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How To With John Wilson is still unlike anything else on TV

The wonderfully weird HBO series returns for its final season.

A man with glasses and a beard squints and holds a film camera.
John Wilson’s eponymous show premieres for its third and final season on July 28.
HBO
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

There’s a delightful specificity to How To With John Wilson, the HBO series that’s beginning its third and final season on July 28. “Hey, New York,” Wilson says in voice-over at the beginning of every episode, generally over a shot of something mildly amusing on a New York street — a random guy just chilling on the sidewalk on his back at a taxi stand, or a car upside down, being flipped back over in the middle of a sidewalk while mildly interested neighbors look on. The sort of thing you’re used to seeing pretty much every day if you spend much time in the city.

Over the past few years, the documentary-ish show has gained a loyal following far beyond the confines of its home city, and Wilson’s camera has roamed past the Hudson River, too, but it still remains undeniably a product of a place. City-dwellers can get away with displaying public quirks that would provoke sideways glances in more homogenous places. Something about the strange proportions of the place — lots and lots of people from all over the world, packed into a very small land mass — makes it feel like a safe place for just being weird. Which is liberating, once you realize it. Nobody’s paying any attention to you in a city, and especially not in New York. We’re too busy with our own stuff.

But it also means you learn to don invisible blinders just to get through the day without short-circuiting. That’s where How To With John Wilson comes in. Wilson — born in Queens, raised on Long Island — actually looks at the city, really looks at it, seeing things that most of us walk past without noticing the dry humor of it all. The disembodied legs of mannequins that pile up outside Canal Street junk-fashion shops. Signs with misplaced quotation marks. Guys in funny glasses, just vibing.

A man in casual clothes and a hat holds a camera on the streets of New York.
John Wilson, shooting on the street.
HBO

It all gets woven into an episode masquerading as some kind of instructional manual for a simple life task. The season three premiere, for instance, is entitled “How to Find a Public Restroom.” Previous seasons have offered instruction on how to invest in real estate, split checks, find a parking spot, and put up scaffolding. But the “how to” conceit is kind of its own joke: Every episode goes from being about its ostensible topic to being about a half dozen other loosely connected things, and by the end you’re not totally sure how you got there. What connects them all is Wilson’s sense of humor and, if you’re paying attention, his own neuroses and experiences.

“On the surface, it is just a tutorial about something benign,” Wilson told me over Zoom. “But each episode always ends up being anchored by some embarrassing story that I think grounds the piece and gives you context for why I even chose this subject matter to begin with.”

Season two’s “How to Appreciate Wine,” for instance, meanders into the living room of some aficionados of MREs (military-style ready-to-eat meals), then a factory with scented bowling balls, then footage from an a cappella competition that Wilson participated in during college that was hosted (in a wild twist) by NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, and, finally, a pretty weird visit to the estate of the owner of an energy drink empire. Perhaps the first great episode of any TV to capture the feeling of the early pandemic was the season one finale, “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto,” which turns into a beautiful, heartbreaking tale of Wilson’s friendship with his landlady and survival in chaos.

Drawing that all together in a way that appeals to a broader audience is a challenge — viewers who don’t spend time around New York’s garbage piles, or who can’t really grasp how funny it is to rag on the hated Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s West Side. (He describes the Vessel as a “shiny staircase to nowhere that you have to pay to climb,” a line that brought the house down at a premiere screening in Queens. Trust me, it’s hilarious.)

To pull this off, Wilson landed on an interesting technique: His voice-over vacillates between first and second person, between the “I” and the “you,” sometimes within the same sequence. He’ll be telling you about something that he discovered in college, and then he’ll say something about how “your” car’s brakes have suddenly started squeaking, or “your” hairline is receding, and now you’re pulled into his narrative, too.

“I use the second person to ease you into the universe of each episode because I feel like you can project yourself more onto what’s happening, but then I switch into the first person. That’s always designed to be a tonal shift, so people understand that it’s coming from a real place, from my personal history,” Wilson said.

That’s why watching the show at first feels like stumbling into the extremely personal camera roll of a guy who never shuts his camera off. “A lot of the time when I’m conceiving of the episodes, it’ll start with something like scaffolding — I know that I want to study that,” Wilson explained. “But other times, the writing process will begin with this personal thing that I know I want to build this world around.” As the episodes progress, you start to catch the narrative of Wilson’s interior life, too: his unsettledness with his own success, relationship turmoil, trying to figure out what he’s really making here and whether it matters.

“That memoir component felt like a very natural part of it from the beginning,” he said. “I use the work as a way to process and deal with things that happened to me personally, or unresolved things that give me anxiety from my childhood or early adulthood.”

Wilson can’t physically be everywhere, of course. The show’s team includes a second unit, who get what Wilson describes as a “scavenger hunt” list of types of shots to find that might be included in episodes. It sort of wrecks their brains, Wilson said: “Even after we’ve wrapped the season, they’ll continue to send me images of things that were on the scavenger hunt list, like houses that look like faces or something like that. Until they get a new list of things to shoot, they can’t turn off the part of their brain that’s trying to locate this stuff in their environment.”

“It’s kind of maybe a curse,” he concluded, laughing.

Maybe a curse; maybe a blessing. Sometimes a TV show can turn the world into a Magic Eye, and that’s what How To has always done best — showing a new city, and then a new way of thinking about the world, as a kind of adventure that’s a little weird, a little wonderful. (Wilson’s sincere “wow,” ever so slightly reminiscent of non-relation Owen Wilson’s famous “wow,” punctuates the series to great comic effect.) You can’t really love a place without looking closely at it, which is why New Yorkers, and people who love their cities all over the world, insist that tourists don’t really love the place, just the idea of the place. Wilson’s view of the world is decidedly non-touristic. He wants to involve himself in it, and he wants you to be involved, too.

That might be his favorite aspect of the work — and mine, too. Watching How To With John Wilson, whether or not you’ve ever been to New York, is to experience the removal of blinders. You’re following a guy as he walks around the city, observes people standing on ledges washing windows, tricking the self-cleaning public bathrooms, conversing with people who say they’ve dated serial killers or explaining why the music from their 1-year-old’s birthday party should be allowed to keep the neighbors up in the middle of the night. I told him that after watching a few episodes, I start to see and hear all these things, too.

“That’s just the most fun way to exist to me,” Wilson said. “And, you know, I hope that it makes it more fun to be in cities for other people, too.”

The third season of How To With John Wilson premiered on HBO on July 28 and airs at 11 pm on Fridays. It will also stream on Max.

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