordinary,” Wilson deadpans.

That quote could double as a thesis statement for How to With John Wilson, the excellent HBO series that concluded its six-episode first season on Friday. Directed and narrated by Wilson—and executive produced by Nathan for You’s Nathan Fielder—the show follows a simple structure: In each half-hour episode, Wilson begins with a simple question, then trains his camera on his surroundings to find an answer while allowing the journey to take him where it may. Along the way, he meets a collection of oddball strangers who contain more wisdom than they’re aware of, while using the encounters to tackle bigger questions than he initially set out to. He wants to know how to make better small talk; he soon finds himself on a beach in Cancún talking about loss and escapism with a wayward MTV Spring Break attendee. He wants to learn how to improve his memory; before long, he’s attending a Mandela effect convention in Idaho contemplating the very nature of reality. An episode about splitting the bill becomes a referendum on fairness and a glimpse into the world of amateur refereeing. One about how to stop his cat from destroying his furniture becomes a meditation on control and materialism.

How to is billed as a comedy, but that misses the mark of what it truly is. Mostly, it’s a stunning act of documentary filmmaking. Wilson, who began the series as a collection of Vimeo shorts before linking up with Fielder, says that he spent two years collecting the footage that would make it into the show. Those thousands of hours of video are trimmed into small vignettes—a style he says he became obsessed with during his first job out of college when he worked for a private investigator distilling recordings to their “most incriminating moments.” At times, the clips on the show are played for laughs, like when a man strolls down the street with a Pomeranian draped on his head. At others, they’re morbid, like the police picking up a cardigan from a puddle of blood or paramedics dropping a corpse as they carry it out of a brownstone. But there’s a lyrical nature to the way Wilson deploys the footage as he narrates each episode. When he mentions how people often camouflage their true feelings, he shows a man hiding behind a shrub. As he talks about “things beginning to accumulate,” the camera sticks on a woman covered in at least a half-dozen pigeons. These are real people behaving naturally in the shadows. It’s the American Beauty plastic bag scene for 30 minutes, except the bag is dog shit, skunks trapped in ATM booths, and Kyle MacLachlan futilely swiping his MetroCard for 14 full seconds.

There are stark reminders of the Before Times throughout How to’s run, which was filmed almost entirely before COVID-19 hit America. That begins with the episode titles: “How to Make Small Talk” harkens back to the days before social distancing and Zoom Thanksgivings; the idea that sparked “How to Split the Check” seems frivolous now as restaurants shutter across the country. But there’s something visceral about watching Wilson interact with his surroundings. He stands in crowds, chats up strangers, and walks about his city freely. Wilson doesn’t show pre-pandemic New York as a maskless utopia—at one point, “How to Cover Your Furniture” detours into a meta-commentary on class and power—but he does lovingly document it, warts and all. You live through his camera, sometimes wondering whether the world that made How to possible will ever exist again.

Even without the Fielder connection, Nathan for You would be an obvious reference point for How to With John Wilson. But with Nathan, it was difficult to figure out where the bit ended—or whether it did at all. While brilliant, the Comedy Central show was often cringey and occasionally exploitative. (I think about this poor kid whose dog died all the time.) By contrast, How to is brimming with empathy. Wilson never gives the impression he’s laughing at his subject, even when the rest of society may be. The people at the Mandela effect conference may hold ridiculous, conspiratorial theories, but Wilson takes the time to get to know a few, seeing how they live, letting them explain themselves, and making them feel heard. Even the show’s most jaw-dropping scene—I won’t spoil it, but it involves full-frontal male nudity, a review of the movie Parasite, and a pulley system—would likely just be something to simply gawk at in a lesser show, but Wilson doesn’t play the moment for cheap laughs. He knows you’ll never fully understand this man—he wants you to listen for a moment.

The season builds to an emotional crescendo in the finale, which bears the deceptively simple title “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto.” Of the six installments, it’s the one that takes viewers the deepest into the personal life of Wilson, who spends virtually every second of the season behind the camera, never pointing it directly at his face. In “Risotto,” we meet his landlord, an elderly Italian woman who cooks for him and does his laundry as the two watch Jeopardy! Wilson wants to repay her. He recalls that she says her favorite dish is risotto, so he embarks on a quixotic quest to make the best possible version of the dish. He scours YouTube and wanders into a garage bearing an Italian flag, only to discover an amateur risotto enthusiast (and UFO truther) who’s all too happy to help. But Wilson, who had recently quit nicotine, grows increasingly frustrated. His pots break and catch on fire, his risotto is gluey, and his cat vomits. “Each time you try, you fail for reasons you don’t quite understand,” he says.

He retreats to the mountains with hopes of skiing as he did as a child only to discover that he’s terrible at that too. In its peculiar way, however, the altitude helps him find Zen. He returns to the city with a renewed desire to make his landlord risotto, but he soon finds circumstances aren’t what he expected. What follows is a ground-level view of how the pandemic crept into our lives last spring and immediately changed everything—for Wilson, for his landlord, for all of us. Suddenly, perfection—both when cooking rice or just living life—became an impossible standard. “The world has no place for a purist right now,” Wilson says. The line is delivered with a certain amount of sadness, but also a level of comfort. All of us can be forgiven for not writing King Lear during lockdown.

“Risotto” highlights how connected everything is; how all the small, strange moments that typically go unnoticed weave together to make up our shared existence. As much as our lives are different from one another’s, there are common bonds that tie us. Never has that been more true than now, as we arrive at the end of a difficult year, when we all feel a little like MacLachlan swiping his faulty MetroCard. Ultimately, How to With John Wilson asks us to take a step back and consider how our actions feed the world at large—whether it’s worth sharing that risotto if it means risking your elderly landlord’s health. It asks us to examine our relationship not only with everyday fixtures like scaffolding, but also what lies behind them. It turns out all of these common objects are indeed extraordinary. You just have to know where to point the camera.